bob del Grosso
I got my first job as a short-order cook in a luncheonette at 14. But I did not make my first batch of tomato sauce until I was 18 years old. I remember the occasion perfectly because of something my father said after eating a couple of forkfuls of ravioli con salsa di pomodori.
Looking over at my mother, herself exhausted from working all day and haggard from the constant worrying over his declining health (to say almost nothing of what she suffered trying to keep track of four sons) he said, “Honey, he’s stealing your fire.” Well, I’m sure he was trying to tell her he was proud of me and pay homage to my mother’s own formidable cooking skills, but the look on her face could have killed a crow in mid-flight. Totally agrodolce: It is still painful to remember it.
I don’t remember exactly how I made that first batch of tomato sauce. But in the intervening 34 years I’ve made thousands of batches of simple salsa di pomodori (garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, basil)-some good, some not so good. I’ve also eaten countless versions of putatively the same thing in pizzerias, restaurants, catering halls, school suppers and in the homes of friends and family. So you can imagine that I have developed a pretty strong opinion about what I like and, ahem, don’t like.
Now those of you who have been reading my blog-posts have by now figured out that I'm a "glass is half empty" kind of character who, unlike my gracious host and soon-to-return colleague, Michael Ruhlman, likes to use the bully-pulpit to whine a bit about things he doesn't like. And today is one of those occasions. So if you prefer not to read a cranky rant, consider yourself warned and surf away! Otherwise try to enjoy as best you can my list of things to do to make lousy salsa di pomodori.
Use cheap canned tomatoes
There are big differences between the kinds of tomatoes that are put into cans by different packers. Some of the cheapest canned tomatoes are acidic and unripe and watery, so to get the sauce to the right consistency you have to do all kinds of tricks to fix it like reducing it by cooking it for too long or adding sugar, tomato paste, cornstarch etc.
Use chopped or pureed canned tomatoes
The packers use the tomatoes that are not good enough to pack whole for these. Chopped tomatoes and puree are okay for chili or as a minor adjunct to some other dish but should never be used for simple salsa di pomodori
Use fresh tomatoes that aren’t as ripe as the good canned tomatoes
Partly due to the pernicious influence of certain chef-evangelists for “fresh ingredients,” and the Greek chorus of know-nothing media wonks and "life-style experts" who mimic and reduce everything these well-intentioned culinarians say, a lot of people seem to think that fresh ingredients like tomatoes, are always better than canned or frozen or whatever. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to suffer through a bowl of pasta laboring under a pallid, mealy yoke of sauce made from unripe plum tomatoes that had been cloned in some godforsaken green house. Good canned plum tomatoes are usually riper and better textured than anything you are going to find in the produce section of a typical supermarket.
Cook it too long
Canned tomatoes are already cooked, so there is no need to “cook them out” anymore than is required to infuse them with the aroma of the other ingredients. And since all tomatoes contain acidic and bitter chemical compounds that become concentrated as the water from the tomatoes evaporates, the longer you cook the tomatoes the more acidic and bitter the sauce becomes. It should take no more than ten minutes to cook up 2 quarts of simple tomato sauce for pasta.
Use dried herbs
Dried basil tastes like a cross between powdered aluminum and dried hemp. It might be fine for scamming a drunk who thinks he’s buying a nickel bag of pot, but doesn’t belong in tomato sauce. I grow my own. In the summer I use it al fresco and at summer’s end I pick it all, and put the whole leaves in the freezer. (I do this with the hydroponic stuff too.) Then when I want to use them, I grab out a handful, throw it directly into the sauce at the end of the cooking cycle -to avoid losing too much aroma.
Brown the garlic
This is terrible. I loathe browned garlic in all its permutations and freak when I’ve left it in the oil too long and have to throw it out. It’s bitter, acrid and completely overpowers the more subtle aroma of the tomatoes, oil and herbs. I'm sure browned garlic was used by Italian troops in WWI as a countermeasure against mustard gas.
Use cheap oil
This sauce is “supposed” to be made with olive oil, which in turn, is supposed to taste like olives -cheap oil doesn't.
Salt attenuates the sensation of the bitter taste in your brain. When you leave out the salt the sauce can become too bitter. Sure, whoever is eating the sauce can add salt later and achieve the same affect. But what if they don’t?