The Secrets of a Great Tomato Sauce
Living in Leamington her whole adult life, Pauline knew a thing or two about cooking with tomatoes. Leamington is the tomato capital of Canada with the Heinz Ketchup plant dominating the center of town, and miles of field tomatoes grown up and down Seacliff Drive along the lake. Pauline stuffed her tomatoes with rice and ground meat, flavored with ruddy paprika. Or she stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls with a meaty tomato sauce.
I’ve been attempting to make her rich tomato sauce ever since, and I thought I would share some of the secrets I’ve learned, not necessarily from Pauline, but from the Italian tomato farmers in Leamington, my tomato crazy family and from famous chefs.
The Tomato. The type of tomato you use will dictate the type of sauce you will end up with. Carl in Leamington recommends Roma, and I have to agree. The oblong tomatoes are meaty with few seeds, a thin skin, and impart their liquid only once in the pan. At Le Cordon Bleu in Paris we used regular tomatoes, and we briefly boiled them to easily remove the skins. We then seeded and quartered them – far too much work, in my opinion, and too much loss of nutrients. Take the Romas and simply quarter them, removing the small core at the one end if you like. The large chunks will cook down into a thick sauce. Use only tomatoes ripened on the vine. Did you know that the uniform tomatoes you buy at the grocer’s are sprayed with a chemical to turn green tomatoes red?!
The Base. The French and Pauline used chopped onions and garlic sauteed in olive oil until translucent. Giada De Laurentiis uses diced onion, celery and carrots. I actually prefer Giada’s, as it provides a deeper flavor to the sauce, and is healthier. Use home grown or farmer’s market celery and you will notice a tremendous difference in the flavor. The celery is darker than the anemic, flavorless sticks you buy at the store, with a much more peppery, lemongrass flavor that will make the sauce velvety and rich. I also add chopped celery leaves, a part of the stalk rarely used in cooking (it’s also great to use when making your own stock).
Neutralizing the Acidity. Sea salt usually does the trick – a teaspoonful of salt mid way through the cooking will balance out the flavor and make the sauce less bitter. Giada uses a spoonful of sugar which I’ve also tried, but the kids noticed that the sauce tasted sweeter. I’ve also used a couple of tablespoons of butter added near the end to smooth out the flavor of the tomatoes. You need to add one of these ingredients though, or the sauce will be too tart.
Flavor. As I mentioned earlier, the right celery will do wonders to the flavor. I also add a bay leaf to the simmering pot, and about 3 minutes before I serve it, I add a handful of freshly chopped herbs – parsley, basil, thyme, and/or oregano. Salt and pepper too, and sometimes I’ll add a few dashes of balsamic vinegar which makes a nice syrupy addition to the sauce. Another way to enrich the sauce flavor is by adding some roasted tomatoes or red peppers. Rachel Ray throws the butt ends of leftover Parmesan cheese wedges into her sauce, letting it melt in. Also good.
Texture. Pauline and Slovak relatives in Petrovec and Stara Pazova cook the sauce over low heat for hours, constantly stirring until the sauce is smooth in consistency. The result is a silky, smooth sauce but I am too impatient to replicate their method. Giada cooks the sauce for less than 1/2 hour, then blends the sauce in a food processor before serving; at the Le Cordon Bleu we left the sauce chunky. The French cook the sauce at fairly high heat until the tomatoes impart their liquid and the tomatoes break down and start to carmelize, then simmer it for another hour or two, stirring frequently.
Easiest. The easiest home made tomato sauce I’ve ever made is Marcella Hazan’s, the 87 year old queen of Italian cookery. Dump a 28oz can of crushed tomatoes in a sauce pan, flavor with salt and pepper and add a stick of butter and a peeled onion cut in half. Let it cook away for 45 minutes, then remove the onion, stir and serve. You’ll have a rich, silky sauce.
Freezing. You can freeze the tomato sauce once its made for up to 6 months. In the summer when you are overloaded with tomatoes and can’t make the sauce fast enough, try freezing them so that you can make the sauce in the winter. You’ll get the same fresh tomato taste and avoid the out of season winter imitators (which are grown in Florida by immigrants in slave-like conditions anyway. Read Barry Estabrook’s new book called Tomatoland for a shocking lesson in the truth about what it takes to grow those store varieties).
Freezing fresh tomatoes is easy. Wash them and then pop them into a freezer bag, and that’s it. You can try boiling them first for 15 seconds and coring them too. But why bother? When you are ready to use the frozen tomatoes, run them under hot water for a few seconds and the skins will pop right off. As they cook you can chop them up with a wooden spoon, and I pull out the blackened core pieces as the sauce cooks.