Oh, how I love tomatoes. Especially sweet, juicy, ripe ones fresh off the vine. Our backyard garden is bursting at the seams with four plants’ worth of red and golden cherry varieties, and I’ve been faced with the fun task of figuring out what the heck to do with all of these beauties. The tomato vines and our monstrous zucchini
bush plant are popping out fruits much, much faster than we can eat them, and while this is a blessing of sorts, one gets to the point of needing a strategy so that one’s fridge isn’t overwhelmed by a ginormous amount of produce. (I know; first world problems, right?)
But having gobs of tomatoes on hand, actually, is a boon to home cooks for many reasons — and one of those reasons is homemade tomato sauce. Not to dis on the canned or jarred sauce you can buy at the grocery store — there are some decent-quality brands out there — but the “real thing” (aka homemade) has a fresher, more vibrant taste. The herbs are wonderfully aromatic, and the richness of the flavor you get from the tomatoes is unparalleled. Searing the tomatoes at high heat breaks them down quickly and starts to caramelize the sugars, giving them a taste that can normally only be achieved by roasting in the oven. Plus, this sauce is quick and easy to make, so you can whip up a whole pasta dinner with it in less than an hour.
This could be called a “rustic style” sauce. It’s intentionally chunky, and as such it’s not exactly “saucy”. It’s light and oil-based with bursts of intense tomato and onion flavor. I, for one, love it that way, but if you prefer something smoother and more uniform that will evenly coat your noodles, you can certainly throw your sauce into a blender or food processor after you’ve made it and puree to your heart’s content. If you really wanted to, you could pour the sauce through a strainer after blending to remove the tomato seeds and skins — your call. Personally, I like my sauce to have a bit of texture and body to it, but you may feel differently. And this recipe is meat-free, but if you’re a carnivore, you could easily add some protein (I’d suggest chicken or Italian sausage).
At any rate, without further ado, here’s my recipe. This sauce is my own personal version of a recipe from the wonderful Lost Art of Real Cooking by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger — an excellent and fun read on culinary history and traditional food preparation, by the way, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Recipe: Pasta with Vegetarian Red Wine-Tomato Sauce
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Makes 2 generous servings
8 oz. of uncooked spaghetti, macaroni, or other pasta (gluten-free, if you like)
3 large tomatoes (or about 24 oz. of cherry or grape tomatoes), coarsely chopped
1 large white onion, peeled and diced
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. crushed red pepper (or more, if you like it hot!)
½ cup red wine of your choice*
2 TBs butter
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. Kosher salt
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil (for finishing)
Parmesan cheese (optional)
*Which kind of wine you use isn’t terribly important — my rule of thumb is that anything I enjoy drinking will taste great in this sauce. If you’re not sure, try a Pinot Noir, a Malbec or a red table blend.
**Make sure to use a cooking oil that can withstand high heat. This article has a table showing which cooking oils have the highest (and lowest) smoke points. The higher the smoke point, the less easily the oil will burn.
How to Make It
- Get the pasta ready. Cook your pasta according to the package directions. Drain, put into a covered bowl or pan to keep warm, and set aside for now.
- Bring on the heat. While pasta is cooking, in a large saucepan or skillet, add a few tablespoons of cooking oil and heat it on the highest setting you’ve got. You want to get the pan so hot that the oil is just starting to smoke.
- Sear your tomatoes. Once your pan and oil are smoking hot, throw in the tomatoes and stand back.
Here’s where it gets a little exciting and dramatic: it will be noisy. The tomatoes will hiss and sizzle ferociously, and there will almost definitely be some smoke (so make sure to have your fume hoods and fans preemptively switched on!). It’s all okay, though; just let the tomatoes do their thing and make sure nothing catches fire.
Once the heat has subsided a bit and the mixture starts to bubble rather than smoke (which usually takes 1-2 minutes), remove the tomatoes from the pan and place in a medium bowl.
- Repeat step 2 two more times. I always sear the tomatoes three times because it seems to cook them perfectly. Re-heat the pan (adding a tiny bit more oil if needed) and toss the tomatoes back in once it’s nice and hot. No need to clean out the pan in between searings; the charred bits will add flavor to the sauce.
After three searings, turn the heat down to medium-high and continue to cook until tomatoes have started to break down and skins are falling off, as in the photo below. Remove them from the heat and set aside.
- Toast your herbs. In the same saucepan, add a few more tablespoons of cooking oil along with the oregano, thyme and crushed red pepper. Let herbs toast for 30 seconds, just until fragrant.
Toasting (or “blooming”) herbs and spices before adding anything else to the pan is a technique I learned once in an Indian cooking class. You may want to add a few drops of water to the herbs first so they don’t burn, but the heat activates the oils and aromas in the spices and makes them pop more in the dish. Here’s an article that explains this in more detail.
- Sauté the onion. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and lightly browned (about 10 minutes).
- Bring it all together. Pour your seared tomatoes back into the pan along with the red wine and butter. Turn down heat to medium and simmer for 5-10 minutes until the tomatoes have completely broken down and the sauce has thickened a bit.
- Season it up. Add brown sugar and Kosher salt, and then do a taste test. Season with more salt and pepper if needed.
- Finish and serve. You can serve this sauce on top of your pasta or toss it with the noodles — I usually toss it in. Serve on plates, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle on a little Parmesan (if using) and call it good.
And last but certainly not least…enjoy!
Thoughts? Questions? Feedback? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below!