The Tragic Optimist

tomato sauce

Eurydice over at Geeks in Rome has a great post up detailing how to make pasta that an Italian will probably not love, but will at least not spit out in distaste.  Which is good enough for me.  It reminded me that I had promised a few people that I would write up my tomato sauce recipe.

Before I begin, a bit of background.  I was not much of a cook before heading to college.  And didn’t really learn much in college beyond how to make a decent meal from the salad bar in the cafeteria.  Until I spent a term in Italy on a geology program.  We lived in a very small town (there were 6 other residents besides the 24 of us students), and we all rotated through various chores in keeping the geologic observatory running.  One of the assignments – the one we all looked forward to – was cooking for the other students and 2 professors.  So that’s where I learned a lot of my cooking.  Making food for starving geology students just back from a day in the field hitting rocks with hammers.  Not a tough crowd.

So, this sauce is not authentic.  At all.  But it is inspired by my time there, and it’s been refined over the years into a sauce that I really, really like. It’s a pretty rustic sauce, no silky smooth texture here, but I find that I like having some texture to it.  It takes around 20 – 40 minutes to make depending on lots of different things such as how many times I have to pick up Zoe and let her stir, and whether I have someone who can help with some of the chopping, and whether someone has to run to the store to pick up wine.

I’m also really bad at writing recipes, so it may not make a lot of sense.  I kind of make up the recipe as I go, depending on what I have and what I’m in the mood for.  I also try to time my cooking so that I have very little prep to do ahead of time, and instead, I’m doing chopping or blending while other things are cooking.

Tomato Sauce by Ann

Feeds 4, depending on how hungry they are.  Or feeds 2 plus an occasionally picky toddler with enough leftovers for at least on lunch.

You’ll need

  • fresh tomatoes – enough to make about 4 cups of tomatoe puree when you run them through the blender.  Preferably a mix of really good heirloom tomatoes, so you get a nice mix of flavors.  When it’s not tomato season, I use cans of Muir Glen organic tomatoes (whole or diced).
  • an onion
  • some garlic – 1 to 4 cloves depending on their size and how much anyone you talk to after eating this can tolerate garlic breath
  • a mix of herbs like parsley, sweet basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary.  Can be fresh or dried, or a mixture of the two.
  • red wine.  Doesn’t have to be all that good, but good enough to drink.
  • chicken or veggie broth.   About 1/3 cup
  • olive oil.  some.
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • pasta – whatever type you like, you can vary the texture on this recipe to match a bunch of different shapes.  I usually use fusilli, but if I can get them, I love orecchiette.
  1. Open the wine.  Pour yourself a glass.  Preferably in a juice glass.  Less likely to tip over that way.  Drink as needed while cooking.  Keep the wine bottle near by.
  2. Make the pasta as described in Geeks in Rome.  I know you’re supposed to be super vigilant about time on the pasta, so maybe have someone else do this step.
  3. Chop the onion as fine as you have the patience for.
  4. In a large pan, with sides high enough that you won’t slop all over the place when you add all the ingredients, saute the onion on medium with some salt and maybe a tablespoon of oil.  Enough oil to coat the bottom.  Stir occasionally.
  5. While the onion is sauteing.  Mince the garlic (you can use a garlic press), and chop the herbs if they’re fresh.
  6. Chop the tomatoes into large pieces, and remove the stem part if it’s big and tough.  Don’t worry about de-seeding or peeling.  For most tomatoes, I quarter them.  Cherry tomatoes (which add a nice sweetness) get cut in half.  Huge tomatoes into eighths.  Toss them into a blender and puree until it’s as smooth as you want.  You can actually skip the blendering if you’re wanting a sauce with more texture, in that case, chop the tomatoes.
  7. Toss the herbs and garlic into the onions and stir until fragrant (1 minute).  If you want a bit of a kick, you can add a teaspoon or so of crushed red pepper here.
  8. Add around 1/3 cup broth and 1/3 cup wine and stir to get all the good browned stuff off the bottom of the pan.
  9. Add the tomatoes.
  10. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer.  Stir occasionally.
  11. Now you hang out and drink a bit more of that wine.
  12. It’ll take anywhere from 10 – 30 minutes, depending on the tomatoes, to reduce from a soup-like to a sauce-like texture.  I’ve had many a night where I’ve gotten impatient and served while it’s still pretty liquidy.  It was still good.
  13. If you’re using non-blendered tomatoes, smash them a bit with the back of your spoon to mush them up as they soften.
  14. While it’s simmering, taste occasionally and add salt and pepper to taste.  Since you’ll be serving this with pasta, it can be a little on the salty side and still end up ok once you serve it.
  15. Serve over hot pasta.  Because we’re classy like that, we just let people serve themselves from the pan and choose how much sauce they want on their pasta.
  16. Can be served with grated parmesan, but it’s not necessary.


  1. Mmm…sounds good…I will have to try it (once I get over this “morning”/all day long sickness), I haven’t done a sauce where I pureed the tomatoes, that might give it a nice touch. And I’d never thought to add broth either…you can see I’m a make it up as a go along type of girl too. 🙂

  2. geeksinrome

    mmmmm. ok this just made me want to eat some PASTA!!
    this sounds delish. I rarely make sauce, but when I do, I freeze a ton of it in ice cube trays and then pop them out and put the cubes in freezer bags which makes it convient to heat up small amount of sauce for the kids (they would eat pasta every day).

    Where was this geological lab in Italy!!!? how cool! what kind of rocks were you hacking at????

  3. SAHW – the pureeing was the result of me feeling too lazy to cut the tomatoes into smaller pieces, and I liked how it turned out, so I’ve usually done it ever since.

    Geeks – Freezing in ice cube trays sounds like a great idea. The observatory is Osservatorio Geologico di Coldigioco (, I think it’s in the Marche region – anyway in the Appenines. We pretty much used the observatory as a home base and did a lot of field trips, mostly in northern Italy, so lots of dolomites, limestones, basalts, and everything else. We got to see (and touch) the KT boundary clay and look at the shocked quartz and iridium, that’s there – even in Italy. My final project was looking at Milankovitch cycles (very long-term climatic cycles due to changes in the earth’s orbit) preserved in the limestone layers near the observatory.

  4. motherhoodandpotatoes

    This sounds great, especially the wine part. 🙂 We usually have sauce from a jar 😦

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