Kitchen Intuition: Tomato sauce

Cannellini beans and herbed tomato sauce with shallots

Authored By aliceodea

Last week I closed my column with a quick tomato sauce recipe, but I didn’t have the space to really talk about it much, except to suggest that making your own is an easy way to get extra sugar and sodium out of your diet. The recipe I shared had four ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and salt (just a little), but with a few variations, it’s possible to make quite a number of other tomato-based sauces.

The “sauce tomate” of Escoffier was a complicated preparation, but we’ve come a long way since the mother sauces were first codified. Ingredients and techniques have changed, and it is no longer necessary to spend hours over a pot (unless that’s something you’d enjoy, of course). If you have access to fresh small tomatoes (like cherry or grape tomatoes), you can whip up a delicious sauce in 10 minutes. As a matter of fact, cooking is optional when it comes to tomato sauce, if you have really good, fresh tomatoes.

But it’s the middle of winter right now, so it’ll be a while before we see any decent fresh tomatoes here in Chattanooga. Fortunately, sauce-even from canned tomatoes-can make a meal cozy and having some bubbling on the stovetop can warm up a kitchen while also making it smell wonderful. For something beyond a basic recipe, you’ll often find ragù, which is simply a tomato sauce with meat. The two most common versions are the ragù bolognese, which includes minced beef and/or pork; and ragù neapolitan, which frequently includes a soffritto and uses whole or bigger chunks of meat (this is similar to what in Italian-American communities is known as a sunday gravy).

When I was a kid, my mother would do a shorthand version of these meat sauces by simply mixing some browned ground beef or meatballs into a marinara sauce, which is a simple meatless sauce that can also be dressed up by adding extra herbs and spices, a glug of wine, or with the addition of things like capers, olives or mushrooms.

Some other possibilities include puttanesca (a bold sauce with salty additions like capers, olives and anchovies), arrabbiata (made spicy with the addition of red chili peppers or pepper flakes),  creole sauce (a spicy, deep-South take), a tomato curry, or just winging it and making up something based on what you have in the pantry or need to use up from the refrigerator. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and have fun!

Also, don’t forget one of the simplest of tomato sauces: ketchup! Most of the versions you find in the store are high in both sodium and sugar (or worse, loaded with the dreaded high fructose corn syrup). But ketchup is an easy condiment to make at home. Most recipes still call for added sugar, though, so you have to do some digging to come up with versions with creative ideas to add the expected sweetness in other ways (like this one, which uses dried fruit). A recent issue of “Eating Well” magazine included a tip from a reader who says she uses a small amount of grated carrot to sweeten not just her pasta sauce but other recipes that need a bit of sweetness.

And finally, keep in mind that while these tomato sauces are most often served with pasta, they don’t have to be. Pour the sauce over beans, meat, eggs, rice, quinoa, polenta, zoodles, or crusty bread. Use it to create a homemade pizza. Mix it with spaghetti squash, eggplant, cauliflower, or other roasted veggies. Again, be creative and try something new!

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, or its employees.