Tomato Sauce 101

Let me share something with you. Until I was about 16, I though tomato sauce was either 1) a red sauce with unidentifiable lumps and green flecks that came out of a jar or 2) something Mom magically whipped up in the kitchen using ketchup, oil, sausage and water. Ashamed? Yes. Embarrassed? Yes. Glad I never attempted to replicate a sauce made of ketchup, oil, sausage and water? Yes.

Fast forward to adulthood. Having played around with different recipes culled from magazines, recommended techniques from television and surefire tips from well-meaning friends and family, I was still without a cinched, goof-proof method of making tomato sauce. I changed my approach every time in a desperate attempt to find my tomato sauce competence, only to end up with ones that were too acidic, too sweet, too bland, too lumpy, too soupy or too… uh, burned to designate myself as the tomato sauce know-it-all.

It all changed one bleary-eyed Saturday morning, as I was munching my English muffin and nursing my second cup of coffee, catching up on my cooking shows from the previous week. Ina Garten was hosting Joe Realmuto, executive chef and owner of the East Hampton restaurant Nick & Toni’s, to demonstrate how to make one of his most popular dishes, Penne alla Vecchia Bettola. A quick and reckless online search for the loose translation of “vecchia bettola” yielded results from “rustic tavern” to “crabby old lady”, depending on the site. Feel free to choose your own rendition.

San Marzano Tomatoes

Joe effortlessly showed the audience how to combine simple ingredients like olive oil, onion, garlic, oregano, tomatoes and cream to form one of the most decadent and well-rounded tomato sauces I’ve ever tasted. It seems that his secret lies in this elementary step: allowing the sauce to cook in the oven for an hour and a half. This time in the oven allows the flavors to meet, mingle and mellow. What’s even better? You can watch Joe and Ina cook the sauce, from beginning to end, right here.

Ina and Joe both mention the use of San Marzano tomatoes as key ingredient in this sauce. I searched high and low for these buggers, eventually finding them at Marvin’s IGA. Another quick and reckless online search informed me that San Marzano tomatoes, a variety of the plum tomato, are prized for their sweet, intense, less-acidic flavor, and are a favorite for sauces. While they’re delish, fret not: I’m sure any whole tomatoes will work just fine.

Fresh Oregano

After completing a few trial runs of the sauce and reading all the online reviews, I came to find I could tweak the ingredients to fit different tastes without sacrificing the sauce’s flavor. For example, we had an architecture pal over for dinner who is dairy-phobic (Hi, Scott!), so I made a small batch of the sauce for him without the cream. He raved, and I was tickled that the lack of cream did not a bad sauce make. I also found – for those who prefer the taste of a fine merlot – that substituting red wine instead of vodka is a safe and sound option. Or, for those teetotalers out there, substituting veggie broth or chicken broth is another viable route.

As I’ve told you in weeks prior, this is the best tomato sauce I have ever, EVER made, and likely ever tasted. The flavors are refined and mellowed, the consistency is creamy and thick, and it adheres to pasta like no sauce I’ve made before. While I can’t take credit for the recipe, after one bite, you really won’t care who came up with it. Even if it’s this chick. One last word of advice: wear an apron. Those tomatoes are messy; your Hermes pastel will thank you. Enjoy!

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Nick & Toni’s Tomato Sauce

1/4 cup good olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, diced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup vodka (red wine or broth can be substituted)
2 (28 oz.) cans peeled plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, plus more for topping
1 cup heavy cream
Grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375°.

Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat, add the onions and garlic and cook for about five minutes until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for a minute more. Add the vodka and continue cooking until the mixture is reduced by half, about three minutes.

Into the oven

Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes through a mesh strainer and crush them into the pan with your hands (don’t forget your apron). Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and place it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes.

Place the tomato mixture in a blender or food processor and puree (in batches, if need be) until the sauce is a smooth consistency. Return to the pan.

Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh oregano and the cream. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss the sauce with your favorite cooked pasta, topping it with grated parmesan and a little fresh oregano.

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Laura Hobbs is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. She was born and raised in Fayetteville. She is a self-proclaimed foodie and avid cook. For more of Laura’s contributions, visit her author page.