I was recently bumming on a friend's membership to Costco, arms full of inexpensive bulk yeast and Dijon mustard for salad dressing, when I discovered the can of tomatoes you see above. It seemed like the deal of a century. For $3.89, I walked away with a can of San Marzano tomatoes weighing almost 7 pounds. That's the price you sometimes pay for a single 28 oz can of them.
I immediately contemplated the massive pot of tomato sauce that would fill my freezer. Once you have good tomatoes, the idea is to do as little as possible to screw them up.
Everybody has their own way of making tomato sauce, and for the most part, I'm cool with that. Basic tomato sauce is something personal. I think that there are lots of ways to find yourself with a fine sauce for coating noodles of spaghetti and topping your favorite lasagna.
Personally, I've made a lot of bad tomato sauce in my life. When I was in college, I used to regularly make spaghetti sauce by raiding our communal pantry for whatever tomato products were on hand. Diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes, tomatoes in puree, tomatoes in juice, tomato paste...didn't matter all that much. Mix them together and start the pot heating. Then I'd raid the cabinet for dried spices, and anything that was green might find its way, especially dried basil and oregano. Then I'd simmer it forever, tasting and adding new spices and sometimes condiments, always aiming for some unreachable perfection and never quite getting there.
The problem was, the more I added new spices to the pot, the duller it tasted. The longer it was on the stove, the muddier the flavor. In the end, I usually just gave up and added some ground beef and called it a day.
What does it mean to have a good tomato sauce, that unreachable perfection? I think it needs brightness, acidity, sweetness, and depth. Achieving them in balance is another story. But you know it when you taste it.
Jarred sauce is incredibly popular because it's the ultimate easy dinner and a nice thing to have in the pantry. But man, what a terrible deal. Jarred sauces are more expensive than they should be, and more than that, they never taste quite right to me. But it's tough to deny that having tomato sauce around is nice, and somehow spending a ton of time preparing it is also unappealing. It seems like a cook's basic right.
Which is why this recipe is awesome. All you need to buy is decent canned tomatoes, cook a lot at once, and stash it in the freezer.
Mario Batali, whose recipe I have been using for awhile, has one secret to his sauce that I think makes all the difference. It's grated into the oil at the beginning, and, while cooking, essentially disappears leaving its subtle, vegetal sweetness behind.
That secret is carrot. For some strange reason, it makes the tomato sauce twice as good. I rounds it out. The result is the tomato sauce I've returned to again and again. All it takes is about 45 minutes, and then your freezer will always have that simple tomato sauce you need. It's stands on its own over pasta, but can transform into many other dishes. One favorite is Pasta alla Puttanesca, which I wrote about over on Serious Eats awhile back.
It's not rocket science. Hit up a friend at Costco and find these tomatoes, or find another way to buy them in bulk. The result is easy and costs a fraction of what jarred sauce does.
And then, tell me in the comments what your favorite way (or secret ingredient) is to make tomato sauce.
The quantities below are for 4 28-oz cans of whole peeled tomatoes, which is about the equivalent of what was in my Flinstones can.
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occassionally, until golden and soft.
Add the carrot and cook until it is quite soft, another 5 minutes or so. Add the sprigs of thyme for the last couple minutes to release their flavor.
Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer for 30 minutes, gently breaking up the tomatoes as they disintegrate into the sauce, then salt to taste. I usually mash them up with a potato masher at the end of cooking after removing the thyme; you can also puree the sauce if you prefer it smooth.