All week we're celebrating Italian-American classics. Check out more Italian-American recipes and taste tests this way!
"I'm using every available burner plus a portable burner plus my oven is full," Kenji messaged me last week about the testing for his multi-hour red sauce recipe—a sauce that is decidedly worth waiting for. But sometimes we just don't have the time to wait. Sometimes, we need some tasty sauce, and we need it in under an hour.
So while he was slowly reducing, patiently stirring, and painstakingly perfecting his when-you-have-the-time-to-make-the-best red sauce, I was working on a complement to that: this easy version that you can whip up on a weeknight and still get dinner on the table well before it's time to put the kids (or just your tired old self) to bed. Even with its relatively quick cooking time, this sauce aims to hit all those classic Italian-American red-sauce notes. The main flavor difference between a long-cooked tomato sauce (like Italian-American red sauce) and a quicker sauce (like an Italian pomodoro sauce) is that long cooking develops sweeter, caramelized notes, along with a more concentrated tomato flavor.
So the key to a quick-cooking sauce that tastes long-cooked is to up those factors. The sauce I arrived at tastes long-cooked and rich, thanks to the addition of some tomato paste (which we carefully fry in olive oil, further adding some caramelized notes), with plenty of garlic cooked to a sweet golden brown, a whisper of red-pepper-flake heat, and the woodsy aroma of dried oregano. Smelling it reminds me of the Italian grandmother I never had.
Here's a look at the step-by-step.
We start with crushed cloves of garlic in some olive oil. Because garlic can burn easily when added to a hot pan, I start them together cold, then slowly bring up the heat until the garlic starts to gently bubble and sizzle in the oil.
Then I add a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes. How much you add is going to depend on how hot your flakes are—in my experience the heat level of dried chile flakes is highly variable—and how hot you want your sauce to be. It's great to start the pepper flakes in the oil, since capsaicin, the molecule that delivers the heat, is fat-soluble and therefore will more fully infuse the oil.
Once the garlic has started to turn a light golden color, I add the dried oregano, which will also infuse its volatile flavors into the oil.
When the oregano is very aromatic and the garlic is a little more deeply golden, I add some canned tomato paste. Because it's already been heavily reduced, tomato paste is helpful in giving this quick sauce some of that long-cooked flavor. At first the paste will be tight and not want to cook into the oil.
But after a few minutes of stirring and mashing, it will soften and blend with the oil. The gentle frying in the oil also helps to develop the canned tomato paste's flavor.
When the paste has cooked in the oil for a few minutes, it's time to add the tomatoes. I usually go for whole peeled tomatoes, since they tend to be better quality than the ones that are used for the chopped and pureed varieties.
For speed, I dump the cans in into the pot, and then use an immersion blender to break them down into sauce. If you don't have an immersion blender, or if you prefer a chunkier sauce, you can crush the tomatoes by hand before adding them to the pot or in the pot with a potato masher.
I simmer the sauce over low heat for about 30 minutes, just to let the flavors meld as the sauce cooks down a little. A couple sprigs of basil add a fresh note to balance the cooked-down tomato and woodsy dried-oregano flavor.
If you want a touch of dairy sweetness to cut the pure tomato-flavor of the sauce, a couple tablespoons of butter melted in at the end do the trick. It's pretty delicious, but I consider this an optional step. I can see some circumstances where I'd want the unadulterated taste of tomato, and others where I'd want the butter to round out the sauce's tangy edges.
I think my imaginary nonna would be proud.