Making a tomato sauce for pasta must be one of the first things most people learn when they start cooking. I actually often do a much more basic one than I did tonight, with just a shallot, olive oil, a tin of tomatoes and seasoning. But sometimes it’s nice to take things a bit further and make a richer sauce using a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery as a base, especially if the sauce is to be served with plain pasta. I was particularly keen to up the nutritional content with the addition of organic carrots, onions and celery as I planned to freeze small portions for 2¾-year-old grandson Freddie. I love occasionally making food for Freddie, or sometimes just freezing small portions of something I know he likes, like a ragù or my basic chicken curry. This is partly to help his working parents but also because cooking for family and friends has always been a way of expressing my love and care. When you love cooking, you love cooking for those you love.
I’ve taken to often blending tomato sauce for a smooth finish, which is especially good if you’re using it as a base for meatballs, a sausage sauce for pasta or perhaps some fish. It also makes easy eating for a toddler and hides the veg if they’re not keen to eat them! But you can serve it without the blending if you prefer.
Whether I’m planning to make some for Freddie or not, it’s worth making extra for the freezer for a quick meal another night. Here’s my recipe:
Basic Tomato Sauce for Pasta
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 stick celery, finely chopped
- 1 large carrot, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- a pinch of dried red chilli flakes (optional)
- about ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
- about ½ teaspoon sugar
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the chopped onion, celery and carrot in a pan with the olive oil. Fry gently for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables have softened and are starting to take on a bit of colour – but don’t allow to brown. This is a basic soffritto. Cooking the vegetables in this way, before adding the tomatoes, will give the sauce a deeper and richer flavour. Now add the garlic – it’s important not to add garlic too soon because if it browns it will give the sauce a bitter taste. Also add the pinch of chilli if using (I can’t resist putting chilli into lots of things!), the dried oregano (a favourite herb of mine, but you could add thyme, basil or other herb) and tip in the tins of tomatoes.
Give it a good stir. Add the sugar to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes and season with sea salt (about a teaspoon) and black pepper. Stir again, bring to a simmer and put on a tightly fitting lid.
Leave to simmer very gently, stirring occasionally, for about half an hour. The vegetables should be tender by now and the sauce concentrated down a little.
Now blend until smooth with a hand blender.
It will be quite thick but you can always add a little of the pasta water – something Italian cooks do a lot anyway! – when combining with the cooked pasta. Taste and check for seasoning. You can use the sauce straight away or make in advance and keep in the fridge for up to 2 days before using. If you want to freeze some, do that as soon as the sauce is cold, transferring to freezer bags or containers and chilling first in the fridge and then transferring to a freezer. I’m a firm believer that food for the freezer should be frozen as soon as possible and not when it’s been hanging around for a few days and it seems a good idea to pop it in the freezer. That way goes food poisoning …
I used some scialatielli pasta that I bought in Carluccio’s. It seemed a perfect choice as they’d recommended it for a thick vegetable sauce.
Cook the pasta as directed on the packet. Drain, reserving a little of the water in case you want to thin the sauce (although I didn’t as I found the water clinging to the cooked pasta was enough). Tip the drained pasta back into the pan and spoon in some of the sauce. Stir over a low heat to amalgamate.
In Italy, sauces aren’t dumped on top of pasta as we tend to do here; they’re carefully folded into the pasta. Transfer to a serving dish, grate over a little Parmesan and drizzle over a little olive oil. Top with some basil, if you like. Serve with a green salad on the side.
For such a simple dish it was wonderfully flavourful and delicious; really special. I think the blending helps the flavour. I’m not sure why – but then I was never great at science! It also gives the sauce a creamier texture which wraps itself brilliantly around the pasta. I’m not sure what an Italian would make of my sauce (a Sicilian might allow the chilli!) but for me it sums up the beauty and essence of Italian cooking: using the best ingredients in a simple way, using only a very few ingredients, but celebrating their flavour. And, of course, cooking and sharing with love.