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Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

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Every Wednesday, Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius. This week: the most famous tomato sauce on the internet, from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

Tomato Sauce

- Kristen

It was only a matter of time. The sauce was always there, seeping into every discussion of this whole genius recipe premise. It might even be the reason we hatched the column at all.

Because all you do is simmer tomatoes for 45 minutes with butter and an onion. The full, true tomato flavor is a revelation in itself -- as is finding out you don't need to cook in all those layers of garlic and herbs and whatnot to get there (and you might even be better off without them).

Marcella Hazan  Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion

How fitting that this should come to us from Marcella Hazan -- who, with her husband and writing partner Victor, has been credited with making simple, good Italian food accessible to American cooks ever since the publication of her first cookbook in 1973.

Admittedly, this sauce won't be news to a lot of you. Many of our favorite bloggers already had beautiful epiphanies about it years ago. In fact, we could even play a game: Where were you when Obama was elected? ... When you heard Gourmet was folding? ... When you first tried the sauce?

My initiation came late. It was last August, and my CSA was heaving flats full of bursting yellow tomatoes on us. It was too much. It was glorious. And we're already coming up on that tomato tipping point again.

Tomato, Butter, Onion  Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

In a few months, we'll be giving the evil eye to $15/pound heirlooms shipped in from warmer climes -- but as of this moment, the farmers markets around here are fully armed with tomatoes in all colors and sizes. You could run through Union Square, pelting aggressive Greenpeace pamphleteers with warm, delicious rainbow pulp. Or you could leave me with my fantasies and gingerly gather up as many as you can, and turn them into sauce that tastes like pure summer, to stock your freezer and get you through gray months to come.

And to me that's the most exciting thing about the sauce. Most bloggers have zeroed in on the fact that Hazan's recipe is tailor-made for a 28-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes. It does make an excellent year-round sauce that way and is outrageously convenient. But fresh tomatoes are really just better.

    Peeling tomatoes

Inevitably, they'll require one extra, rather satisfying step: peeling. There are a few ways you can attack this tomato prep, depending on whether you have a food mill, your disposition toward said food mill, and whether you feel like boiling water or not.

Food mill lovers:
1. Halve tomatoes and warm them briefly in a covered saucepan before passing through a food mill, leaving all the bits and scraps behind.

Food mill haters/abstainers:
2a. Boil the tomatoes for a minute, with an X cut in the bottom if you want to show off. Peel like a slippery banana. Chop rustically.

2b. Newly learned, via David Tanis via The Kitchn: Stick your tomatoes in the freezer. As they freeze, the water in the tomato's network of cells expands and bursts the cell walls -- terrible texture for a caprese salad or pico de gallo, but here they'll be getting broken down into sauce anyway, so that's okay. Then, as they thaw, they get slumpy and the skins slip off easily. No boiling and no food mills!

food mill  Peeling tomatoes 

You then simmer away with the swirling butter and bobbing onion, till "the fat floats free from the tomato" -- which of course you should just stir back in. Then Hazan has you discard the onion, but I think you should actually eat it. Chopped up, it would make a fine relish for a grilled Italian sausage -- a Marcella-worthy hot dog onion sauce.

And the rest, as they say, is just gravy. There, I think I just cured your seasonal affective disorder.

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce


Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Serves 6.

  • 2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes
    5 tablespoons butter
    1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
    Salt to taste
    1 to 1 1/2 pound pasta
    Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for the table

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Want more genius recipes? Try Crook's Corner's Green Peach Salad or Eric Ripert's Crispy-Skinned Fish.

Got a genius recipe you'd like to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by William Brinson (except for author photo of Marcella Hazan).


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