It’s a common misconception that a good tomato sauce requires a multitude of ingredients, and I often hear people talk about a “secret ingredient” that will magically turn a bland and watery concoction into tomato-ey perfection – ketchup, maple syrup, Worcestershire sauce, even Marmite (!) – and I’m rarely, if ever, convinced.
There is a secret to great tomato sauce, and it follows the “less is more” principle which applies to some of the best recipes I know – Italian in particular. Forget the dried herbs. Forget the condiments. And, for the love of god, forget the Marmite. This recipe consists of only a handful of ingredients, and we have the brilliant Marcella Hazan to thank for it.
It’s a simple dish, so attention to detail makes all the difference: you should use good quality extra-virgin olive oil (and lots of it), the garlic needs to be as thinly sliced as you can manage and should not burn in the oil, and the dish must cook until the olive oil separates from the tomato.
Simple tomato pasta is now a dish I look forward both to cooking and to eating – and I hope you will too.
Marcella’s perfect tomato sauce
Serves three to four people.
- 2 tins of whole plum tomatoes (400g each)
- 2-4 cloves of garlic
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- fresh basil
- salt and black pepper
Cut the garlic into wafer thin slices (see photo), and place in a heavy bottomed pan with the olive oil. Place on a moderate flame on the hob, and fry the garlic until it starts to turn a nutty brown. Make sure it doesn’t burn, as this will give the whole dish the slightly bitter flavour of burnt garlic. (This method of heating ingredients in olive oil from cold is known as a crudo in Italian cooking.)
While the garlic is frying, drain the excess juice off the tomatoes in a colander. As soon as the garlic is done, add the tomatoes and break them down. Leave to cook on a moderate heat for half an hour to forty minutes, stirring from time to time to break the tomatoes down further. Gradually, you should start to see the olive oil separating from the tomatoes, and the sauce will be ready when the two are quite separate. The olive oil will take on the colour and flavour of the tomatoes and garlic, and the tomatoes will become smooth, rich and sweet.
A couple of minutes before turning off the heat, add generous pinches of salt and pepper, and stir. Taste the sauce now – as with all pasta sauces, on its own it should be a little over-salty (though not inedible!) to compensate for the relative blandness of the pasta.
Immediately before serving add the fresh basil leaves, carefully torn so as not to bruise them. Serve with spaghetti (though farfalle and penne also work well) and a fresh green salad on the side.
Once you’ve got the hang of this dish, you can experiment with variations such as the addition of olives, capers, anchovies, etc. Avoid adding fresh vegetables or mushrooms, as the additional water content will upset the chemistry of the sauce.