Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Recipe #2–Tomato Sauce

“Tomato sauce should be rich, elegant, smooth, and redolent of herbs,” proclaims Patricia Wells in her introduction to Trattoria’s basic Tomato Sauce. To which I add: ditto for James Bond.

I was paging through her cookbook a few weeks ago in search of something simple to drizzle over tortellini. I found the tomato sauce, skimmed the minimal ingredients and knew I had my answer.

After tying on my new butterfly apron (a full “chef’s” apron with a black-and-white butterfly pattern and orange pocket…totally awesome), I chopped a small onion, spooned the equivalent of 3 minced garlic cloves from a jar and tossed those fragrant bits into ¼ cup of olive oil along with some sea salt. Sounds pretty familiar, yes? Well, here’s the clever part: Wells says to do the above in an unheated saucepan.

Brilliant!

This cool-pan technique allows the ingredients to mix completely without the infernal spitting of the garlic into peering eyeballs and upon unprotected forearms. Why this is the case, I’m not exactly sure. My inner scientist whispers that the modicum of juice that the garlic brings to the party can mingle with the oil at room temperature, whereas it reacts violently when hot.

But don’t quote me on that.

Regardless, this small nuance in the recipe’s first step made an immediate quality-of-life difference, a little like flipping one’s pillow to the cool side during a hot summer night.

Next, I cooked the (peacefully) mixed onion-garlic mélange over moderate heat for a few minutes until the garlic turned a pale toasted hue. Then I poured in a 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes in their sauce and stirred everything together before adding “the herb bundle.”

Doesn’t “herb bundle” sound both charming and practical—something Mrs. Frisby would haul to her tiny mice children in the classic story? Wells describes hers as “Several sprigs of fresh parsley, bay leaves and celery leaves tied…with cotton twine.”

Feeling every bit the prairie girl, I dug around in the Everything Drawer until I found said twine (probably purchased by my parents during the Reagan Administration and sent off with me to college) and then looked through the crisper for some herbs. I found fresh parsley, but no celery leaves, so I grabbed some thyme and then the jar of bay leaves from the spice cabinet. After washing a few sprigs of each specimen, I bunched the damp greens together, tied a tiny bit of string around their middle and cinched it tight. Had Roxy been there, she’d have wanted one made for her dollhouse.

I dropped the bundle into the saucepan, stirred the brew several times and then let it simmer sans lid for about 15 minutes (for a thicker sauce, Wells says to add another 5 minutes of cooking time). When the timer rang, I peered into the pan and saw that my bundle had, sadly, broken apart upon the high seas. I fished out the limp sprigs, as well as the smug, still-stiff bay leaf. Then I tasted the finished product, added a touch more salt plus a few turns of fresh pepper, and removed the sauce from the burner. It was time to eat.

The results: I spooned the sauce—a glistening, deep red—over tortellini and fresh spinach in three bowls. Then I distributed one each to Jon and my mom, who’s visiting from Northern California, and we all tucked in. (Roxy had eaten earlier.)

The tomato sauce was a hit—mega-flavorful, uncomplicated, and richly satisfying without being heavy. It worked perfectly with both the mellow, creamy, cheese-filled pasta and the densely-green spinach pile. And it couldn’t have been easier to make (even with the herb bundle mini craft project in the middle).

I thought of the Make the Bread, Buy the Butter cookbook in my collection. When compared with the taste of its jarred counterpart, which is almost always painfully sweet and sorely lacking in herby-spicy interest, homemade tomato sauce such as Wells’ concoction is an obvious, stomach-pleasing “make.”

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