Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I am sharing one of our treasured family recipes with you. Oooh are you in for a treat! This red sauce is what I grew up on, my mom made it often and we drooled as it simmered on the stove all day long, that robust and rich smell of garlic, tomatoes, olive oil and spices bubbling into a beautiful rich, red sauce. Sometimes, if we were lucky, my mom would let us take a piece of Italian bread and dip it in the sauce, my cheeks hurt just thinking about it.
It is based on my Grandpa Frank’s amazing red sauce, or gravy or whatever you call the red stuff you put over spaghetti or pasta. One of my best friends who is from New England and who is Italian through and through, well we’ve had “arguments” about what this sauce is called; she always called it gravy and I called it spaghetti sauce. Gravy for me was that brown stuff you poured over mashed potatoes, but regardless of what you call it; gather the ingredients and make it; East or West and anywhere in between! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but give it some time, tomato sauce is really best the next day, simmering for hours allows the natural sweetness of the tomatoes to emerge and the natural acidity to diminish.
I didn’t really get to know my grandfather until my early 20’s and one of my favorite memories with him was when he took me to one of his restaurants (he owned three, at different times) showed me around, introduced me to a couple of his waitresses. You know the kind from movies, they have served in the same restaurant their entire working life; they know the customers, the menu, can make suggestions, rib and kid you, ask you about your family, cry and laugh with you…that kind.
Strangely enough, my grandpa wasn’t known for his pastas, instead he was known for his prime rib! But his sauce, oh my, his sauce, so robust, hearty and filled with flavor.
Technically, my Grandpa never showed me how to make this sauce, my mom did. I watched her make it over and over again, adjusting slightly here and there, depending on the acidity of the tomatoes. In my early 20’s I finally wrote the basics down, but it’s one of those recipes that you simmer and taste, let sit and taste, adjust seasonings and simmer longer, add a bit of water and taste, simmer some more and taste. Now you know why I generally don’t have much left over.
While I’m being all nostalgic, the above cast iron pot is the very one that my mom made this amazing sauce in all those years ago. I love this pot; it’s dented, stained, scratched, and chipped and I love every Harvest Gold inch of it.
This sauce is fabulous, with pasta, yes, it’s how I use it most often. It freezes beautifully, if it lasts that long. But I typically make it and use it at least twice, once for pasta, the next time for a calzone dipping sauce, or in a lasagna, stuffed shells, etc. Nummy! Check out this recipe for Easy Calzone’s, so stinking simple!
I love San Marzano tomatoes, they are filled with wonderful flavor, but they aren’t required to make this sauce, in fact these aren’t even authentic, just make sure one of your cans of tomatoes are whole peeled tomatoes. Can you use diced, sure, but I think there is a bit of magic that happens when you keep the tomato whole and then squeeze it by hand to release the juices into the sauce.
If you are roasting the garlic, we’ll start with those instructions. My grandpa didn’t use roasted garlic, but I love it and I believe it adds depth to the sauce, however; sometimes you don’t have time and that’s okay. But if you have time, roast it, oh please, roast it. It’s so easy and adds wonderful flavor. You can even get your sauce simmering and roast it later on, adding to the sauce when you have it done.
Cut a smidge off the top of the garlic bulb (the papery up side, not the side with the roots), place it on a sheet of foil and drizzle a little olive oil over the tops, place in a 400 degree oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until soft and brown.
Once it’s done, let it cool for 10 minutes or so, then using a paper towel to grab it, gently squeeze from the bottom up and those little cloves of garlic will come bursting out, catch them in the foil so you can remove any of the skin that falls out with it.
While it roasts, drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a large, heavy pot over medium heat.
If you decide not to roast your garlic, mince between 3-5 gloves of garlic and toss into the hot olive oil, prior to the tomato paste. Carefully sautéing until just golden, don’t burn it as it will turn bitter.
TIP: Before you get started, remove all the lids to your cans at once, makes it easier to assemble the sauce when they are ready to go.
Add your tomato paste to the hot oil and garlic (if you roasted it, wait until you have all of your ingredients before place it in the sauce) and stir around until it turns just slightly darker. It should start to absorb the olive oil. It’ll just take a minute or so.
Next add your crushed and pureed tomatoes and finally your whole plum tomatoes, as you add the whole tomatoes, pour them into the palm of your hand a few at a time and crush them into the sauce with your hands. Yikes, apparently photo’s enhance age spots!
Once you’ve added all of your cans of tomatoes, fill one can about ½ way full of water, swish around and pour into next can, until you’ve “rinsed” out all of the cans, pour into your “saucey” water back into the sauce.
Now add your herbs and spices. This is done by eyeballing it, a nice generous pour into your palm of dried basil and dried oregano. It’s hard to add too much, you might even need to add more later on.
Next shake in a little red pepper flakes, I do just a shake or two, I don’t really want heat in the sauce, but it adds some nice flavor.
Then add a generous palm full of kosher salt, you may have to add more later.
Give it a good stir and bring to a very low simmer. Be very careful, you don’t want to burn the bottom, it can ruin the whole sauce.
If you roasted your garlic, now is the time to toss the cloves into the sauce, remove any “papery skin” before tossing it in the sauce.
I’m not sure why my pictures are all so blurry, I must have been so excited about the sauce my hands were shaking…yep, that’s what I’m going with, shaky, from excitement!
Last week I did my post on Zucchini Lemon Bread, and I spoke about using shredded zucchini in all sorts of other meals. This is a great way to use some up, grate a zucchini or two up and toss it into the sauce. It’s another great way to use zucchini and put a bit more veggies into your meals. Don’t worry it will cook into the sauce, giving it even more depth, thickness, and even a bit of nutrients. Totally optional though.
Add your brown sugar and stir too combine…if you prefer, you can leave this out, I like it with it, it doesn’t make the sauce sweet, just neutralizes the acidity of the tomatoes a bit, bringing out the natural sweetness. Feel free to reduce it, omit it, or use it!
Covered, let it simmer (on super low, you might even need to turn it off and allow it to cool for a bit and then bring it up to a simmer again), stirring occasionally, just don’t let it burn. If you think it has burned, whatever you do don’t scrape the bottom, instead, transfer the sauce to another heavy pot and leave the burnt portion in the bottom of the old pan. Let your husband clean that pot later. That was for those of you who are still reading…tee-hee!
Simmer it most of the day, adding water as needed to bring it to the thickness you like it. This is personal taste, I like it super thick, some like theirs thin and here’s where it gets really good, remove it from the flame and leave it on the stove top overnight, with the lid on, cooling. The next morning or afternoon, bring it back up to a simmer before using it. The color will have darkened to a rich, deep red, the acidity will have reduced and the natural sweetness of the tomatoes will have emerged and your sauce will be “Mmmm, mmm good!”
Once I moved to Denver, I realized as I’d get into conversations, probably about this sauce, how much my Grandfather was known. I’d run into people at work, in Deli’s, all around, if they were Denver-ites, they seemed to know about his restaurants, I would often hear, “Frankie is your Grandpa?” It was fun to hear stories about him. He’s been gone awhile now, but I hope we do him proud in keeping this sauce a tradition in our family. I am proud of my Italian heritage and while I don’t know this side of the family as well as I’d like, I love having this sauce in my recipe box and proudly wear my Italian heritage!
Enjoy it on spaghetti, toss in some browned meatballs or Italian sausage and simmer for an hour or so before serving. Use as the base for your lasagna or stuffed shells; freeze it, it freezes beautifully. Make sure you cool it before placing it in the freezer, so you don’t get that frosty, nasty tasting freezer burn. If desired, you can “can” it, mock canning at least, pour the hot sauce into clean canning jars and seal tightly with canning top, allow to cool on the counter, then transfer to the fridge. If you want them shelf stable, then you’ll need to actually can them, I’m not a canner, but I know there are those out there that are and I’m sure that they can help you! Besides I never have enough leftover to truly “can.”
Serve it up with a loaf of warm, crusty Italian or French bread, a crisp salad and a small plate of crisp cucumbers, grape tomatoes and carrots.
- Roasted Garlic
- 1 bulb roasted garlic, top sliced off to reveal cloves
- 1-2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- *if not using roasted garlic, 3-5 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 8 oz cans tomato paste
- 1 28 oz can pureed tomatoes
- 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 1 28 oz can whole tomatoes (I like San Marzano, but any whole tomato will work)
- 2-3 tablespoons dried basil
- 1-2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 1-2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 bulb of roasted garlic
- ⅛ - ¼ cup brown sugar (optional)
- 1 zucchini, washed and grated (optional)
- Roasted Garlic
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Nip off a slice off the top of the bulb of garlic to reveal most of the garlic cloves.
- Place on square of foil on baking sheet
- Drizzle the olive oil over the tops of the garlic cloves
- Roast for 20-25 minutes until golden and soft
- Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then using a paper towel, hold the garlic bulb upside down over the foil and squeeze the bulb from the bottom up, pushing the garlic cloves out.
- Most will pop out, some might need to be encouraged or pulled out.
- Remove any of the papery garlic skin and set aside.
- Drizzle oil into large, heavy bottomed pot and heat over medium heat
- If not using roasted garlic, toss in minced garlic and stir until golden, careful not to burn
- Scoop the tomato paste into the hot oil (garlic) and stir around until you see the color darken slightly, don't let burn
- Pour in the pureed and crushed tomatoes
- Next, pour into your hand a few of the whole tomatoes at a time, crushing them into the sauce
- Pick one of the empty 28 oz cans and fill ½ way with water, swirling around to remove leftover tomato juice, then pour into the next can and the next until you've cleaned out all of the cans.
- Don't throw out.
- Pour water with collected juices into the sauce and stir to combine
- Toss in basil, oregano and salt.
- Add a few shakes of red pepper flakes (more for more heat, less if none desired)
- Toss in roasted garlic, if made.
- Put in brown sugar and stir to combine (optional)
- If desired, grate 1-2 zucchini's and stir into sauce (optional)
- Simmer, covered on lowest possible setting for 4-6 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Add water as needed if getting too thick, simmer longer if too thin.
- Adjust seasonings to taste.
- Cool on stovetop overnight, covered.
- Before serving, bring up to simmer once again for an hour or so.
- If desired, place browned and drained meatballs or Italian sausage into sauce and simmer for an hour before serving.
- May be frozen (cool completely before freezing)
- May be mock "canned" by placing hot sauce into clean canning jars, sealing tightly with canning tops, allowing to cool on counter, once cooled, store in refrigerator, note that these are not shelf stable.