There comes a time in every cook’s life, no matter how competent she thinks she is, when the holes in one’s repertoire start to show.
So it was with me and tomato sauce.
For many years, I’d got by with frying onions, adding garlic, tomatoes and herbs, and cooking it for a bit.
But none of these attempts resulted in the thick, savoury, hyper-tomato flavour that one gets from a simple plate of spaghetti al pomodoro in any half-decent Italian family joint. To be honest, it was all a bit … studenty.
So a couple of years ago, I embarked on a mission to fix this. But it proved much more difficult, with far more experimentation, than expected.
- I tried Diane Seed’s, the ones from her otherwise completely ace book, “The top 100 pasta sauces”. (Surprisingly uninspiring.)
- I tried Delia’s. (Too fussy.)
- I tried Marcella Hazan’s, via Smitten Kitchen. (Delicious, but it’s got so much butter in it that there’s no way it can claim to be an everyday staple.)
- I tried both the recipes from the Silver Spoon. (They were … fine?)
- I tried Felicity Cloake’s allegedly perfect amalgamation of all the greats’ recipes. (It was not.)
- I even tried the Mothership’s, but for some reason, mine never turned out reliably like hers.
Thus, a dead end had been reached.
And so it was that I found myself in Mark and Niki’s kitchen, telling my sorry tale over a cup of chamomile tea.
“Oh,” said Mark. “We’ve got a good one.”
“It’s great, actually,” said Niki. “Mark got it from an old Italian girlfriend.”
“It’s really easy,” said Mark. “We make it all the time. Would you like the recipe?”
I did, so they shared it, and I tried it, and it was without doubt the best tomato sauce I’d ever made, and when I made it again, it was equally good, and the third time too.
So I asked if I could put it here, and of course they said yes, as the lovely people (and also great believers in good food) that they are.
Here it is.
Recipe: Quite frankly the world’s best tomato sauce
Courtesy of Mark and Niki
- 4 cans tinned tomatoes (any will do)
- 4 medium onions, chopped.
- About 6 cloves garlic
- Basil or thyme or oregano
- Olive oil
- A pinch of chilli flakes
You can use any combination of these quantities — this will serve about 6. The golden ratio is 1 can of tomatoes to 1 onion, and 1-2 cloves garlic. (I’d never cook less than this, though, because it freezes like a dream.)
You’ve got two options for cooking it: either on the hob in a heavy-bottomed pan like a cast-iron casserole dish, or you can do the long cooking in the slow cooker. Either works very well. Keep an eye on the water level if you go the hob route.
Take a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan or casserole dish and fry the onions in olive oil on a medium heat until soft and golden. Don’t be shy with the olive oil. Add more if you need to. Let the onions take their time – the aim is to cosset them to release their flavour. Add the chilli flakes and half a teaspoon of thyme or oregano too if you’re using it (basil works better after tomatoes).
When the onions are nearly done, add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more, until it’s all really golden and fragrant. Then tip in all the tomatoes, whack up the heat and stir every now and then until they’re bubbling nicely.
If you’re using fresh basil, add it now and give it all a good stir. If you’re making this on the hob, turn down the heat as low as you can, cover, and cook for at least 2 hours. If you’re slow-cooking it, transfer it to the slow cooker and put it on for 4-6 hours. (I think you can also transfer it to the oven on a medium-low heat – maybe around 150C – for a couple of hours.)
The key here is slow and gentle cooking – there shouldn’t be any other noise than an occasional and deeply satisfying “blop, blop, blop” that spatters the inside of the pan.
Whichever way, the longer you can cook it, the better. Give it a stir every now and then – add a little water if it needs loosening.
And that’s that.
From the very first batch, it was tomato perfection. The sauce can be used as a foundation for other pasta dishes (see variations below), as the base for lasagne, or simply on its own, with pasta and a good shaving of parmesan.
I now cook this about once a month, we get nervous when there isn’t a stash in the freezer for easy midweek meals, and one of the Great Mysteries of Cooking Life has been solved.
Which goes to show: You can search all around the world for something, and find it just around the corner.
Good friends, good times.
Dice 1 aubergine into 1cm cubes and roast in the oven with some salt and olive oil for about 1 hour at 120c.
Cook about 100g pasta per person — Mark recommends tortiglioni or rigatoni.
When both are done, stir the aubergine into the tomato sauce, then add the pasta to the sauce and mix together so it’s all covered.
Grate plenty of Parmesan or pecorino (a generous 100g for this amount of pasta).
Add about 2/3 to the pasta and sauce mix and sprinkle the rest on top.
You can also fry up chorizo and add to the tomato sauce.