A Foundation to Build Upon
Whether from fresh tomatoes or canned, homemade sauces are easily made and quite tasty compared to commercial counterparts. Here are some secrets for wonderful tomato-based sauces.
First, remove the seeds from fresh or canned tomatoes (seeds can be bitter when cooked). If using fresh tomatoes, also peel and core them (see Peeling, Coring, and Seeding). Don't rinse the tomatoes, though, as their juices will be washed away. Crush tomatoes evenly using a potato masher, fork, or even your clean fingers.
There are two ways to make good tomato sauces. The first uses a battuto, which is a combination of aromatic herbs and/or vegetables sautéed in butter and/or olive oil. This is nothing new; you do this all the time when you sauté garlic or onion in butter before adding tomatoes. Carrot, celery, basil, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, oregano, parsley, and so forth can also be added according to your personal preferences. Once sautéed, the battuto is called a soffritto, the foundation of the sauce.
The second way to make a sauce combines all the ingredients raw, or a crudo, in a cold pot. The tomatoes, vegetables, and aromatics cook together until done. No butter or olive oil is added until the sauce is completed, and then it is added to round out the flavor.
In addition, meats for flavor and body, wine for deepness, cream for sweet smoothness, or vegetables for fruitiness can be added to the tomato mixture to create a variety of individual and distinctive sauces.
Use tomato paste in your sauce to thicken it. Usually this is only necessary when using canned tomatoes packed in their juices. Canned pureed tomatoes are usually thick enough to create a nice sauce without added paste. A sharp, bitter flavor may overcome your sauce if you use too much, so use caution. The rule of thumb is to use up to 3 tablespoons of paste to every 2-1/2 cups tomatoes.
The Long or Short of It
I've often wondered, "If I cooked my tomato sauces longer, would they be tastier?" Usually, I only cook them until the pasta is al dente, trying to get the food onto the table and into the stomachs of my hungry family ASAP. After some research, a short cooking time does have its advantages. When tomatoes are cooked too long, they lose that fresh, garden flavor. Of course, tomatoes containing more water than pulp will need to cook longer to evaporate the juices and achieve the desired thickness. For the freshest tasting sauces, plum tomatoes, containing less moisture and more pulp, work best.
You should give a meatless tomato sauce at least 20-25 minutes to cook (just enough time to bring the water to a boil and cook your pasta). The first 10 minutes of cooking will transform the acid in the tomato to a desirable sweetness. The next 10-15 minutes will continue the process of evaporation of excess juices. If the tomatoes used were especially watery, anticipate a longer evaporation time, with a total cooking time of up to 45 minutes.
Sauces containing meat are the ones you let simmer on the back of the stove all day long. The long simmering process tenderizes the meat, releasing its juices into the tomato mixture and allows the different flavors to mingle into a succulent sauce.
To Strain or Not to Strain . . . That Is the Question
Straining really is a matter of preference. Do you want a smooth sauce or a chunky one? If you don't have an opinion, what kind of pasta are you serving? Ribbon pastas (like fettucini , angel hair, or spaghetti) are often topped with strained sauces, while short, stubby pastas (like penne, farfalle, or macaroni) pair well with chunky sauces.
To strain a sauce, pass it through a food mill after cooking. The mill will keep any missed seeds back from the sauce, creating a velvety smooth red topper, whereas, a food processor or blender will puree the seeds and their bitterness right into your sauce.
After peeling, crushing, stewing, stirring, tasting, seasoning, simmering and perhaps straining your tomato concoction, there is just one more step before serving. Stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil. The fat will enliven the flavor of the sauce and add a nice touch to the consistency. Okay, now place that sauce on the table and listen for the oohs and ahhs as the aroma reaches the diners. That, dear cook, is the finale!
* DVO welcomes your kitchen hints and cooking or nutrition questions! Email us and we'll post your hints and Q/A's in upcoming newsletters! *