Italian

A Love Letter to Marcella Hazan’s *Other* Tomato Sauces

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September 21, 2018

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From the first time I made Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, I was in love.

I wasn’t alone in my adoration—pretty much the entire internet was right there with me. Much has been said about the genius of this recipe, but I’ll gladly say it again: Three pantry ingredients (canned whole tomatoes, onion, butter) and a little bit of time give you a rich, almost creamy sauce with a bright, sweet tomato flavor, no matter the season.

I fell so hard that I found reasons to make it all the time. I served it over pasta of all shapes and sizes. I added hot Italian sausage and baked it with penne and Parmesan. I cooked peppers in it and ate it with a fried egg on top. I loved it so much, I even ate it cold, onion and all.

Until, as suddenly as our affair began, it was over. I met someone else, another tomato sauce that somehow felt even more magical: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Olive Oil and Chopped Vegetables.

A mutual friend introduced us by pulling out her stain-spattered copy of Essentials of Italian Cooking one night when we were making dinner together. Instead of the tomato sauce I knew so well, she pointed to this other recipe—so similar, but also so different. In the place of my beloved halved onion and 5 tablespoons of butter were 2/3 cup of chopped carrots, 2/3 cup of chopped celery, and 2/3 cup of chopped onion instead. Into the tomato they all went, and after 30 minutes I added 1/3 cup of olive oil, turned up the heat, and stirred some more. She cooked the pasta, we put together a salad, and we sat down to eat.

I sat at the dining room table and looked skeptically at the tomato sauce I’d cooked. I spooned some onto my pasta, pushed it around a bit on my plate, and took a bite. The room stood quiet in my mind, like in a movie, all the people and noise slipping into the background; it was just me and this tomato sauce, which was speaking to my soul. This sauce was more than the sum of its parts in such a deep way. It was bright and acidic, sweet and tangy, improbably fresh tasting, and full of a thick, fresh, vegetal crunchiness I wasn’t expecting.

I started excitedly telling everyone about my new love, how much more complex it was than my old obsession, how much more it added to my simple weeknight dinners, how energized I felt by my new discovery.

It was just me and this tomato sauce, which was speaking to my soul.

I made it regularly, testing the boundaries of what it could be. I chopped the vegetables roughly and I minced them fine, yielding sauces that were more rustic and more refined, respectively; I added black pepper and chili flakes for a spicier version, with grated cheese and fresh basil at the end for a gratuitous flourish. All of my experiments proved unnecessary—the sauce could withstand anything, but needed nothing.

The smell of cooking tomatoes filling my apartment was in itself a reason to keep making the sauce; the fact that I got to eat it over and over again was like a prize I’d won for just being myself.

You can't beat the smell of tomato sauce on the stovetop, shown here in a Lagostina stainless steel skillet. Photo by Julia Gartland

I felt I had a secret: Everyone knew that Onion and Butter was great, but I had Chopped Vegetables and we were never going to be apart. And that’s when I met Marcella’s third sauce, which I guess I’d just never turned the page to see before: Tomato Sauce with Sautéed Vegetables and Olive Oil.

I made it on a whim, thinking that this new sauce posed no threat to my love affair with Chopped Vegetables. While it’s nearly the same ingredient list, in Tomato Sauce with Sautéed Vegetables and Olive Oil, Marcella asks that you cook 1/3 cup of onions in 1/3 cup of olive oil (a ratio to make my heart skip a beat), then sauté 1/3 cup chopped carrots and 1/3 cup of celery with the onion before adding the tomatoes.

I was not prepared for the moment I dipped my spoon into the finished sauce and tasted. It was richer, darker, and jammier. The onions were sweet from their first cooking in oil, the carrot and celery soft and aromatic, the tomatoes like a concentrated paste of tangy sweetness—I had fallen completely for Sautéed Vegetables.

This was the sauce of my childhood fantasies. It is a perfectly balanced sauce, in which all the ingredients melt into one another and compliment each other, exciting no matter how many times I make it, coating pasta like they were made for each other, the pale strands of spaghetti becoming a picture-perfect orangey-red. The soffritto adds a savory base, making it less fresh tasting than its predecessors, but more well rounded, and giving the illusion that it’s been cooked for hours when in fact it only takes 45 minutes.

All three of Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauces are perfect, each unique and uniquely magical.

All three of Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauces are perfect, each unique and uniquely magical. I will always love Onion and Butter, and I recall our days together fondly. I still cook Onion and Butter when I’m feeling nostalgic, when I want that bright tomato acidity, when I crave the comfort of a melted onion and the creaminess that the butter imparts.

I will always love Chopped Vegetables, and I make it when it’s cold or grey and I need something bright to perk me up and take me back to that first time, when the night around the table with friends seemed endless. But now I make Sautéed Vegetables, alone, just for me. Maybe someday I’ll share it with someone I love. For now, it’s my own pleasure, and our future together is rich and bright.

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3 Comments

Jessica L. September 21, 2018
I love this!!!! I am still in love with Onion Butter but will have to try the next two love affairs!
 
inpatskitchen September 21, 2018
Alexandra Stafford turned me on to another Marcella Hazan sauce. It can be found here:https://alexandracooks.com/2012/02/02/a-second-marcella-hazan-tomato-sauce-hot-italian-sausage-gragnano-pasta-utter-deliciousness/
 
inpatskitchen September 21, 2018
hmm...the link doesn't seem to be working but the recipe can be found on her site alexandracooks.com.