Everybody needs a good tomato sauce recipe in their back pocket. This is a new one of mine.
I tweaked this from Emmy’s recipe, which she brazenly calls The Best Tomato Sauce. Now, let’s be clear: my mom’s marinara sauce is actually the best. But as an alternative, this one’s not too shabby. It starts with a pile of tiny-diced onion in a pot, stirred gently and heated slowly until the onion turns the color of wheat and takes on a syrupy sweetness. Then whole garlic cloves, cooked in with the onions until they soften and turn into candy. Then tomatoes, and a few flavor backup singers–bay, cinnamon, orange, balsamic–and a good loooooooong simmer. The payoff is a lush, almost jammy sauce, sweet underneath and tomato-tangy on top, punctuated with fruit and warm spice and just a touch of heat. My friend Phuong, who lived in Italy for many years, pronounced it “as good as an Italian grandma’s.”
All told, this tomato sauce took nearly three and a half hours to make. And it was worth every minute. You don’t get that depth of flavor with a brief bubble and a stir; it only comes from a low flame and a lazy afternoon, sitting and sputtering away on the stove while you go occupy yourself elsewhere. I made this on a day I worked from home, sitting on the couch and pounding out assignments while my apartment filled with the heavy late-summer fragrance of concentrated tomato. It was glorious. I highly recommend it.
Then came the tasting. The sauce came out of the pot aggressively acidic, so much so that I debated adding a sprinkle of sugar to help the caramel-sweet onions along. But then I packed it up and stashed it in the fridge overnight, and by morning the flavor had smoothed quite a lot. I have almost a quart of it squirreled away in the freezer right now, mingling and mellowing and waiting for the next time I need tomato sauce in something. This is a sauce that was made to last; you couldn’t go wrong making a double batch and freezing half for the future.
So what did I end up putting the sauce on? Tune in next time to find out…
Slow-Simmered Tomato Sauce (makes about 5 cups)
Adapted slightly from Emmy Cooks
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large white or yellow onion, finely diced
Salt to taste
6-8 medium garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed with the back of a knife
1/4 tsp crushed red chili flakes, or to taste
1 (6 oz) can tomato paste (optional)
2 (28 oz) cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 cup water, or as needed
1 tsp balsamic vinegar, or to taste
2 bay leaves
1 (3 inch) cinnamon stick
1 tsp finely grated orange zest, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20-25 minutes, or until the onions are golden and sweet. Add garlic and chili flake, and cook, stirring frequently, for another 8-10 minutes, or until the garlic is soft and the onions are amber-colored. Use a potato masher or a wooden spoon to break the garlic up into chunks. Add tomato paste (if using) and cook, stirring constantly, until the onions and garlic are evenly coated.
Add canned tomatoes, then rinse out each can with about 1/2 cup water and add the water to the pot. Use a wooden spoon or a pair of kitchen scissors to break the tomatoes up into chunks (large or small, depending on what sort of sauce texture you like). Stir in vinegar, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, orange zest, salt, and pepper.
Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep it at a steady simmer. Partially cover the pot and simmer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until the mixture has thickened and coalesced into a rich sauce. If the sauce seems to be getting too thick before you think it’s done, add a splash of water. Discard bay leaf and cinnamon stick, then taste and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve however you like.
The sauce will only get better as it sits. It’ll keep in a covered container in the fridge for about 4 days, or in the freezer for 4-6 months.