I used to make tomato sauce in college - easy to use in pizza, lasagna or on pasta, all three of these being carbohydrate staples, which, along with the more vegetable-friendly stir fry, were what I seemed to subsist on in 4 different cities and 2 different states until I got my degree. But I realize now that the sauce I made back then lacked refinement and finesse. There was nothing subtle in that sauce, no "hint" of anything - just roughly chopped onions and garlic cooked in olive oil and then tomatoes and herbs to top it off. Back then a long, slow simmer meant 10 minutes max on medium heat.
This is the new school sauce, not the old one
But now that I and my taste buds have matured somewhat, I realize that there is more to a tomato sauce than that. That it can be a luxurious creature and still not take up much of your time. That tomato sauce holds secret and mystery in its silk and that subtle flavors can be coaxed into and out of the sauce with ease. And that these subtleties form a luscious base for so many foods, far beyond the pasta, pizza, lasagna creations of my younger days. But of course, tonight, I want it straight and simple. Give me spaghetti, please, and a sprinkle of parmesan.
One thing I have noticed, though, that really elevates the flavor of this sauce for me are herbs that I use either fresh or have harvested and dried myself. It's a hobby of mine in the spring, summer and fall - harvesting herbs from my garden and the countryside/woodlands around Munich to dry and use over the winter in tea, in soups and stews, with meat and vegetables and, of course, in sauce. They have a power and a punch that you just don't find in store-bought dried herbs that have been sitting around for a while. Of course, the store-bought variety are also fine to use in a bind - which is what I did tonight when I realized I didn't have any basil. All the herbs I used in this sauce were dried except for the rosemary, which seems to have survived the first snow intact. Try using larger amounts of fresh herb if it strikes your fancy. I especially like the brighter taste of them in the sun on the patio in the summertime.
A few herbs for winter days
(originally inspired by the beautiful blog Orangette and adapted there from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan)
2 cans of whole, peeled tomatoes
3-4 cloves of garlic
2 small onions, peeled and halved
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. each of dried thyme, sage and basil (use 2 1/2 - 3 tsp if using the fresh herb)
1 tsp dried rosemary
Put the tomatoes with their juices into a large sauce pan or dutch oven together with the onions, garlic, butter, olive oil, herbs and a few pinches of salt. Give it a stir and get the lot simmering. Simmer, covered, for 45 minutes. For a thicker sauce, simmer without the lid on for the last 10 minutes or so. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon - press them against the side as you remove them to get out all the flavor or leave them whole and chop them up to add to whatever meat or vegetable you are going to eat with the sauce. Taste for salt. I won't give any specific amounts here because every tomato is different as is everyone who eats tomatoes. If it seems a bit too acidic, add a sprinkle or two of sugar. Once you have gotten the sauce to your liking, squish the tomatoes down with the back of a wooden (or other handy) spoon (a slotted spoon works nicely for this, too) for a chunky, crushed tomato effect or blend in a food processor or hand mixer for a smoother, silkier sauce. Ladle away and enjoy!
As I said, this sauce is extremely versatile. You can leave out the herbs for a softer, more subtle flavor or play with the mix if you prefer the taste of basil, say, to rosemary. You can also add a few red pepper flakes for a punch (think penne al arrabiata) or mix it with roasted veggies or beef for a primavera or bolognese effect.