When it comes to essentials, like tomato sauce, originality is overrated. Marcella Hazan’s classic tomato sauce is famous and adored, and justly so. Scads of bloggers and food writers have written about it, so I’m just following along, here in The Quarantined Kitchen Diaries. This is one of the best sauces I know, and you only need four (yes, four) ingredients.
But first of all, I know what you are thinking. Who was Marcella Hazan? Right?
Marcella Hazan (née Polini; April 15, 1924 – September 29, 2013) was an Italian-born cooking writer whose books were published in English. Her cookbooks are credited with introducing the public in the United States and Britain to the techniques of traditional Italian cooking. She was considered by chefs and fellow food writers to be the doyenne of Italian cuisine.
Born in the town of Cesentaico in Emilia Romagana, she earned her doctoral degree in Natural Sciences and Biology from the University of Ferrara. In 1955 she married Victor Hazan and the couple moved to New York City a few months later. Hazan had never cooked before her marriage; she was an academic who did not have time to cook. As she recounted in the introduction to her 1997 book, Marcella Cucina,
“there I was, having to feed a young, hard-working husband who could deal cheerfully with most life’s ups and downs, but not with an indifferent meal. In Italy, I would not have wasted time thinking about it. My mother cooked, my father cooked, both my grandmothers cooked, even the farm girls who came in to clean could cook. In the kitchen of my New York apartment there was no one.”
She began using her husband’s cookbooks from Italy, but found them disappointing as she realized that her clear memory of the flavors she grew up with in Italy allowed her to reproduce her family’s recipes for herself. “Eventually, I learned that some of the methods I adopted were idiosyncratically my own,” she recalled, “but for most of them I found corroboration in the practices of traditional Italian cooks.”
Hazan began giving cooking lessons in her apartment and later opened her own cooking school in 1969. The cookbooks followed, concentrating strictly on simple Italian cookery, where food is prepared painstakingly by hand rather than machine and without American or British influences. To that end, her recipes called for ingredients typical of the Italian home and were designed to compliment the typical Italian meal that balanced two principal courses, followed by a salad and a dessert.
This classic sauce will show you once and for all that homemade tomato sauce can be so simple to make. You only need four ingredients, including a can of whole plum tomatoes, to be rewarded with a rich, velvety sauce that is blissfully delicious.
The idea behind this tomato sauce is simple: Simmer a can of tomatoes with an onion and five tablespoons of butter. Add a pinch of salt and pull out the onion at the end, and what you are left with is a bright, velvety tomato sauce with a rich roundness from the butter. The butter doesn’t cut the edges of the tomatoes’ tanginess in the way that sugar does; instead it complements the brightness and makes it shine.
This tomato sauce is also entirely hands-off; so you don’t even have mince or chop the onion. It’s a great way to knock a meal together with a few pantry staples. Serve it over pasta with a flurry of cheese, and enjoy tomato sauce with the flair of restaurant richness.
SERVES 2 to 4
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, no salt or herbs added
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small white onion, peeled and cut in half
1 pound Cooked pasta
Shaved Parmesan cheese
Add the tomatoes, butter, onion halves, and a pinch of salt in a large saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, stirring and crushing the tomatoes lightly with the back of a spoon occasionally, until droplets of fat appear on the surface of the tomatoes, about 45 minutes.
Remove and discard the onion.
Serve over hot pasta with Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Adapted in my own words from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”
Basically, you can use what you have on hand to make this sauce. I personally like the Cento brand of San Marzan canned tomato because the product does not contain calcium chloride as a preservative . Also, this variety seems the most balanced, while other cooks with taste more of the acidity in this brand. If you find that your sauce in this recipe is a bit too acidic, add a bit of sugar, to taste.
If you do not have any small white onions on hand, feel free to use red onions, yellow onion or vadalia onions. Looking in my pantry, I was short on small to medium onions and made do with the pearl onions I had on hand.
If desired, you can add cracked black pepper or crushed red pepper flakes to add a bit of spice to your sauce.
But remember, for each substitution, you will change the flavor profile of the original recipe……and that is okay.
Remember, recipes are designed to be guides that allow for experimentation and improvisation in your kitchen, because every cook, whether they are professionals, advanced home cooks or novices just beginning will find what suits them to the best of their abilities.