While fresh tomatoes are a thing of beauty, it is the ability to maintain their vibrancy when canned or bottled that makes them the perfect simple sauce for all seasons
FORGET those Spanish galleons loaded with gold – the most valuable treasures brought back to Europe by the great explorers were the edible ones.
These included potatoes, corn and chocolate, though for me it is the deliciously sweet and tangy tomato that is the MVP on this team. No wonder it is still known by its original European name in some parts – the golden apple.
I reckon Italians make the best tomato sauce, the perfect base that can be endlessly customised. The secret is cooking down a base of two parts diced onion with one part diced carrot and one part diced celery. Known in Italy as a “soffrito”, it adds complexity of flavour to a can of tomatoes.
Swap in diced fennel for the celery if using the tomato sauce with seafood and feel free to add any garlic once the onions have softened. If you add the garlic too early you risk burning it and that will make the sauce bitter.
Once this base is softened, you can deglaze the pan with a little sherry, wine or vinegar. Once the booziness has burnt off and you’ve scrubbed any burnt bits back into the sauce, add the tomatoes.
FINE-TUNING THE SAUCE
The final trick is to adjust the sauce. I like to season with a little salt, a squeeze of lemon and a dash of sugar. This cheat quickly adds a little more complexity.
COOKING IT OUT
I love this simple sauce cooked out a little so as to maintain its brightness, then perhaps splashed over a quick ricotta gnocchi, (see my recipe at delicious.com.au). The recipe is basically 400g fresh firm ricotta mixed with just enough flour to hold together (about 35g).
Freeze leftover sauce to spread on pizza. Ideally, slowly cook it a little more to intensify its savouriness.
There are so many other ways to customise this sauce.
Throw in chilli – either dried flakes or fresh – to make the sauce “angry” as in “arrabiata”.
Add crispy fried bacon to make your sauce “all’amatriciana”.
Stir it through hot penne with a handful of torn basil and torn mozzarella, so the cheese melts stringy between the quills of pasta.
Other ideas that rely on pantry staples include adding a tin of drained tuna, a little sugar balanced with lemon juice and some tarragon to the sauce, or cooking it down with anchovies, capers and olives to make a puttanesca sauce.
This tomato sauce is also great to roast fish in or as a dressing for slow-roasted lamb shoulder. Garnish generously with chopped parsley and lemon zest.
I add diced bacon and loads of garlic when cooking the onions to make the core of my bolognese.
Recently, rather than cooking the tomatoes out in the sauce, I’ve been adding half the tinned tomatoes and most of the tomato paste shortly before serving, which gives the bolognese a lighter, brighter edge.
You can easily change the accent of this simple tomato sauce by hitting it with different flavour combinations.
For Spanish, add slices of chorizo or little meatballs with red capsicum and smoked paprika. Crushed coriander seeds, cumin seeds and a dash of orange zest will fake the flavours of North Africa, especially if finished with toasted almonds, currants and a swirl of yoghurt.
Or make it Indian by frying garlic and ginger to add to the base, then spiking the sauce with some of your favourite garam masala.