One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen watching and smelling as she made her fabulous tomato sauce. The aroma is so vivid in my memory that I am immediately transported to those days and the many hours I spent in admiration of “Mamaw’s” kitchen magic and anticipating the delicious dinner to come.
Now that I am a “Nonna”, I hope to create those same memories for my grandchildren. My grandson, Evani, the oldest of the bunch, who lives in California, has been visiting us for a month every summer for the past eight years. We have cooked together all along but last summer he asked if I could teach him my tomato sauce recipe. We made it together as I shared the stories of how this recipe was an adaptation of my grandmother’s and how I have tweaked it over the years and made it my own. This year I asked as I always do if there was anything in particular he would like to cook during his stay. His request was to make the tomato sauce. Imagine how happy that made me.
He was able to make it on his own with just a little direction and as I am writing I can smell the sauce simmering as I have visions of myself as a child. I am filled with joy to pass this on and cannot wait until dinner time.
This recipe has evolved through trial and error over 35 years. As I mentioned I adapted it from my grandmother’s after watching her for many years. I make mine meatless but she often added chicken or pork for flavoring. It has long been a favorite of mine and my family.
1/4 c extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
1/4 t crushed red chili flakes
1 1/2 T fennel seed, crushed
1 1/2 T dried basil
1 T dried oregano
1-2 bay leaves
5 1/2 lb. fresh whole Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped (or three 28 oz. cans whole, crushed)
1 small can tomato paste (more if thickening is needed)
1/2 c Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 c fresh basil leaves, chopped, if available
1/4 c fresh oregano, chopped, if available
1/4 – 1/2 each Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated
1 1/2 c dry red wine or more as needed (Chianti is a good choice)
- Heat the oil in a large heavy bottom pan. Saute the onion until soft over medium low heat . Add the garlic, chili flakes and fennel seed, saute until aromatic. Add the bay leaf and dry herbs to the onion mixture and continue to saute for one minute.
- Crush the tomatoes and add the to herb mixture along with the tomato paste thinned in 1 c of the red wine. Cook on medium heat until the tomato begins to break down. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add parsley. If sauce needs thinning, add additional wine or water. Season with salt and pepper.
- Reduce heat and slow simmer for 2-3 hours, uncovered. If more volume is desired, additional tomato can be added. Add remaining red wine and additional tomato paste if sauce thin. If too thick, thin with water or wine.
- Add 1/4 c each Romano and Parmigiano cheeses. Use additional if you desire a thicker cheesier texture and taste. Slow simmer for another hour or until sauce reaches desired consistency. Add the fresh herbs. Adjust the seasoning as it simmers. Remove bay leaves. If smoother texture is preferred, sauce can be blended or pureed in the food processor. I use an immersion blender to smooth but leave a bit chunky. A little pasta water can be used to thin if necessary before serving.
Serve as a sauce for pasta, polenta, eggplant, chicken parmessan or in any recipe that calls for a delicious tomato sauce. Freezes well.
Note: If my grandmother was serving meatballs, she always cooked them directly in the sauce where they absorbed the flavors of the sauce and also served as seasoning. The meatballs stay soft and moist this way so if you prefer yours crusty this method is not for you.
I prefer using canned tomatoes when fresh are out of season. When available, I recommend using whole Roma tomatoes from Italy as they have less moisture and the richest flavor for sauce. When you use crushed or diced tomatoes, they are often a mix of different varieties and can be too high in moisture. Many Italians save the heel of the Parmigiano to throw into the sauce for extra flavor. I save all my rinds in the freezer until I make a batch of sauce. Don’t forget to remove it before blending. Your family may fight over who is going to get to chew on it, I know mine does.
Whether it is tomato sauce or some other family favorite, I hope you will make memories for you and your family today and for years to come. Some of the best memories are made in the kitchen and around the table. I hope the memory of today will live on for many years and generations to come.