Kitchen lore says that developing a tomato sauce with deep complex flavor requires slow simmering for a long, long time. Could we create a sauce with rich yet fresh tomato flavor for a quick weeknight meal?
We wanted to produce a multidimensional marinara sauce in less than an hour, starting the clock at the moment we entered the kitchen and stopping it when dinner was on the table.
Our first challenge was picking the right tomatoes. Pureed canned tomatoes, which are cooked prior to canning, gave the sauce a stale, flat flavor. Crushed tomatoes, which are generally packed in (cooked) puree, produced the same result. With canned diced tomatoes we got fresh flavor but ran into a problem with texture. Most diced tomatoes are treated with calcium chloride to keep them from turning to mush--when we tried to produce a smooth sauce, these tomatoes were difficult to break down. We found canned whole tomatoes to be the best choice in terms of both flavor and texture. We chose to hand-crush them, removing the hard core and stray bits of skin at the same time. We boosted tomato flavor by sautéing the tomato meats until they glazed the bottom of the pan, after which we added their liquid. We shortened the simmering time by using a skillet instead of a saucepan (the greater surface area of a skillet encourages faster evaporation and flavor concentration). Finally, we added just the right amount of sugar, red wine (we especially liked Chianti and Merlot), and, just before serving, a few of the uncooked canned tomatoes, fresh basil, salt, pepper, and olive oil.