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Open Up the Right Tomatoes (Really) and A Respectable Sauce Is Ready in Minutes

By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page F01

If you spend even a little time in the kitchen, chances are you know how to make a decent basic tomato sauce from canned tomatoes. But why settle for decent when with a few simple considerations, you can make it great?

Tomato sauce is one of the first things I learned to cook (not surprising, given my name). But over the years, I've noticed that it has improved substantially as I've made various small but significant changes -- from the types of canned tomatoes and olive oil I use to the amount of time I let the garlic brown in the pan to how long I let the sauce simmer.

By paying attention to such elements, I've come up with a basic sauce that can stand on its own, with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese) as its only enhancement. It is also an excellent foundation on which to build other sauces.

A good canned-tomato sauce starts, of course, with good tomatoes. To achieve a sauce that tastes as fresh as possible, I use whole peeled tomatoes in juice, flavored only with basil leaf. Diced, chopped or pureed tomatoes tend to produce a thicker sauce whose flavor is a little too reminiscent of tomato paste for my taste. Look for imported San Marzano tomatoes, a highly regarded variety grown south of Naples that is prized for its sweet and delicate flavor. Having said that, let me break the rule, or at least bend it a little, by throwing in the contents of a small (15-ounce) can of stewed tomatoes. These help to intensify the flavor of a canned-tomato sauce without crossing over into pastiness issues with the texture. (I steer clear of stewed tomatoes flavored with "Italian" spices. Usually this means dried oregano, which does nothing to improve the sauce and makes it taste like it came from a jar.) I don't bother to seed the canned tomatoes, but if you prefer you can easily remove the seeds by poking through the tomato with your thumb and pushing them out.

A splash of good extra-virgin olive oil, a clove or two of smashed garlic, salt and a handful of fresh herbs are the only other ingredients you need for a good basic sauce.

At this time of year, you might run into difficulty finding fresh basil. If the only available kind is hydroponic basil (cultivated in water), my advice would be to skip it; it's expensive and has next to no flavor. Instead, take advantage of fresh fall herbs such as rosemary, thyme or even fresh oregano, which is sweeter and more subtle than its heavy-handed dried counterpart.

The first step is to lightly fry the garlic in the oil, just until it releases its fragrance -- don't let it turn brown or it will become bitter. When the oil is hot and the garlic has done its part, pour in the tomatoes, crush them lightly with a potato masher, add a sprinkle of salt, and if you're using fall herbs, add those as well, finely chopped. (If you're using the more tender basil, wait until the sauce is done before adding it.)

Let the sauce simmer for at least 20 minutes to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes and bring out their sweetness. When the tomatoes separate from the oil, your sauce is done. Simply turn off the heat. If you are using basil, now is the time to stir in a handful of shredded or torn leaves.

To create variations, choose a central ingredient to add to the sauce -- mushrooms, peppers, potatoes or sausages are all good choices (but don't use them all together or you will end up with stew rather than sauce). Sauté your ingredients in a little olive oil to coax their flavors before adding them to the simmering tomatoes and allowing them to finish cooking together. This will produce a more robust sauce, the kind that is particularly welcome as the days grow shorter and cooler.

Don't forget that while these sauces are great tossed with pasta, they have other uses, too. A tomato-mushroom ragu makes an excellent topping for pizza. On a cold fall night, a breaded chicken or veal cutlet simmered in a sauce of tomatoes and sweet peppers is pretty hard to beat.

Basic Canned Tomato Sauce

Makes about 4 cups, more than enough to sauce a pound of pasta

This sauce is perfectly respectable in its own right, and forms the basis for several other sauces; see recipes that follow.

28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes in juice, preferably imported San Marzano

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