Bowl of Pasta with Red Sauce

My Non-Recipe Recipe for Tomato Sauce

food

Every Italian person can make a red sauce based on pure instinct. Period. It doesn’t mean it’s the perfect sauce for everyone but damn it’s a sauce that makes you proud. Maybe it’s inconsistent, but Italian cooking has always been about availability and making something work. It’s about utilizing what you have to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Folks get very caught up in validating or invalidating Italian food when in reality, Italian food isn’t one cuisine but a holistic way of cooking. In reality, nothing about tomato sauce is Italian. Tomatoes are from Mexico, and Italy didn’t even exist when tomatoes traversed the Atlantic.

So cook with what you like and what you have. If you don’t know where to start, here’s what I always and never do to make my sauce distinctly mine.

Always:

  • I always start my sauce with onion and garlic. I slice the onion nice and thin and let it sweat out in olive oil and salt until it becomes translucent. Garlic goes in after the onions have released some liquid (garlic can burn easily so don’t add it at the same time as onion). Sometimes it’s 3 cloves, sometimes it’s more.
  • Salt throughout! Don’t wait until the end to add salt. Build the flavor starting with salting the onion and taste as you go. The sauce should reduce so constantly check your seasoning.
  • Use three herbs: basil, oregano and bay leaf. I find that these three (any variation in any amount) imbue the most iconic flavors to the sauce. If I have fresh basil, I’ll definitely take advantage of it, but dried basil and oregano do the job just fine. The bay leaf seemingly doesn’t add anything, but I was always told to add a bay leaf to take some of the acidity out, reducing the chance of heartburn and indigestion. I thought it was some Old Nonna Tale, but apparently bay leaves reduce inflammation and can aid digestion.
  • Let the sauce cook down! I don’t always add tomato paste (because I don’t always have it on hand) but cooking down your sauce and scraping the concentrated tomato that builds up along the interior sides of the pot add more flavor, basically mimicking tomato paste!
  • Whole, crushed or pureed tomatoes are my favorite. It depends on what else is going into the sauce (i.e. meat) or what’s available. I don’t typically use diced tomatoes. I don’t know why. Yes, the can is fine unless you’re living the dream and making fresh passata all summer.

Never:

  • Use anything but olive oil. Unless it’s Marcella Hazan’s butter and onion sauce. I just like the flavor of olive oil and the higher smoke point gives you some wiggle room when sweating those onions.
  • Rosemary. I don’t know why people put rosemary in sauce. To each their own, I guess, but it’s a little too hearty for something as rich as a tomato sauce. Bright herbs only for this girl.
  • Use pre-seasoned tomatoes. Maybe it’s a quick way to get dinner on the table on occasion, but if you’re going to simmer a sauce use the unseasoned tomatoes.

So my order of operations is:

  • Sweat the onion in olive oil. Season with salt.
  • Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
  • Add tomato sauce, basil, oregano, bayleaf, salt and pepper.
  • Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer for at least 30 minutes.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust.
  • Remove bay leaf and basil (if fresh and whole) before serving.

The simplicity is what makes this work. Add your extras like red pepper flakes, anchovy fillets or tomato paste, but consider those the icing on your weird, savory, already-delicious cake.

The Vintage Market, Santo Spirito

Photography, Travel, Vintage

My spirit and soul yearn for one single place: Florence, Italy. Every morning I sprang out of bed to the sound of Santa Maria Del Fiore’s bells, sometimes with a grand plan and other times with the desire to just explore. One Sunday I found myself in my favorite corner of the city, Piazza Santo Spirito. Brunelleschi’s austere church facade loomed over the sun drenched square, demanding attention and reverence despite the hustle and bustle below.

Every second Sunday vendors lined the square with vintage knick knacks, clothes and furniture. I encountered a smiling man selling brass kitchen wares (a bottle opener shaped like a woman’s legs, decorative cabinet hardware, interesting stuff), women picking through vintage clothing and tables cluttered with photos and trinkets emblematic of the past. I saw real communist pins next to embroidered cloth panels. And, of course, there would be no market without food in Italy. Next to the old vases you could pick up a hot porchetta sandwich. Ideal.

While anything and everything seemed available, clothing stalls expressed the most stark dichotomy of all. Some stalls featured clothing racks with vintage and restored pieces costing over 25 euro while others had piles of weathered and worn garments all costing 5 euro, no more and no less. I approached the table with hope and started picking through pieces with local nonnas.

I finally found it. THE shirt. A white embroidered linen blouse, slightly too big for my frame, but utterly perfect. Vertical vines dropped from the shoulders to the mid-torso. This white blouse embodied summer in Italy and I knew I had to have it.

Quanto costo?

Cinque euro.

Yes, 5 euro later and I toted home my favorite blouse in the Florentine sun.

This shirt feels gorgeous and vintage. I think it’s a men’s shirt but it has a feminine quality that I love. I remember wearing it during the firsts few days of my first internship. I remember wearing it with my great grandma’s silk scarf tied around my neck. It just feels right on my skin.

Not to mention, Santo Spirito is one of the most gorgeous and underrated parts of Florence, in my opinion. Sure, I’m a typical American student and flocked to Gusta Pizza a few too many times for heart shaped pizza and a plastic cup of wine (“per porta in via” means you can take your wine to go which is magical when you find yourself drinking wine in a bank vestibule at 9pm), but I made sure to walk beyond the square into the artists’ quarter of the Oltrarno. Papier-mâché clowns and vintage jewelry took over storefront windows. Wisteria grew atop the old city walls. Hidden aperitivo joints came to life at night. To not visit Santo Spirito while in Florence would be to not see the soul of the citizens. It’s as if the oldest and youngest parts meet in this one square.

This white linen shirt brings memories of Santo Spirito to life. The texture of the cloth on my skin conjures memories of sunny days eating berries at the market or getting sucked into the oldest streets of the city completely unsupervised. Reflected in the stitches I see the cobblestone streets and treasure chests of wonder.