Magic Tomato Sauce


Winter cooking is all about comfort food. And by comfort, I mean snuggling in front of the fireplace instead of driving to the grocery store. The downside is that, around 5:30 p.m., I’m frantically curating a meal out of whatever lurks in the back of my pantry. For a while, dry cereal and crunchy Swiss Miss mini marshmallows did the job. But then I found a large can of whole peeled tomatoes, and an entire world of culinary possibilities was revealed.

My canned tomato journey began with Marcella Hazan’s four-ingredient tomato sauce. If you are a jarred sauce person (no judgment – I was, too), Hazan’s recipe will change your life: Simmer a pot of canned whole tomatoes with a halved onion, a little salt and an abundance of butter; extract the onion and serve over pasta. It’s elegant, fuss-free and allows you to consume nearly a stick of butter without feeling bad about yourself.

While enjoying Hazan’s sauce on every carb I could find, I tried it between layers of lasagna noodles. Oh, how the mighty fell! The sauce turned into an oily (but still delicious) mess when mixed with cheese and eggs. There had to be a way to employ Hazan’s treasure in other tomato-based recipes, so I put down my hot cocoa and got to work.

First, I reduced the butter to a mere tablespoon to minimize the fat but retain the velvety mouth feel. Unfortunately, when I cut down the butter, the tomatoes’ acidity became overwhelming. A pinch of sugar and splash of balsamic vinegar helped with the metallic taste, but adding ingredients was counterproductive to my goal of being lazy simplifying.

I wondered if I could fix it by using a different brand of tomatoes, and tried my reduced-butter sauce with three different brands: Cento San Marzano peeled tomatoes, Trader Joe’s unsalted whole peeled plum tomatoes and Red Gold whole peeled tomatoes.

The Trader Joe’s tasted identical to the Cento San Marzano tomatoes. But I couldn’t have been more surprised that the unpretentious, mainstream Red Golds tasted sweeter and less acidic than my favorite designer brand, San Marzano tomatoes. To confirm my suspicions, I talked to Marianne Moore, culinary creative director of Dierbergs Cooking School. “I actually prefer Red Gold to the Cento, as well,” she said. “I think it is a palate thing. Taste is perspective. You could bring in five different people to taste one pot and get five different responses.”

The only drawback to Red Gold tomatoes is they seemed more watery than the others. Adding extra tomatoes threw off my proportions, so I discarded one-half cup of tomato juices and pureed the finished sauce with an immersion blender until it was thick and smooth.

This sauce works beautifully in lasagna and – with a few modifications – as the base for tomato soup, pizza sauce and much more. Feel free to double the ingredients, increase the cook time at least 15 minutes and freeze the extra for another use. You’ll be rewarded with meals that taste like you made a real effort, even though you just opened a can.

Magic Tomato Sauce
Inspired by Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

2 cups

1 28-oz. can Red Gold whole peeled tomatoes
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ tsp. kosher salt

• In a 3-quart pot, add tomatoes and all but ½ cup juices. Use your hands to crush the tomatoes. Add the onion, butter and salt.
• Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to low and simmer 30 minutes. Discard the onion. Blend the sauce with an immersion blender until smooth.

Pasta sauce Serve over 1 pound cooked pasta noodles.

Tomatoes and Toast Rub thick slices of buttered toast with roasted garlic. Top with Magic Tomato Sauce and Parmesan or feta cheese. Broil 1 to 3 minutes until the cheese softens slightly.

Pizza sauce Add a 6-ounce can tomato paste, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil and ½ teaspoon garlic powder to the Magic Tomato Sauce. Makes enough for 2 medium pizza crusts.

Baked Italian eggs Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat individual ramekins with a thin layer of cooking spray. Spoon warm Magic Tomato Sauce into ramekins and break 1 or 2 eggs on top. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until the whites are solid and the yolks are slightly runny. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with crusty bread.

Tomato Soup Mix together equal amounts of Magic Tomato Sauce and low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth. Finish with 1 tablespoon cream, if desired. Serve with toasted Gruyere sandwiches.