I was working all day, building a site for a wonderful event in San Diego called Cake Bake, and I missed the news earlier in the day that Marcella Hazan passed away today at the age of 89. Hazan was a force in the kitchen, and her influence on Italian cuisine in America is impossible to overstate. Her lasting influence in my kitchen will her Tomato-Butter Sauce, another of my so-called best recipes. I didn’t know Mrs. Hazan, but if you can know a person through her perfect recipes, then I suspect she was uncomplicated on the surface and delightfully complex inside.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I only started making this sauce about two years ago. We had huge #10 cans of tomatoes in our cupboard, and with only two of us I worked hard to find new ways to use them after I’d exhausted some of our traditional repertoire. A good, dependable tomato sauce had always eluded me. Mine always came out strangely sweet or bitter, and I struggled with whether I should make a quick-cook sauce or do a day-long simmer. At its best my sauce was slightly worse than an average store-bought marinara.
Where I first found the recipe I’m not sure. Most certainly it was on a blog, possibly on Smitten Kitchen. But once turned on to it, I couldn’t seem to get away from it–Hazan’s Tomato-Butter Sauce kept popping up everywhere. Mention-itis, as Bridget Jones would say. Was it possible that this sauce of beautiful simplicity had been right under my nose for years, but I’d overlooked it?
Last winter, when there wasn’t an abundant variety of vegetables available in Tashkent, we slowly worked our way through about ten of those #10 cans, making a pot of sauce each week. I had planned to make some today, but the day got away from me. It would have been a fitting eulogy.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes, no salt or herbs added
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small white onion, peeled and cut in half
Add the tomatoes, butter, onion halves, and a pinch of salt to a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then lower the heat. Crush the tomatoes lightly with the back of a spoon as they cook, and stir occasionally. Simmer very gently for 45 minutes, until much of the liquid reduces and the butter droplets separate from the tomatoes. Remove and discard the onion.
According to Giuliano Hazan’s version of his mother’s recipe, “The sauce is done when the butter has separated from the tomatoes and there is no remaining liquid.”
Serve over hot pasta with Parmesan, if desired.
Note: this sauce freezes beautifully, but making a double batch takes much longer than 45 minutes, based on my experience. Also, you don’t have to discard the onion. I think it’s delicious, so I usually save it and separate off a few rings to nibble on while finishing dinner.