The Musette: Italian tomato sauce

The Giro kicks off today in the home of pizza: Naples. However, I’m not about to give you a recipe for pizza. In my humble opinion, you need a wood-fired oven to cook the perfect pizza. I would love to have one but my neighbours might not be too keen given I live on the fifth floor of an apartment block surrounded by combustible trees and shrubs and I’ve already had cause to summon the fire brigade! Also, I’m somewhat catholic in my tastes, preferring the humble, but oh so delicious pizza margarita.

The basis of many Neapolitan, and indeed Italian dishes, is the humble tomato sauce. Every Italian I know has a family recipe, handed down through the generations which they swear is ‘the best ever’. I have two recipes, one when tomatoes are plentiful and sun-ripened (see below) and another here, which uses tinned. I’ve found that San Marzano tomatoes which come from the area between Salerno and Naples are the sweetest because they’re grown in the rich and fertile volcanic soil next to Vesuvius!

So here are my two go-to tomato sauces. Most of the time I make them as per the recipe but I have been known to add other herbs such as dried/fresh oregano or red chilli flakes to spice it up for an arrabiata sauce. I think of them as the little black dresses of tomato sauces: simple and sophisticated, yet so very versatile.

Your weapon of choice!

Your weapon of choice!

Tinned tomato sauce: Ingredients (serves four)

  • 800g (28oz) tin of Italian tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 1 medium-sized onion, halved
  • 2 tbsp of tomato puree
  • 1½ tbsp olive oil
  • 3 large fat whole cloves of garlic
  • ⅛ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • ¼ tsp of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 sprig of fresh basil (optional)
  • 1 tbsp butter (optional)


1. Heat a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Swirl around the olive oil to coat the pan and, when the oil is hot, add the onion, garlic and red pepper flakes. Stir constantly for 30 seconds, just long enough to release the garlic’s fragrance and transform it slightly from its raw state. Don’t cook the garlic until it is golden!

2. Raise the heat to high and stir in the tomatoes, puree, pepper and salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer.

3. Crush the tomatoes lightly with the back of a spoon as they cook, and stir occasionally.

4. Simmer very gently for 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat appear on the surface of the tomatoes. In the last five minutes of cooking, add the basil sprig.

5. Before serving, remove the garlic cloves, onion and basil and stir in the butter.

6. It’s now ready. Add hot, freshly cooked pasta, fresh basil leaves and parmesan shavings to serve your pasta napolitano.

7. If you’re not going to use it right away, it’ll sit happily in the fridge for a week, or the freezer for a month.

Just the thing for replenishing carb stores

Just the thing for replenishing carb stores

Fresh tomato sauce: Ingredients (serves four)

  • 10 fresh sun-ripened warm beefsteak tomatoes, around 3kg (6½lbs) in weight
  • 5 large fat cloves of garlic
  • Bunch (1 cup) fresh basil leaves
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

 Beefsteak tomato


1. Wash the tomatoes. Leave them whole but take out the hard core with a sharp knife. Put them into a large saucepan on medium heat and drizzle over the olive oil. Put the lid on the pan and leave for about 15 minutes.

2. After about 15 minutes give the tomatoes a stir. Try not to break them up, just move the ones on top to the bottom to help loosen the skins. Cover and cook for a further 15 minutes.

3. After 15 minutes, take a fork and spear a tomato from the bottom of the pan. Still holding the tomato over the pan, peel off the skin using two forks. If you find it easier, you can take the tomato out and put it in a bowl to do this, just make sure you keep and add back all the juices. If the tomatoes are not ready to be skinned, put the lid back on and check every couple of minutes.

4. Once all the skins have been discarded, lower the temperature to low and allow them to simmer uncovered.

5. On a regular basis, say every 30 minutes, check the sauce and stir thoroughly. Using a wooden spoon, start to break up the tomatoes over time, but don’t do it all at once.

6. After about five hours, mash all the tomatoes with a potato masher, add the whole garlic cloves and allow it to simmer for another hour.

7. The garlic should now be soft enough to mash easily on the side of the pot and it should literally disintegrate into the sauce. The sauce should now be at your desired consistency. If not continue to cook until it is sufficiently reduced.

8. Remove the saucepan from the hob, check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. If you’re going to serve the sauce straight away, add the freshly chopped basil leaves. If not, leave to cool. It’ll keep happily in the fridge for a week or the freezer for a month.

No, it's not made by Heinz!

No, it’s not made by Heinz!

(Images: Wikipedia and Richard Whatley.)

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