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Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce

December 12, 2019

Serves 4-6

One of the first cookbooks I ever bought was Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It quickly became my favorite. Marcella Hazan was an Italian-born food writer and cookbook author whose books were published in English (thank God). This is her masterpiece. If you are interested in learning how to cook traditional Italian food I would suggest buying one of her books. Her recipes, methods, and explanations are so well thought out and she has such an ability to make everything seem doable. This sauce has been published all over the place for decades and for good reason. It exemplifies what makes Italian food so incredibly delicious: gather a few, fresh ingredients, combine them and cook them in the simplest of ways to create something spectacular. It's less about bells and whistles and more about understanding flavors. This recipe has just three main ingredients: onion, butter, and tomato. It is luxurious and velvety with a slight sweetness from the onion and creaminess from the butter. I have added basil and Parmigiano cheese to Marcella's original recipe. It takes just an hour from start to finish so why don't you forget about buying sauce from a jar and make this??


1 28-oz can of Italian imported peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

5 T butter

1 medium white or yellow onion, peeled and cut in half

1 bunch fresh basil leaves, torn by hand

1/2 cup, or more, grated imported Parmigiano cheese

salt to taste

1 lb. spaghetti or your favorite pasta shape


So, this is a thing I started doing whenever I make tomato sauce. I empty the can of tomatoes into a blender/Vita-mix, toss in a handful of fresh basil leaves and process until smooth. This isn't necessary. You can just crush the tomatoes with a potato masher when they are done cooking, but your sauce will be a little chunkier. It's a matter of taste. Why don't I just buy crushed tomatoes to start with you might ask? I don't know. There is something about the taste and consistency that doesn't work for me.

Find a small/medium pot. Put your tomato, onion, butter, a pinch of salt and some more fresh basil (why not) in said pot. Turn on the heat to medium, or however high your heat needs to be to keep the sauce at a low, steady simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes, stirring every so often to ensure the sauce isn't sticking to the bottom. The sauce should thicken slightly and you will start to see the fat (butter) floating free from the tomato. Taste and add salt if needed. Remove from the heat and set aside. Also remove the onion and save it for another use. It's great spread on a piece of toast or eaten over rice with grated cheese.

Bring the water in a pot big enough to accommodate the pasta to a steady boil. Add a lot of salt. Like, more than a tablespoon. Taste the water. If it doesn't taste like you just sipped some seawater, then add more salt. Cook the pasta (hopefully it's DeCecco or something similar) according to the package directions. Check it two minutes before they suggest. Mushy pasta is not good. It should be al dente. This means that when you bite into the pasta there should still be some resistance in the noodle.

Strain the pasta and toss it with the tomato sauce. Add more fresh basil if you'd like and some freshly grated Parmigiano cheese and serve.

There is another way to incorporate your cooked pasta with the sauce. When done this way you actually finish cooking your pasta in the sauce, rather than cooking it to completion in your boiling water. I do it this way most of the time. In my humble opinion, it just tastes better but you can try it both ways and decide. Cook the pasta for about 3 - 4 minutes less than the package suggests. At this point, it will be very al dente and definitely need additional cooking. Turn the heat on under the tomato sauce pot to medium. Reserve one cup of the pasta water, strain the pasta and add it directly into the pot with the tomato sauce. Let it simmer in the sauce for a few minutes, tossing and stirring gently. As the pasta continues to cook in the sauce it will be absorbing some of that liquid. You will need to add some of the reserved pasta water, about 1/4 cup at a time to keep enough liquid in the pot. Taste your pasta throughout this process and when it is done to your liking and there is a lovely smooth sauce clinging to it, remove it from the heat and add your fresh basil and Parmigiano cheese. Toss again and serve.

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