Today I'm sharing what I consider to be the core of my vegetable garden, the San Marzano tomato, and the pasta sauce I labored over for a pretty good chunk of my August.
We eat quite a lot of pasta around here. It's a side effect of my college love affair with Italy; my studio art classes were joined in equal measure by Italian art history and language courses. During my final year, I studied abroad in Florence and traveled around the north: Arezzo, Assisi, Bologna, Lucca, Pisa, Prato, Ravenna, Rome, San Gimignano, Sansepolcro, Siena, Tivoli, Venice, Vinci, and Urbino. That semester afforded me the opportunity to sample Italy's cuisine alongside its art, architecture, and language. As it turns out, participating in Italy's culinary traditions has proved the most practical way for me to maintain ties with that 23-year-old version of myself and the country which I hold in awe.
To that end I love making this simple pasta sauce. Most traditional Italian dishes fall under the category of cucina povera, literally meaning "poor food," which was developed and eaten by the peasant class. It's very simple, not relying on tricky techniques or rare flavors. However, this puts the emphasis of the dish on good ingredients.
This is where my San Marzanos enter.
You can certainly make this sauce with other paste/Roma-type tomatoes or even with canned tomatoes. I have! It's still good, of course, but if you want something fantastic you'll use San Marzano tomatoes, widely lauded by Italians as the best tomato on the planet for pasta sauce. That's quite a recommendation.
I live in a tiny town in one of the most rural states in this country so I have to grow them myself (or purchase canned San Marzanos at $6 a pop: no thanks!). Since I know I'll be using them for pasta sauce, I go ahead and plant the other things I'll need for this recipe: onions and fresh herbs (next year I'll try garlic, too).
My onions are actually still in the ground but my neighbor shared her surplus with me.
And because this sauce does take some time, I wait to make it until I have seven pounds of tomatoes to work with. My philosophy is about efficiency (it's my husband's industrial engineering background having a positive influence): if I'm going to go to this much effort, I'm going to make a lot of it all at once. Three quarts, to be exact (my tiny garden has yielded over two gallons so far).
A pasta sauce making day goes like this for me: in the morning I harvest tomatoes, wash them, score them, then blanch and peel them (unfamiliar with this process? Click through for a great tutorial at the kitchn).
In the afternoon, I cook down onions and garlic in a Dutch oven, followed by tomato paste. Working in batches I pulse all the tomatoes in my food processor a few times until I have a chunky puree, then add them to the pot with some water. I go pick my fresh herbs by the fistful, wash and chop, and then add them to the pot, simmering it down for over an hour. Depending on your tastes, you might also add salt or red pepper flakes with your herbs.
Personally, I reserve this stuff (in my freezer) to enjoy throughout the winter with special dishes like manicotti. But it sure can elevate some store bought tortellini, particularly when topped with some grated Pecorino Romano (my favorite). So, without further ado:
Fresh Pasta Sauce with San Marzanos
Makes three quarts
- 7 pounds San Marzano tomatoes (or other Roma variety), blanched and peeled, or 4-28oz cans tomatoes
- 3 large yellow onions, finely chopped
- 8+ cloves of garlic, minced
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 1/4 cups tomato paste
- 2 cups water (I use filtered)
- 1 1/4 cups chopped mixed fresh herbs (I used homegrown Italian Flat Leaf Parsley, Dark Opal Basil, and Greek Oregano)
- 3/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- salt, to taste (optional: if you're going to use this with a salty cheese on top, you might want to mostly omit the salt here to save yourself a bit of sodium)
- In a large enameled Dutch oven or a large stock pot, cook onions and garlic with olive oil over medium heat until lightly caramelized and reduced in bulk by over half, stirring occasionally at the beginning and frequently to prevent burning at the end, about 40 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook 3 minutes. Stir in water.
- In the meantime and working in batches, begin pulsing the tomatoes in a food processor or blender until a chunky puree is achieved. Stir the puree, herbs, red pepper flakes, and salt (if using) into the onions and bring to a low boil. Reduce temperature and simmer, stirring occasionally at the beginning and frequently at the end, until reduced in bulk by about one third and thickened to a consistency that clings to a wooden spoon, about 1 hour 25 minutes. Use in your intended dish or cool and transfer to three quart-sized freezer safe containers. Use throughout the winter and enjoy!
Ulysses is a tomato fiend. I gave him some cherry tomatoes for posing for this picture!