Core Principles of Everyday Cooking - #2 Pasta with Tomato Sauce
Pasta with tomato sauce. It’s the quintessential grandmother of pasta basics. Learning how to make a good base tomato sauce is one of the smartest Core Principles you can learn as a home cook. Bought tomato sauces are wildly expensive compared with doing it yourself. And most are full of completely unnecessary additives that companies mix in to increase shelf-life and water content ratio to make more profit.
Tomato sauce is the base of a countless number of pasta dishes, such as puttanesca, arrabiatta, a la norma, etc. Learning this principle, and appreciating that that’s what it is: a principle – the foundation for your own creativity. I want you to be able to confidently come up with your own variations without ever having to use a recipe.
As this is a principle, rather than a recipe, the below quantities are intentionally kept fairly lose. I advise you to trust your intuition and what you like, for instance, how much garlic you put in your pasta sauce.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. This is how you will learn. As you do this again and again, your confidence will grow and you will eventually evolve your own signature tomato sauce, just like an Italian nonna. The kind of tomato sauce your friends and family will beg you to make again. Seriously. I speak from personal experience.
TIP: When you do make tomato sauce, make a big batch and then freeze it in smaller batches, so you can always pull one out of the freezer and cook yourself (and your friends/family) a nice meal in a jiffy.
You can watch the instruction video below here and below that you have the ingredient guideline and method written out.
Allium (onion family) - traditionally garlic and/or brown onion. Use 1-3 garlic cloves and/or 1-2 onion per tin (400ml) of tomatoes.
Tomato - when is season using sun-ripened fresh tomatoes is great. Otherwise good tinned tomato or tomato passata.
Tomato concentrate (purée) - I use about a table spoon per tin of tomatoes. It’s optional and a some Italians I know wouldn’t think of using it. What it does is give the extra depth of flavour that can be achieved simply by prolonging the simmering with a few more hours.
Herbs - Basil is the traditional one, but oregano I like a lot as well. You can also just leave it plain as herbs can be added when you create a given dish with your tomato sauce base. Use as much as you like. It’s your sauce!
Olive oil - I use good quality extra virgin (as you are not frying, i.e. high heat, it won't spoil) - 1-2 tbsp per 1-2 onions/1-3 garlic cloves. You need the same amount even if you are just using garlic cloves. That fat is important it carries flavour! Your pasta sauce won't be a good pasta sauce without a healthy amount of oil in there.
Chop up your onion and garlic
Heat up a sauce pan (size appropriate to the quantity you’re making) on a medium heat, then add the onion and garlic. (Some Italians like to sauté the garlic first until light golden. You do this by tilting the pan so all the garlic is covered in oil and actually deep frying). Keep sweating the onion and garlic until onion is translucent. You can also take it further if you want to intensify the flavour. Again, it’s your sauce, so experiment and find out how much sweating (sautéing) you want to give it.
If using tomato concentrate, now you add this and sweat for another 1-2 mins. This will convert the acidity into sugars and give a deeper and more rounded end result.
Add your tinned tomatoes or fresh ones. If using tinned or passata, rinse out the tins/bottle with a bit of water.
Bring it all to a boil and then turn the heat right down to a simmer. Put the lid on and let time and heat work its magic. You can give it a little salt at this stage, which some claim help all the flavours come together. I personally heed this advise.
Cook for a minimum of one hour if you want a good result. If you want a totally outstanding result then I’d recommend in the order of 3-4 hours. Stir occasionally and top up with water along the way if it does too dry.
Your tomato sauce is done when reddish oil start to separate out on the surface. At this stage you can give it some more seasoning though my advise is to leave it under seasoned so you don’t end up with too much salt if, say, you are making a dish using preserved anchovies or olives that contain a fair bit of salt already.
Use some now (you’re going to want to) and then portion the rest into plastic containers, stick a label on there, and put in the freezer. It will last for a long time, but will be best if eaten within three months. And by then you will have made so many other delicious Core Principle bases that you will need the space in the freezer.
FINISHING A PASTA DISH
Now this is really, really important. You always want to slightly undercook your pasta and then finish en padella (Italian for ‘in the pan’). Pasta cooks by absorbing water, so if you finish your pasta in water and just pour the sauce over then you’ll have pasta that tastes bland and a sauce that will be overpowering. The Italians having tried and tested this over the centuries, finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, so that the pasta absorbs (holds) the sauce to for a fully integrated flavour experience.
The first dish I ever learnt to cook was, in fact, Pasta (usually penne) a l’Amatriciana. Since then I have come up with an endless number of variations on the principle of pasta sauce.
Pasta tomato with grilled/pan-fried/oven roasted veggies. Aubergine, courgette, peppers, and red onion work exceedingly well.
Try adding par-boiled lentils and pan-fried mushrooms to your tomato sauce for a bolognese style experience. A little high quality meat will take you all the way there.
Sautée a carrot and celery mini cubes in olive oil, add some base tomato sauce and then flake in tinned sardines or other types of oily fish for a sardines bolognese.
Sautée garlic and chilli in olive oil, add tomato sauce and voila: Arrabiatta.
Blue mussels steamed in white wine, add the cooking juice to some tomato sauce, reduce till the texture is right (you be the judge) then add the mussel meat and finish with linguini pasta.
There are many, many, many more and you are of course more than welcome to get in touch for ideas. Similarly, I am super curious to see what you come up with so please tag us on Instagram @thebearkitchen_ and use the hashtag #eatlikeabear.