Butter, onion, tomato sauce

My general approach to tomato sauce is simple: I wing it.

After years of watching my parents throw basic ingredients into a pot and letting it simmer for an hour or two to create a hearty and rich tomato sauce, and even more years of making it from scratch on my own – owing to a perhaps unnatural love of pasta – I don’t give too much thought to cooking up a decent red sauce.

I’m a big believer in the long-simmered sauce with a multitude of ingredients that all come together over a slow heat, melding and marrying into something that is so much greater as a whole than the sum of its parts.

But I can also turn around a very basic sauce in 15 minutes.

At the very least, my spaghetti sauce usually has garlic and diced onions, sauted in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt, canned plum tomatoes I roughly (and gently, using a butter knife) chop in my hand over the pot, fresh basil if I can get my hands on it, a little sprinkle of sugar if the whole mix is too acidic, and a Parmesan heel, which I stash in my freezer for just such occasions.

So, it takes an unusual tomato sauce recipe to catch my eye.

Like this one. It has three ingredients. (OK, four, if you count salt, which, in general, I don’t, since almost all recipes call for salt.)

Canned tomatoes. A yellow onion. Butter.

That’s it.

Butter, onion, tomato II

Marcella Hazan’s recipe for tomato sauce with butter and onion has made appearances over the years on various food blogs I follow.

Each time I saw it, I thought I really should remember to give that a try.

And then I’d forget about it until someone else posted their love of this simple yet rich dish.

This seemed like a great weeknight dinner recipe since there is minimal fuss. No chopping or dicing, sweating or sauteing.

You dump it all into the pot, let it come to a simmer, reduce the heat, and go about things. In this case, a little laundry, some tidying and things that allowed for a quick wander past the pot to give the tomatoes a stir and squish against the side with a wooden spoon.

At the end of 45 minutes, all it needed was a small pinch of salt and to be dolloped over a nest of noodles.

Some have suggested sprinkling on Parmesan, but I opted not to. The sauce is rich and tasty without adornment, which is sort of the beauty of it.

The butter adds an almost unidentifiable creaminess and mellows out the acidity of the tomatoes.

And, luckily, such an easy recipe is simple enough that in the future I can pretty much wing it.

Butter, onion, tomato

Cooked sauce

Spaghetti and Sauce I

Spaghetti and sauce II

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

This was adapted from Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by way of several food blogs. Since there are only three ingredients, I do recommend using San Marzano or San Marzano-style canned tomatoes, which are packed in tomato puree instead of water and have, therefore, a greater tomato flavour. You can find Marzano-style tomatoes in most grocery stores these days.

  • 1 28-oz (796-mL) can of whole tomatoes
  • 5 tbsp (75 mL) butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
  • 1 lb (500 g) spaghetti
  • salt to taste, if needed

Put the tomatoes, butter and onion in a pot over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, stir to combine, then reduce the heat to low or medium low – depending on how hot your element is; you’re looking for a slow but steady simmer – and cook for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, squishing the tomatoes against the side of the pot.

Cook pasta according to package instructions.

Remove sauce from heat, discard the onion and taste. Add salt if needed. Serve over cooked pasta.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald. For more recipes and meal ideas, head to the Calgary Herald’s food page.

  11 comments for “Butter, onion, tomato sauce

  1. Blair
    October 25, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Yep, me too, my red sauce is a morphing menagerie of ingredients. However, I usually call upon red wine, a pinch of cayenne or chipotle pepper, and a few tomatoes I froze from the fall. And sometimes a glop of pesto.
    What’s a “parmesan heel”?

    • patentandthepantry
      October 25, 2011 at 11:45 pm

      It’s the rind of the Parmesan. When you buy a wedge of Parmesan, hang on to the rind and use it to flavour sauces and soups. I just keep mine in the freezer in a Ziploc until I need one.

      • October 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm

        I do this too, it’s such a great tip.

  2. Byn
    October 26, 2011 at 6:22 am

    i have never been able to find san marzano tomatoes! i’ve looked at whole foods and almost every other grocery store around me. but! i just saw PC has introduced them as part of their black label line, so i need to go get some. there’s also a bacon marmalade that my friend said was insanely good.

    • Blair
      October 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm

      Safeway sells tinned San Marzanos, at least at my Beacon Hill location. But when I use them I don’t notice the diff.

  3. October 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    My word, I love this post! Thanks for a genuinely simple recipe with class and style.

  4. October 28, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    I’ve seen this around too – thanks for the reminder to just make it already! Looks yum.

  5. November 3, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    I make this sauce often because we almost always have the ingredients on hand. I use the pasta press attachment for my kitchenaid to make some quick fresh pasta while the sauce simmers and then the meal feels sort of fancy.

  6. November 4, 2011 at 12:57 am

    I just had to try this tonight. It took everything I had in my very being to not a) add garlic, b) chop, fry, and add onion, c) add basil and/or oregano, and d) not eat all of it in a single sitting. Next to chickpeas and chard, this is my fave of anything you’ve ever posted!

  7. November 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Ok, I keep seeing this recipe everywhere. Clearly I’m missing out, so I’m making this tonight!

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