The Return to the Sauce


The Thousand Colours of Tomato Sauce by Sarjano

Delicious Tomato Sauce

Okay, let’s go for the sauces. Italians love to create sauces, particularly for spaghetti or other shapes of pasta. Believe it or not, every Italian cook has her (or his) own sauce; at least one, which is her favourite. The one she makes ‘differently’; the one she thinks she has ‘invented’; the one her friends ask for all the time; and finally the one that will (hopefully) lend her name to posterity. So there are millions of sauces, and we’ll have to start with the very basic ones.

The Thousand Colours of Tomato Sauce

Yes, tomato sauce has thousands of colours, thousands of flavours, millions of nuances, and yet, it has to follow a few basic principles. To start with I define them in this way: the starting of a male tomato sauce and the starting of a female tomato sauce.

Only when you grasp the significance of these two, can you mix and match them at your pleasure or even create a bisexual tomato sauce for that matter!

I love to use metaphorical terms, but what do I really mean when I call one of them male and the other female?

Simple: one is to prepare a solid body, spicy and tasty; a strong taste, a little aggressive (or more if you wish) and quite determined and imperative!

The other is to prepare a mellow body; softer, gentler, more fluid, delicate; and even more creamy, if you wish!

Let’s have a close look at each of these, because if you understand the two kinds of alchemy clearly, then you’ll be able to create and experiment with almost any vegetable.

It goes like this: for the strong body we choose garlic rather than onions. We fry it in olive oil rather than butter. While frying the garlic, add the right amount (for your taste) of chilli.

After so many years of making tomato sauces I have realized that it is best to use chopped dry red chillies. Please avoid powders, green chillies or anything else. Once you get your hands on a nice bunch of fresh red chillies, make a collier with a needle and thread, as if they were pearls for your kitchen, and hang your garland on the wall, possibly over your stove. It keeps away worms, ghosts, parasites, amoebæ, and a lot of creatures of that kind.

When the garlic or onions turn golden, add the puréed tomatoes. (You have to drop the tomatoes into boiling hot water and leave them there for about 5 minutes, till the skins get wrinkled. Peel them and then purée them in a blender.)

Now you have to let the sauce cook. And I don’t mean 10 minutes as you usually do, or 15 minutes or 20 minutes. Not even half an hour. One hour is the minimum! I mean it.

What do you do in this hour? Since you have plenty of time (otherwise you’ll go to McDonald’s, we know), you can decide on how to create, improve, personalize and infuse variety into your tomato sauce.

Let’s have a look at the most common:

Anna’s Tomato Sauce with Basil

Anna is an Italian woman married to an Italian painter. He is a great artist, and like all great men has an even greater woman behind him. Too bad that great men usually spend their lives in misery and complaints, for they can’t appreciate what they have – their wives!

Well, this introduction means that Anna doesn’t have much time, but she is always determined to cook to the best of her ability, no matter what and why and where. She has a bunch of beautiful kids, who in turn have a bunch of beautiful friends (my son and I are a part of the lot) so she has to make all these kids happy; and quickly.

for 4 servings

you will need

100 + 50 gms butter
300 gms onions
1 kg tomatoes
salt to taste
100 gms fresh basil
a few sprinkles of Parmesan
1 heaped tbsp of sugar or a handful of fresh basil

She starts with a lot of butter on a low flame.

She uses an incredible quantity of onions by any standard, which are chopped very, very fine.

When the onions are golden she adds the puréed tomatoes with the salt, and again an incredible quantity, by any standard, of finely chopped basil! Not just a few leaves or even a few sprigs. No! Anna really goes for it! Is she trying to make half pesto and half pummarola? Heck, if only I knew! I have been eating it for the past thirty-five years and it still makes me happy, along with the kids.

Now, I don’t know what you foreigners to Italian cuisine usually do when the sauce is ready and the pasta has been boiled enough to be defined al dente (hard under your teeth). Do you put the drained pasta into a large, elegant serving dish, top it with the sauce, add the cheese, mix and serve? How aesthetic! But how stupid too! If I’m allowed to be that forthright…

The pasta has to go into the sauce, not vice versa! It is sensible to make the sauce in a wok or pan or anything large enough to hold both the sauce and the pasta. Then after making the sauce, cook the pasta, drain it and slip it into the sauce for the fundamental operation of mantecatura.

I don’t know how to translate this one into English, what can I do? Let’s say that mantecatura means giving pasta (very al dente, I’ll have to repeat) a chance to absorb the sauce and the cheese and the butter and the basil, by cooking it for 30 seconds only. It makes such a difference that one would rather have more of this pasta, even if it is served directly from the pan, than the other shallow preparation served in a silver dish! Try it, and let me know.

Of course if you are lucky you can enjoy a wok and a silver dish. God bless you, because you can provide both substance and appearance! But please, never betray the first in favour of the latter. Otherwise I won’t tell you the rest of Anna’s sauce.

She drains the pasta very al dente, she slips it into the wok containing the sauce, she adds another 50 gms of butter, a few sprinkles of Parmesan (even gouda or cheddar will do). She stirs it gently for 30 seconds and then serves it.

If there are many kids, and the tomatoes are vaguely acid, Anna adds a generous spoon of sugar to the sauce. If there are more adults amongst the guests, she tops everything at the end with extra basil, not even finely chopped!

And that’s it, about Anna. I really can promise you that your kids are going to like it, as Anna’s kids do.


you will need

  • 100 gms button mushrooms
  • a handful of shelled fresh tender green peas
  • parsley (instead of basil)
  • a topping of grated Parmesan
  • 200-300 gms zucchini

Once you have started with butter and onions: you can put some sliced champignons (button mushrooms) into the wok.

You can add a handful of fresh, tender green peas or prepare the sauce with a combination of green peas and mushrooms.

You can use parsley instead of basil.

You can have another creation to be topped with Parmesan (or substitutes). In some parts of Italy, they call this sauce boscaiola. Forget it, and create your own names! (Why are you cooking?)

If you don’t like mushrooms, slice some zucchini finely and sauté them after the onions.

I can list here a few more options that integrate beautifully with the gentle tomato sauce, and then we will enter the realm of the tough one!

In the end it’s so simple! If you only love what you are doing and trust in your abilities, then you can follow your intuition!

It is quite natural if we really look at it. We are improving or trying variations on a gentle, mellow, delicate tomato sauce. Obviously we can add almost anything that harmonizes with that, and we avoid anything that may clash with the original blend.

Let’s take a practical example:

Can you see why we will never use bell peppers of any colour for this sauce? For the simple reason that peppers and pepperoni are acidic and we are trying to make something gentle and delicate.

Can you see that the sweetness and delicacy of zucchini is more appropriate?

Or that delicate, tender green peas are more suited than say small chunks of cauliflower?

And this is generally true for all Italian cooking. Mention green peas in any preparation; they are cooked in butter, never in oil; and always with onions, never with garlic. And exactly the opposite is true for cauliflower. Always in oil and always with garlic.

There are alchemical reasons, and chemical reason, and taste reasons too, but I will let you find out for yourself.

From the book ‘Food is Home’ by Sarjano

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