Q - I had terrific homemade lasagna the other night and I'd like to know how to make a simple but good red sauce so I can make it myself. Can you help?
A - My favorite simple "red sauce" (tomato-based, Italian-style sauce) is made from just canned tomatoes, tomato paste, a bit of olive oil, a lot of garlic and a couple of spices. Total cost of ingredients is under $5 for a batch that will make lasagna or pasta sauce for 4-6 people. Here's how it goes:
- Open 1-12 ounce can of tomato paste ( or 2-6 ounce cans) and 1-28 ounce can of peeled tomatoes.
- Peel a lot of garlic - between half the cloves in a pod of garlic and all the cloves in the pod. including the juice of the tomatoes. I use about a half of a decent-sized pod of garlic. Some people love garlic more than I do, so if you're one of the garlic lovers of the world, go to town, as long as everyone you're going to kiss or talk to after eating the sauce has also indulged.
- Put about 1 tablespoon of olive in a medium-sized pot. and turn the heat on under the pot to medium, so that the oil gets hot. (If the oil starts to smoke. the heat is too high.)
- Press the peeled garlic or cut it into very, very tiny pieces (called minced garlic) into the pot and cook it for 2-3 minutes until it is soft, but not browned.
- Add the tomato paste, the tomatoes and their juice, plus about 10 fennel seeds, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed thyme and 1/2 teaspoon of crushed basil leaves. Pierce the tomatoes with a knife or fork, so the juice inside melds with the other liquid in the pot. Bring the sauce to a low boil (not crazy bubbles, just a few around the edges and beginning to bubble in the middle.) Turn the heat to low, partially cover the pot and cook for 1 hour.
- After an hour, taste the sauce to see if it has the right amount of spices - if it tastes good, you're done! If it does not seem adequately spiced for your taste, ask a friend to taste it because sometimes if you're smelling those delicious aromas, you may become less sensitive to the flavors of your cooking. If your friend agrees that it needs more spices, add a bit more thyme and basil and let it cook another 15 minutes to incorporate that extra spice.
Hints - The three secrets of this sauce are the fennel seeds (not too many or your sauce will taste like licorice), slow cooking on low heat, and good quality tomatoes. I like imported canned tomato brands like Bellino and Cento because I think they have better consistency and taste richer to me than the "ordinary" brands. Also, they have much nicer labels. They tend to be more expensive, so I buy them on sale and stock up for later use. But taste is personal and you may well opt for less expensive brands and be just fine. Cooks Illustrated did a canned tomato taste test in 2005 with a variety of US-grown and imported canned tomatoes and found that tasters preferred the two good 'ole American brands, Red Pack and Hunts. Go figure - or more to the point, go with your taste buds.