So what is it with this sauce that it moves people to essays over it, tossing about exclamations like “brilliant!” and “va-va-voom” and promises that “something almost magical happens”? Is it garlic, a slip of red pepper flakes, a glug of red wine or a base of mulched carrots, onion and celery, as so many of us swear by in our best sauce efforts? Is it a spoonful of tomato paste or a pinch of sugar? Is it the best olive oil money can buy? It is none of these things, not a single one: It is butter. And an halved onion, cooked slowly as the sauce plops and glurps on the stove, then discarded when it is done.
Butter and the juice of stewed onion is all it apparently takes to transform a two-pound can of tomatoes to something velvety and lush. It manages to remind you of how fresh and sweet tomatoes are in the summer, but more fitting for the winter when canned tomatoes are the order of the day. And best yet, you can make it with ingredients you probably already have in your pantry, with the kind of limited attention span had by those of us who hang out with monkeys all day.
Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onions
Adapted from Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking
Another thing that blew my mind about this sauce: I, for one, am a grated parmesan junkie. I not only sprinkle it over my bowl of pasta, I like to have additional nearby, to apply a fresh coat to the layers of pasta that follow. So you can imagine my shock to find that I liked this dish even more without the parmesan. The flavor of the sauce is so delicate, fresh and sweet that it needed nothing at all.
Serves 4 as a main course; makes enough sauce to lightly coat most of a pound of spaghetti
28 ounces (800 grams) whole peeled tomatoes from a can (San Marzano, if you can find them)*
5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
Salt to taste
Put the tomatoes, onion and butter in a heavy saucepan (it fit just right in a 3-quart) over medium heat. Bring the sauce to a simmer then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat, discard the onion, add salt to taste (you might find, as I did, that your tomatoes came salted and that you didn’t need to add more) and keep warm while you prepare your pasta.
Serve with spaghetti, with or without grated parmesan cheese to pass.
* I liked this enough to make us more the next day, but I only had a can of tomato puree. It also worked well, despite having slightly less texture. You will need a little less simmering time as the tomatoes are already broken down.