A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else—flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we're making a summery take on a certain legendary tomato sauce.
Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce—arguably the most famous tomato sauce in the world—has only three ingredients: canned tomatoes, unsalted butter, and yellow onion, plus salt to taste. Hazan calls it “the simplest of all sauces to make” and, as if that weren’t enough, “none has a purer, more irresistibly sweet tomato taste.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about this.
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When we set out to create a Big Little Recipes no-cook tomato sauce, the vision was clear: chopped, fresh tomatoes, a glug of olive oil, maybe some garlic. Sort of like a bruschetta-topper, just with pasta. My coworkers and I—and probably you—have made many, many versions of this.
And yet: As I tested and developed and pondered and mulled, something didn’t feel right. Depending on the bite—did your fork snag that tomato chunk or did it slip away?—there was little difference between this and aglio e olio. Not the goal.
Where, I wondered, is the line between pasta with tomato sauce and pasta sauced with tomatoes? Where is the pure, irresistibly sweet tomato taste?
So I went back to the drawing board. I chopped tomatoes into oblivion, mixed with bits of butter, and added pasta, confident something wonderful would happen. It didn’t. The “sauce” was watery and flavorless, sliding off the spaghetti. As I dumped it in the trash, at the bottom of the bowl, a pool of juicy seeds sloshed back and forth. Which is when I realized:
I have to get rid of the juicy seeds.
More tomato skin, less tomato pulp. This is very easy to do by hand and can be done with any variety. The tinier the tomato, though, the higher the skin to pulp ratio. I took a bunch of cherry tomatoes, halved and pinched them, squeezing out the soupy centers. Then I blitzed these shells in a food processor and added a lot of butter and buzzed and buzzed and buzzed and, suddenly, there it was: our no-cook tomato sauce.
It looks nothing like I anticipated—fluffy and rosy, like something to be spread on toast. (This, too, is very good by the way.) Dollop it on steamy-hot pasta and watch it melt, clinging to each noodle for dear life, excitedly hooting and hollering as grated cheese and torn basil pour down, like rain or confetti or fireworks.
Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles on the fly, baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in October 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.