Monday, May 14, 2012

The best tomato sauce recipe ever—with canned tomatoes?

Posted By on 05.14.12 at 11:23 AM

Delicious canned tomatoes
I'm not much for recipes—or at least not for actually following them. While I’m always excited to come across a new one, I’m also usually convinced that a few variations will improve whatever I’m making. I am, however, a sucker for the "best ______ ever" articles that crop up approximately every two days. I should know better, but it gets me every time.

How can you not want to make the "most talked-about buttery tomato pasta recipe ever," especially when the eminently reputable Francis Lam has recommended it? He’s got a list of credentials a mile long. When he says the recipe is "one of my favorite things on earth to make, because it never fails to blow minds,” it sounds pretty convincing to me. He goes on: "It’s a sauce that some people describe as being 'sweet and summery,' and others 'velvety and lush,' and the reason you can have such opposing descriptions is because the flavors are so beautifully balanced."

All this for a recipe using canned tomatoes. Don't get me wrong; I usually use canned tomatoes for tomato sauce—but I also add garlic, red pepper, and a few herbs at a minimum, and maybe some red wine and/or cream for good measure. This recipe involves only three ingredients: butter, onion, and a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. It didn't sound that promising to me. Then again, Lam described it as "a tomato sauce that starts out tart, and yet subtly sweeter than normal; not sugary, but a mellow sweetness from whole simmered onion. It goes from there to a warming richness, the creamy taste of butter, and after that, the lingering depth of slow-cooked tomatoes."

I’d recently made some ravioli that I thought would benefit from a simple sauce, and I happened to have everything I needed for this recipe on hand, so I decided to give it a try. In a departure from my usual cooking methods, I stuck very closely to the instructions. OK, I cut the onion into quarters instead of halves, theorizing that more exposed surface area would flavor the sauce more (bad idea: it fell apart, which made it difficult to fish out at the end). And it nearly killed me not to add garlic or herbs while it was cooking, but I did it.

The result? It was . . . fine. A little flat, with a slight canned flavor. Nothing some garlic, basil, and red wine wouldn't fix—and when I reheated the sauce the next day, I added all of those ingredients, which improved it considerably. But it certainly wasn't transcendent, or even particularly good.

I'm not sure what went wrong with such a simple recipe—maybe better tomatoes are the answer. I'd say I'll try that next time, but I don't think there's going to be a next time. For one thing, I'll probably be busy testing out Ruth Reichl's theories on how to make a better peanut butter and jelly sandwich and what Lam swears is the "best, lightest pancake recipe ever."

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