Instead of getting right in to how to make tomato sauce, it's important to understand why. Sure, it's a lot easier to buy a jar and it'll probably be cheap enough anyway, but it really doesn't taste the same. But that's just a matter of opinion.
I really started learning to cook for myself several years ago with my own tomato sauce. Since it's good and versatile enough to eat every day, I was always making a bunch and I got to work on balancing flavor - learning to keep enough sweetness, umami, olive oil, salt, and, of course, acidity in the pot so that it doesn't taste too much like any of them. It's easy to make and easy to mess up, at the same time, and while I succeeded enough the first time to be encouraged to continue, I developed this recipe through lots of trial and error, lots of delicious and not-so delicious error.
It's also more versatile if you make it yourself. Like cumin? Put it in there. Mushrooms? Fine. Capers? Go for it. Anchovies? I know people who can't live without them.
There are also the facts that it freezes well, keeps for a long time in the fridge, and goes with lots of different recipes as well as an almost-ready meal if you don't have much time or care - just throw on some pasta and heat up the sauce.
What you'll need
- Tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. About two pounds. I use the small red tomatoes that are everywhere. I made a few gallons a few weeks ago when Alberto brought home a huge sac of beefsteak tomatoes - it was all orange and tasted funky and mellow, not at all acidic.
And canned tomatoes are fine. Tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes is better than canned tomato sauce. They'll work. If you can't get other kinds because of the season, don't worry about it. Get four cans.
- Onions. A lot of those as well. If you're using two pounds of tomatoes, use four medium-to-large onions (big, but not ridiculous like those ones I knew in Walla Walla). Or an onion for each can of tomatoes. Onion is important here, and you don't have to be stingy.
- Half a head of garlic.
- Olive oil, lots of olive oil.
- Salt, crushed red pepper, black pepper, sugar, all to taste, and the sugar may be optional if you're working with great tomatoes. But you're probably not, so have it on hand at the end.
- About two dozen leaves or just a bunch of basil. When I went to Naples a few years ago, I remember the street vendors with the pizza and I got a slice of margarita pizza - bread, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and a leaf of basil on top. As an American, I was expecting oregano with pizza, but basil seduced me and I haven't bought oregano since. But you can go for oregano if you want, or another herb. It's just that basil works best.
You're also going to need a blender. I use one of those hand-held blenders that I can put right in the pot, but if you only have a stand-up blender feel free. Just make sure you're wearing clothes you don't mind getting stained.
What you should do
- Slice the onions. You don't have to dice them up into perfect little squares since they'll just end up in the blender.
- Peel and crush the garlic. Take a clove out of the head, cut off the little bottom part where it was attached to the stem, put your knife flat over it and pound the knife with your other hand. The skin will come off easily and the garlic will be crushed.
- Heat some olive oil in a pot, and put in the onions, garlic, red pepper, and basil. A pinch of the red pepper is enough if you don't like spicy food, a teaspoon if you do.
- Saute on medium heat until the onions are soft and yellow. No undercooked onions for me, Mom!
- Now it's time to add the tomatoes. If you're using canned, just dump them in. If you're using real ones, chop them roughly into smaller pieces and put them in. Put in some more olive oil. And some salt, but not too much. You'll adjust the salt level at the end because it still has to cook, but you don't want it cooking in a salt-free environment.
- Blend the whole thing thoroughly. It's a sauce, now it's time to make it look like one.
- Turn down the heat and let it simmer for a while. An hour, maybe two or three hours. It really depends on what kind of tomatoes you started with and how many you used, but you'll know it's done when you stir it and the liquid doesn't reappear at the top. It'll reduce too, so that's why we didn't make it too salty before.
- Once you think it's done, when it's thick and concentrated, blend it again. This time instead of just breaking it apart you're making it smooth since everything's cooked and nothing's going to fight the blender this time. It might even turn orangey again, and that's fine too.
- Now it's time to adjust the flavor and make the whole thing taste not just fresh and healthy, but saucy and good. Add some pepper and salt. Taste it. If this is your first time venturing into the sauce world, it's probably not salty enough. You'll see why everyone says there's too much salt in soups and sauces - it takes a lot to make it edible. You'll also need to add a bit of sugar here if it's too sour, just to balance that out a little. Olive oil? If it tastes too light, too much whimsy and not enough substance, as if there's something missing but it's not salt or sugar or acid, put in some more olive oil. You'll have put in too much if it doesn't mix anymore with the sauce, but even if it's still mixing in it can be too much. Let your palate be your guide; this sauce is for you, you should like it.
- Chop up some more fresh basil or whatever herb you're using and mix it in. It's ready to serve, refrigerate, or freeze.
Knowing what to do is half the battle here. The other half is looking at a pot full of red and thinking, "What's wrong? What do I need to do to make this better?" The answer is a mix of experience and thoughtfulness, which is why this is such a great recipe to develop your palate with. Especially if you use two pounds of tomatoes - you'll have enough for several meals and maybe it'll finally dawn on you exactly what made it taste wrong.
It's also a great recipe to change, to make your own. Mushrooms are great, add them at the end. If you like hamburger, saute it with the onions and then cook the sauce, using less olive oil than you'd otherwise use because hamburger already has fat in it. Bell pepper's also nice - put it in with the onions. Put in a jalapeno to make it really spicy, or make it mellow with rosemary instead of basil.
It's something to play with. It's a joy, not a chore. Have fun.