Wednesday, January 18, 2012

tomato sauce with onion and butter

Snow day today!

I live in the warmest part of Canada. In fact, it is so warm that my little house doesn't have insulation. I'm not saying that I would recommend that or that all houses on Vancouver Island were built without insulation or that I wouldn't kill to have some insulation right about now . . . but you get my drift.

My snowdrift, that is!

We don't get snow very often, so when we do, everyone goes a bit wild. The schools and libraries close down, people greet each other with "It's like driving on a skating rink!" instead of "How are you?" Then we all discuss how many snowplows the City of Victoria has. (Current estimates range from zero to one.)

So, this morning, I was looking out on my snowy deck (sleep, little garlic bulbs!), enjoying the white snow light coming through the window and thinking about how cold I was. (Yes, I was already encased in many layers of merino wool, down vest and Scottish wool blanket.)

I decided the only solution was to start something simmering. I found a can of good tomatoes and ventured down the cold stairs looking for an onion. Yes, found a red one. (The original recipe calls for a yellow onion, but I can now confirm that red also works.) Of course, I had butter.

Everything I needed to make Marcella Hazan's classic tomato sauce with onion and butter. (Many thanks to Orangette for first leading me to this recipe a couple of years ago).

I was so delighted when I first tried this sauce because it solved a mystery for me.

Back in university, I had a friend who was Italian. I remember being at Laura's house when her mother served us little plates of pasta with a simple tomato sauce. It was heaven. I asked how she did it and Laura said something about tomatoes and onion and not much else.

Of course, I went home and fried onions and added some diced tomatoes . . . and was disappointed with a choppy, acidic sauce. Maybe, I thought, the problem is that I'm not Italian and this is just not something I'll ever be able to master.

But with this recipe, I uncovered the secret: butter. The sauce needs butter to round it out and make it smooth and rich. And the onion just has a long bath in the sauce, but gets taken out before serving, thus solving the texture issue.

Of course, with so few ingredients, it's essential to use very, very good tomatoes. Sorry, but really: buy the more expensive canned tomatoes once and you'll never go back.

All you do is plop the tomatoes, halved onion and butter in a big, heavy pot. Add a bit of salt if you're in the mood. Bring it to a simmer. Let it simmer for about 45 minutes, making your kitchen smell heavenly and throwing a bit more heat out into your uninsulated house.

When it's ready, it's lovely and velvety and just the thing for a snow day.

One January ago: glorious hummus for bean month
Two Januarys ago: shortbread in january

tomato sauce with onion and butter
from Orangette, who adapted it from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
serves 2 – 3

28 oz. (794 g.) whole peeled canned plum tomatoes with their juices
5 tbsp. butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
a bit of salt to taste

Plop the tomatoes and their juices into a pot with a heavy bottom.* Add the butter and onion. Use your spoon to kind of tuck the onion into the tomatoes. Add a bit of salt if your tomatoes aren't already salty enough. Bring to a simmer. Lightly simmer for 45 minutes or until you can see little drops of fat floating on the tomatoes. Stir it a few times while it's simmering. If you feel like, it use your spoon to break up any big tomato pieces against the side of the pot. Take the onion out before serving.

Serve on pasta, with a bit of parmesan, if you like.

*Although Molly appeared to use a frying pan and it looked fine. When I'm simmering something for a while, I like a heavy-bottomed pot. But I leave it up to you to decide what kind of pot you'd like.


  1. Thanks for sharing! I've had this Marcella Hazan cookbook for about ten years and I always flip past this tomato sauce recipe wondering how it could possibly be any good. Thanks to your posting, I've now tried it and, yes, it's amazing. Silky, tomato-y deliciousness. I added two garlic cloves to simmer along side the onions.

  2. Fabulous looking tomato sauce. I love the simplicity of it :-)