Do you want to know the recipe for magic? It's very simple. All it takes is 45 minutes, a halved onion, a can of tomatoes, and 5 tablespoons of butter. Open a bottle of wine and put on a record and you've got yourself the recipe for a perfect evening.
Marcella Hazan's take on tomato sauce is renowned, and has a 5 star rating with over 1,900 reviews in the New York Times cooking section, for a reason. It's been blogged about by Smitten Kitchen, Amateur Gourmet, Epicurious, and has been lauded to me personally by more than a few friends. Hazan's book, The Essentials of Italian Cooking, is as loved and revered for its influence in America's understanding of Italian food as Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for French cuisine. This piece from the New Yorker, Marcella Hazan Changed My Life, about sums up what she's done for home cooks hankering to master a good red sauce everywhere.
Like all great innovations, this recipe, with its counterintuitive use of butter ("no olive oil?!" screams the boot shaped nation), came about as an afterthought or accident. Hazan had grown up in Italy eating a sauce her mother made, which began with a lazy sofrito of butter and chopped onions before the tomatoes were added to the pan. Years later when Hazan found herself a new wife in a new city in a new country, she wanted to have a go to red sauce to please her husband. Until her marriage, she claimed not to really have been much of a cook.
".. there I was, having to feed a young, hard-working husband who could deal cheerfully with most of life's ups and downs, but not with an indifferent meal."
So she thought back to her mothers sauce and said "to hell with chopping the onion" and just threw the three ingredients in an uncovered pot and walked away. The resulting sauce has since been praised fanatically by food writers and home cooks everywhere.
How could it be so simple? Why butter? No seasonings? No oregano? You just discard the onion? Really?!
Yes, really. Try it. The ingredients themselves should cost maybe 8 dollars if you buy good butter (read: always buy good butter, you only have one life, remember!) and it's 45 minutes of your time that requires you to do nothing but bask in how wonderful this smells as soon as you put it on the stove. All that's left to do is remove the onions and try to cook your pasta perfectly al dente. The butter adds a velvety richness that some how does not distract from the tomatoes brilliant acidity and brightness. The onion, stewed, lends a sweetness and zip without being as overpowering as garlic might here. These three ingredients combined made my home smell so divine it was almost dizzying, and I found that eating my first bowl overwhelmed me with the sort of nostalgia for Italian cuisine and culture that can only be matched by, say, the film Big Night or Billy Joel's Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. I know, it's just three things thrown in a pot, but like I said before, it's truly a recipe for magic.
Above you see the dish plated neat and nude and below the way I actually ate it.
Could this be enhanced with a myriad of extras? Certainly. What came to my mind first was a dish served at my beloved Pepe Rosso To Go*, which is simply their penne pasta dressed in a divinely simple red sauce, with the addition of perline or tiny mozzarella balls. These days you have to ask for the mozzarella, but it's worth it because it's absolutely brilliant with the sauce. So sure, tear up some mozzarella over this. Drizzle some olive oil, sprinkle some freshly shaved parmesan, dust it with toasted bread crumbs, shower it with red pepper, snip up some fresh basil leaves, or zest a bit of lemon over this magnificent steaming bowl of simplified goodness. But does it need it? No, not even in the slightest.
Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce
- 2 cups tomatoes, in addition to their juices (for example, a 28-ounce can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
- Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter and the onion halves in a saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt.
- Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with a spoon. Add salt as needed.
- Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta. This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.
That's it! As always, I suggest you cook your pasta in well salted water, just shy of al dente. Finish your pasta to its proper al dente texture by cooking it in the sauce for one or two minutes, so it fully incorporates the sauce with the pasta.
*Peppe Rosso To Go is one of my favorite places to eat in all of New York City. Adjacent to a huge church (of St. Anthony of Padua, of course) it is smaller than a half bedroom and has maybe 8 seats (half just a bench along the exposed brick wall) in total. If you visit or live here you should absolutely go and get the eggplant parmesan because it's the most wonderful I've had anywhere. If you walk along Sullivan Street in general you'll find some incredible butchers, bakeries, and come across the famed Alidoro, which is renowned rightfully for their brilliant sandwiches. It's one of my favorite streets in the city and not a far walk from Grom, which was my favorite gelato when I lived in Italy.