You could easily step into your grocery store and grab a bottle of “Classico”, heat it up and toss it with pasta. Sure, we get lazy, sure we don’t feel like cooking every day. But, making a fresh tomato sauce is almost as easy as opening up a bottle of jarred sauce, and the taste has no comparison. I know a traditional tomato sauce consists of a mirepoix of carrots, celery, and onions. To me, a simpler sauce without the onions,carrots, and celery tastes almost like perfection. I use shallots, garlic, and thyme infused garlic-chili oil inspired by Ina Garten as my base. The shallots are sweeter and smoother, giving the sauce a softer taste. The herb infused oil gives the sauce extra boldness and rounds out the flavors.
Of course, fresh tomatoes are the best. However, even with all the organic, pesticide-free, heirloom, local varieties of tomatoes available to us here in America, the taste is just not the same as San Marzano tomatoes. I am a firm believer in eating local whenever possible, but until I find a suitable tomato for sauce I will stick to canned San Marzano tomatoes. They are becoming more and more common. Chefs on Food Network always mention them and even budget conscious cooks are embracing them. During an undergraduate spring break, I travelled to Italy, and to this day I remember how sweet and delicious Italian tomatoes are.
My recipe is simple, the longer it simmers the better. But, if you don’t have 4 hours to simmer your sauce, an hour should be just fine. I like to keep the sauce simple. I sometimes opt to add ricotta cheese to the sauce to give it a little more smoothness, but this is entirely optional and non-traditional.
a glug of extra-virgin olive oil (about 4 tablespoons)
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chilis (or to taste)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
3 shallots, chopped
1 bay leaf
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
a 28 ounce can of whole San Marzano Tomatoes, slightly pureed (if they are not available to you then use the best quality canned tomatoes you can source)
2 heaping tablespoons ricotta cheese
freshly grated parmigiano reggiano for garnish
fresh torn basil leaves
Prepare the herb-garlic infused oil by taking a small sauce saucepan on medium heat and adding the olive oil to it. Let the oil heat up slightly and next add the crushed red chilies and allow to infuse the oil for 30 seconds, next add in the thyme and garlic and allow them to settle in the oil for a minute. Turn down the heat to low heat (almost medium) so that the garlic does not burn and turn bitter. Let the flavors come together, about 15-20 minutes. In a larger pot add the herb-garlic infused oil with the springs of thyme and allow to heat up at medium heat. Next, add the shallots and the bay leaf allow the shallots to sweat. When the shallots are translucent pour in the red wine vinegar and move the pot away form the heat. The vinegar will be burning off, so this may irritate your eyes, use caution. Once the vinegar steam has settled put in the tomatoes and salt into the pot. Stir everything together and allow to simmer on low heat for about an hour. After an hour or so, taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Discard the bay leaf and any thyme stems left in the sauce. Tear in fresh basil leaves and mix the ricotta cheese into the sauce until combined. Serve with any pasta of your choice and top with grated parmigiano reggiano and fresh basil leaves to garnish.
This sauce can be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, you name it. It is a basic sauce that is quite versatile. It be used in pastas, for dipping, on pizza, as a base for tomato soup, in eggplant/chicken/veal parmesan and the list could go on and on. You can add olives, ground meat, vegetables, or whatever you fancy!