Tomato sauce – like my grandmother used to make

Ok, so neither of my grandmothers are Italian. They’re Czech and English, so they’re more about knödel and Sunday roasts than tomato sauce. My Czech great grandmother did once claim to have Italian blood. But her grandson quite rightly pointed out that if she did, it must have come across with the Romans…

Still, if I were a bona fide Italian, and I did long for tomato sauces like my grandmother used to make, then this is the ticket. The real deal. Proper job.

The thing is, I’ve had a recent revelation when it comes to cooking, and it’s not to be scared of things turning brown. Sure, black and charred isn’t ideal. But the problem of being too scared of burning things is that they often end up undercooked instead.

Take butter – admittedly burned butter is disgusting, but then yellow, melted butter doesn’t taste nearly as good as browned butter. The same applies to onions – nothing worse than a wrinkly black burnt piece of onion…but then slimy, white anemic onions aren’t a patch on deliciously browned, caramelized onions.

The revelation came around the time that I thought I’d welded a paella to the base of the pan only to discover that I had, in fact, created the perfect ‘socarrat’ – the word especially designed to describe the delicious, crunchy paella base. Clever ol’ Spaniards – they certainly nailed the art of burning things purposefully and skilfully.

I have since transferred this theory into making tomato sauce. Gone are the days of bubbling a big, watery vat of chopped tomatoes for ten minutes. My new technique involves high heat, frying, caramelising and condensing the flavours, ideally over a couple of glorious hours, filling the flat with juicy, mouth-watering aromas.

Beside the slow browning technique, the other key is anchovies. Don’t worry – it’s not a fishy sauce. But another recent discovery is that anchovies dissolve, and they create a wonderfully rich, indescribably savoury flavour. Only it is actually describable, because exactly 104 years ago, Japanese Professor Kikunae Ikeda did exactly that. He described it, and called it ‘umami’.

Professor Kikunae Ikeda

The ‘extra flavour’ (besides sweet, sour, bitter and salty) is found in anchovies and tomatoes. It’s quite addictive. Apparently breast milk is ten times richer in umami than cow’s milk which is why we crave it so much!

So, forget bland, watery tomato sauces. Once you try out this little beauty, you’ll be smitten.

1. Cut onions into slices, put a good glug of oil into a pan, and fry on a gentle heat. After 20 minutes they will have softened. Now go an extra 15 or 20 minutes until they’re a nice dark brown. If they look like they’re going to burn, add a little oil or turn down the heat.

2. Add a heaped tablespoon of fennel seeds, and fry for a minute or so, allowing them to release their flavours. They create lovely, rich flavours.

3. Add three x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes to the frying pan, and then stir in about 30g of anchovies.

4. Whack up the heat. The aim now is to evaporate most of the water, and create a dark, jammy sauce. If you take your eye off it for a minute or two too long, and the base goes a little brown, then don’t panic. Just change your perception of what ‘burned’ is. I wouldn’t say it’s burned….but more of a tomato soccarat.

After a good half hour (or more), of tomato evaporation, then it’s good to go. And now you’re free to do what you wish with it. Tonight, I had a big dollop with sausages and mustard, and the rest is in a jam jar in my fridge (it gets even better after a couple of days). Also try stirring it into orecchiette, or even create some little wells in the pan and break a couple of eggs into it. Superb.
Just like grandma’s used to make it.

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