I love tomatoes. As a child, tomatoes were a treat in the same way as other fruit. I was picky about my tomatoes—they had to be fresh from the vine—store-bought tomatoes were just not the same. Tomatoes, warm from summer sun, seemed juicer and tangier than those from stores, despite sometimes looking the same. When the opportunity presented itself, I would sneak salt from the kitchen, grab a tomato from the vine, then go somewhere I would not be disturbed and munch away. Pure heaven…
As might be expected, I am just as picky about tomato-based pasta sauces as I am about tomatoes. I like tangy, garlicky sauces with plenty of fennel and basil. Typical spaghetti sauce in a jar is too sweet and has too much oregano; besides, I couldn’t taste the sunlight in those sauces. It took a series of fortunate events before I arrived at my ideal sauce. Finding the right tomatoes was key.
My tomato discovery journey began as a quest for a simple meal that a single guy might cook. Hunt’s used to have one-pan meal kits called, I think, “Skillet Dinners.” All one had to do was add ground beef and water to the contents. A few months into my first apartment, and tired of fast food, I decided to lay in a supply of Hunt’s Skillet Dinners (there were about eight or so different kinds). Checking area grocery stores around DC (I looked everywhere), I discovered stores no longer carried them. Frustrated, I wrote to Hunt’s and asked where I might find these products locally. I was so very disappointed when they wrote back telling me the product had been discontinued. There proved to be an upside. They sent me a small 20-page cookbook that offered recipes for cooking with Hunt’s tomato products. Having nothing to lose, I set out making recipes from the book. One of my favorites was Jollof Rice, a classic West African dish—one I had never heard of, and surely one most Hunt’s users had not either. It was a good start, and Hunt’s gained a customer for life.
The next step in my journey came courtesy of 103 West, an upscale restaurant in Atlanta (which now only does special events). Once, while attending a going-away dinner for a colleague, I had an appetizer consisting of linguini in a tangy tomato sauce loaded with minced garlic—that was the best tomato sauce I had ever had. And so my, quest began to replicate it. I tried for years, to no avail. I could find plenty of recipes for tomato sauce, but all were bland compared to the 103 West version.
My first breakthrough came when, one day, eating yet another homemade and not quite satisfying sauce, I went back over the memories of the 103 West sauce. It then occurred to me that it wasn’t really a sauce—that is, it clung to the pasta more than ran or dripped over it. My sauces and everything I had tried that fell short, could be poured—maybe I needed different ingredients! That realization ushered in the Great Tomato Sauce Challenge of 1998 (or 1997 or 1999–I don’t remember).
I decided to try using whole tomatoes for the sauce and not canned tomato sauce or tomato paste. The challenge occurred in two phases. First, I bought fresh tomatoes from a Piggly Wiggly that touted having “fresh from the field” stock. I believed them because the tomatoes were in large baskets and were still caked with dirt. I blanched a cluster, peeled and seeded them, then cooked them with olive oil and garlic. I let them simmer until all the liquid was gone. Taste??? YES!!! It wasn’t quite 103 West, but it was closer than I had ever gotten before.
Next, knowing that fresh tomatoes straight from the farm were a fleeting option, I decided to find the ideal canned tomatoes for my sauce. I ended up with four brands: Hunt’s, of course, Muir Glen, Cento, and Kroger. I cooked all four at the same time. For each, I measured out the same exact ingredients so that the only variation in the final sauce would come from the tomatoes. At the final tasting, Hunt’s and Muir Glen were equally good; the others were too bland for my taste. Since that Sunday afternoon, I have only used Hunt’s and Muir Glen tomato products.
At that point, I was making the sauce with fennel but no basil. How basil entered the picture, I’m not entirely sure. It might have been at Pricci, another excellent Atlanta restaurant. I remember ordering a veal chop with white beans that had a tomato sauce containing basil that I loved—that is still one of the best restaurant meals I have ever had. Pricci is not shy about garlic or basil, and it’s the only restaurant whose tomato sauce I still eat. After Pricci, I started growing basil first on little apartment patios and now in my herb garden.
For those who are curious, here is my recipe (I use only Hunt’s or Muir Glen whole tomatoes):
1 – 14 oz can whole tomatoes
1- 28 oz can whole tomatoes
1/2 yellow onion finely diced
6-8 cloves garlic, finely minced
2-3 oz of olive oil
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
6-8 large basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste
I don’t bother to remove the seeds. Sauté the garlic and onion in the olive oil until the onion becomes translucent. Then dice the tomatoes into small pieces and add to the pan. Next, add 1/2 cup of water, the fennel, and basil. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 45 minutes or until the tomato turns mushy. Next, add pepper and cook uncovered over medium-high heat until all the liquid evaporates. As the liquid evaporates, mash any remaining tomato chunks with the edge of a wooden spoon to smooth out the sauce. When the liquid is gone, there will be pools of flavorful olive oil on the surface of the sauce. Before serving, stir the sauce so that the oil is reintegrated with the sauce. Toss drained pasta with the sauce until it is thoroughly coated. If you wish, add chicken tenders. Have grated aged Asiago ready on the table with a warm loaf of crusty bread.
There are plenty of tomato sauce recipes around—this one is the best love and science can offer. You’re welcome.