Such a simple name for a sauce with myriad interpretations - or so it seems. "Tomato Sauce," as used by my friends of Italian descent, but who were born in the United States, who happen also to be in the restaurant business, is merely a start for something else that's gonna be prepared. Whether we're in a condo on vacation, someone's boat, at home or in somebody's joint just hanging around the kitchen or bar talking, when someone important brings you some other wonderful ingredient; be it macaroni from the old country, veal, homemade sausage, a fish, clams, mussels, lobster, or just some good bread; there's one thing that some or all the boys say. "Go make some sauce."

If one grew up in Brooklyn or some other parts of The Big Apple, tomato sauce is called "gravy." Yeah, it's red; it goes on pasta, but they call it gravy. (They call the brown sauce served with roast beef or turkey or roast chicken gravy, too.) But I digress.

UPDATE: The wonderful BlackPawn pointed out that this recipe should include a line which reads: "Feeds 60." There are two reasons why I prefer to make sauce in humongous batches like this. The first is that often I need to feed 60 or more, whether it's a catering job or a party. The second is that, if I'm going to the trouble of the process that follows (which involves paying a lot of attention to the sauce, the more, the better) it's efficient to make lots and then freeze it in quart containers for use later on. Tomato sauce is one of the best things to freeze as it lasts 3 months in the freezer (or more) and recovers nicely from the freezing process when reheated via microwave or stove.

Let's begin with what goes into the pot (of a size sufficient to hold at least three gallons of sauce):

Lots of olive oil; about a cup — not extra-virgin or nothin' special like that. Just a good grade of amber-colored olive oil. The green-colored stuff's intended for use on fresh mozzarella cheese with tomatoes and basil, and it smokes at a lower temperature. So why waste your money? Pickup a gallon of the stuff and use it for everything, and you may actually reduce the bad cholesterol in your bloodstream.

Minced (1/8" or slightly smaller) Garlic; as much as you can stand. Two whole bulbs. Garlic should have large cloves, be white (not purple; that's "boiling garlic" and is used for other things). This stuff called "Elephant Garlic" may be convenient to use, but the flavor is somewhat attenuated compared to regular, good old fresh garlic. (Hint: if you break apart a bulb into cloves, use your small (paring) knife to knick off the part that's been stuck to the bottom of the bulb; it's flat. Repeat for each clove. Then take up your biggest cleaver or whatever and whack the bulbs hard (but not so hard you smoosh them). The skins will come right off.) Another hint: the stuff that's already minced and packed in oil, in jars, in the supermarket is pretty good if you just can't stand going through the trouble. And indeed, peeling and mincing garlic is troublesome, and will leave your fingers reeking for a day or so, no matter how often you wash them and no matter what you wash your fingers with.

Canned tomato sauce and "ground" tomatoes, in equal amounts; about five cans. Now, the standard, restaurant-sized No. 10 can is what we're talking about, 3/4 of a gallon of the finest processed tomatoes money can buy. Don't fool around with crushed tomatoes; you can add fresh if you want chunky sauce later. This is where one doesn't skimp. "Pastene" makes a fine product, if you can find it in big cans (otherwise go to the supermarket and buy lots of medium-sized cans of it.) Remember, no chunky; "ground" and "sauce." "Sauce" must have some indication on the can that it is seedless. Ground tomatoes, by nature, are seedless. Grinding the seeds would render the product bitterly inedible.

Four Bay Leaves. More if you really like the taste of laurel. Use half if you're indeed using fresh laurel. UPDATE: It just occurred to me that the "laurel" I'm talking about is the stuff the ancient Roman Emperors used to wear around their heads. Do not confuse this with mountain laurel. Should you insinuate the latter (the state flower of Connecticut) into your sauce, you're gonna die, suckah.

Basil*. At least three bunches or enough to make a cup of minced basil. Do not, under any circumstances, get lazy and go and use either the flowers at the tops, nor the stems. Just the leaves. We usually find a barmaid whom, if she's bored, will pluck basil leaves off of three bunches if you let her drink while she's behind the stick. Who cares; let her have whatever she wants. Just instruct her that should one bit of stem remain on those leaves you'll bathe her in whatever the hell she's drinking.

A 750 ml. bottle of Chianti or some other Sangiovese-based, (e.g., Montalpulciano d'Abruzzo) wine, at least given the denominazione "DOC". Some people skimp on this, too. I wouldn't cook with wine that I wouldn't serve at a casual meal. And it doesn't need to be expensive. Opici brand DOC Chianti (yeah, in a straw-covered bottle) is the perfect choice for making sauce. Not too much tannins; not too much fruit.

A cup of Sambuca (or, "Anisette.") Don't use cheap stuff. The only one's that'll do are Sambuca Molinari or Sambuca Mellitti; both very dry versions of anise liqueur preferred because they don't have the cloying sweetness of Sambuca Romana or, (Heaven forbid!) a non-Italian brand like DeKuyper, Bols, or (yecch) Arrow.

Freshly ground black pepper, and salt, to taste.

To avoid sticking, make sure your pot is thick, the thicker the better (but never cast iron; the acid in the sauce reacts in a bad, bad way with this metal. Aluminum has also been brought into question in recent years, but I find no difference.). Also make sure it's clean and dry. Put it on the fire for a short while; then add the olive oil. I don't know why, but this is how every good chef does it; and the results are miraculous. When the oil's hot but not smoking, saute the garlic quickly. Do not let it brown; browned garlic is bitter garlic!

After just "mellowing" the garlic in the hot oil for awhile, (just about a minute, if the stuff's making noises), add all of the tomato products. I usually rinse the cans out with a little water. This sauce's gonna be cooking for a long time, so allow a little water for what's gonna evaporate. Stir everything up and bring the mixture, stirring every 15 minutes or so, (on a medium-low flame) to the point where it's nearly boiling (it'll look like lava in the top of a volcano — blup, blup blup, blup!)

When heated through, add the bay leaves and half the basil. Add the wine, and the Sambuca.

Now, get ready to wait. Leave the pot on the lowest flame possible. When using a restaurant stove with large burners, I take one of the burner grates from another burner, and plop it atop the first grating, to make a double-layered affair so the heat's farther away from the pot and covers the bottom more evenly; however, this doesn't work with a large pot and the gratings from most common household stoves, so try using either one of those metal devices intended to keep cream sauces from burning, or just use a big square of cast iron under your pot, if you can find one. This'll save you lots of extra stirring.

But no matter what you do, stir the sauce at least every half hour or so. And make sure that the flame remains low, low, low!

How long you cook the sauce is up to you, but before you've finished, you should have relatively thick, smooth sauce. Add the rest of the basil. Season to taste with the salt and pepper. At this point, some folks like to use good-quality red pepper flakes (the stuff without the seeds) for extra kick (the seeds are just "hot" spicy for "hot's" sake; they impart no flavor as do good, dried peppers).

To make the sauce even better: make it the day before, and then heat it up. There is no chemical nor methodical way to expedite this process; there's something about allowing the sauce to cool, and then heating it up again, that makes a good sauce a great one. (One need not refrigerate the tomato sauce; please believe me, there's enough acids in that sauce that it won't go bad if covered up and left out overnight. Unless your household pets or household vermin dig the taste of a good tomato sauce. Then the cover needs to be tight, and strong (or weighted).

NOW the variations!

The plain sauce recipe above is good on just about any kind of pasta there is (a smooth sauce is especially delightful on perfectly-cooked Angel Hair pasta) served up with plenty of grated Pecorino Romano cheese or my favorite, Asiago. Grate the cheese from a block; the stuff keeps forever, and strands, or shards, are much better than that coffee-grind-consistency crap they purvey in all but the finest Italian markets (where you can get 1/16" shards made with a proper cheese grater).

Add seeded hot peppers, lemon zest and sauteed onions to the sauce for sauce Fra Diavolo, a must for seafood (Shrimp, Lobster, Clams, or best, all three) that's absolutely fresh. Make the stuff hot enough for the pepper-heads who're eating it, but don't turn it into a contest; let the flavor of the seafood shine through.

Add minced, sauteed Sopressata (Italian rolled bacon) or regular bacon, in a pinch, along with sauteed minced onions for sauce Amatricana which is delightful on linguine and spaghetti. Some people whirl in a little heavy cream right before serving.

For "Sunday Sauce," chicken legs (and in the old days, the livers and the gizzards) are placed in the sauce, along with a few sausages, and maybe a pork chop or two, and water is added to the sauce, along with chopped onions. This is then simmered and stirred for at the very least three hours. (If one can procure a bone from a Prosciutto ham; add this alone to one's Sunday Sauce and it's a thing of utter beauty. You might want to have the butcher whack it into 3 or 4 pieces so the marrow comes out.) Sunday Sauce goes on top of any kind of macaroni; penne, ziti, ziti rigati, or my favorite, "bow ties," (farfalle). If you can find them, radiatore; these round things that look a little like old-fashioned steam heat radiators, curly with lots of "fins," are the best for absorbing a good tomato sauce.

Add fresh, seeded, thickly chopped tomatoes and onions at the last minute for a great marinara sauce either a) if your family/friends like "chunky" sauce, or b) if you're going to cook mussels or clams in the sauce. To make shellfish marinara, make sure the bivalves are absolutely clean; let them sit an hour in cold water with pepper flakes in (twice, to be sure) so they "spit" any grit out. Place said shellfish in a saucepan and dose 'em with a good helping of white wine (about 1/4 cup per serving). Cover the pan, until the shellfish open. Discard any unopened shellfish. Then add your sauce, and stir until heated through thoroughly. You can serve this with pasta, but never add grated cheese for seafood.

I'm not gonna get into making meatballs. Suffice it to say that I use 4 parts meat to one part bread crumbs, I do add a little egg, and some sauteed onion and garlic. And Romano cheese. And I don't fry 'em. I simmer 'em in the sauce so they come out like soft meatballs; they can be eaten with a fork, or spread on bread and eaten by dipping into the sauce.

The gourmet delight which is Bolognese sauce is a rich, intense meat sauce, which requires even more work and attention than does this simple recipe. But in my opinion, there is no other meat sauce. So go ahead, add your hamburger sauteed with onions, or your sausage meat, or a combination of both, and simmer until fully cooked. You'll have a meat sauce, if that's what your hungry friends are clamoring for. But you won't have Bolognese sauce.


Do not:

  • Under any circumstances, add Oregano. Oregano is for pizza sauce only; and then only in certain cases; and also for some very fine Greek dishes. But not for Tomato Sauce.
  • Put sugar in the sauce. This is only a very conspicuous (to the Tomato Sauce connoisseur) cover-up for having used inferior tomato products.
  • Use baking soda to "foam" the "acid" out of the tomatoes. Tomatoes are supposed to contain acid, silly. And even though you're scraping and discarding the scum that comes to the top from the reaction between acid and alkali, there'll be enough sodium left behind to give a 17-year-old high blood pressure.
  • Use wine that's "corked" or has otherwise gone bad. Remember, don't cook with wine you wouldn't at least serve to your guests at a casual meal.
  • Wear your finest white Oxford shirt and light-colored slacks while cooking with tomatoes. It's just not right. If you do dare to wear light-colored clothing or fail to wear an apron while making sauce, and still come away clean, it only means that after dinner you're gonna splash coffee all over your outfit.

UPDATE 5/18/08: Apatrix says re tomato sauce: "Not extra virgin" for something that people will EAT?!? Why don't you just put in Pennzoil? :P

Response: A plain, blended oil that's lighter in flavor is indicated when cooking the basic sauce. Some extra-virgin, first-pressing oils impart a funky flavor when cooked for a long time. Sure, those oils are great for some things, and tomato sauce too; it's just that they should be added at the end of the cooking.

*A note about basil: At least in the U.S., it's possible to find fresh basil year-round nearly everywhere. It's even in the supermarkets in the dead of winter where I live. Fresh basil lends a completely different flavor to foods than does the dried product. And the neat thing about basil is that one really can't use too much of it!