tomato sauce with garlic and basil

This pasta is, for me, the essence of summer. Tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil are simmered for 20-ish minutes to produce a light, fresh, and healthy sauce. It is so much better than any tomato sauce you will ever find in a jar, and it isn’t complicated at all. When tomatoes are out of season, it can be made with canned tomatoes, and is still delicious. It’s very versatile; I’ve eaten it alone on pasta (as above), and used it in both chicken and eggplant parmesan. This is the first tomato sauce I attempted to make from scratch last summer. I tried several other versions after this, some with long lists of ingredients that started with a mirepoix (diced onion, carrot, and celery) and included wine, sugar, and red pepper, and they just didn’t match the simple goodness of this sauce.

This is another recipe from Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. This book is worth owning just for the pasta section, which is over 100 pages long and includes 50+ recipes for different sauces (disclosure: I haven’t actually tried anything outside of the pasta section, because there are so many tasty-looking pasta recipes). Marcella always recommends certain pasta shapes for certain sauces. Before buying this book, it had never occurred to me that pairing pasta to sauces was something that was done, but I have tried her recommendations and understand now that certain pastas and sauces complement each other very well. I think this sauce, though, can be used with a variety of pastas; she recommends spaghetti or spaghettini (smaller spaghetti noodles), but I’ve also enjoyed it with linguine (my own favorite noodle!) and penne. Whatever pasta you use, some crusty bread is an absolute necessity. How else will you mop up the sauce leftover on your plate once you’ve eaten all the noodles? (Er, other than scooping it up with a spoon, which I have definitely done before). 

Tomato Sauce with Garlic and Basil

A few words about tomatoes, first: ideally, you should use local tomatoes for this (and any other dish requiring fresh tomatoes). The kind that you can find in your grocery store year round are of poor quality, because they are picked before they are ripe, and then other scary things are done to them to make them look ripe (see Mark Bittman’s recent editorial about this, as well as the truly horrible working conditions for the people harvesting these tomatoes). As a result, they are not flavorful and are often very watery. Of the different varieties of tomato, plum tomatoes are best here, as they tend to be firm and contain less water than other kinds. Fresh tomatoes, whether plum or not, should feel firm and be naturally ripened. If you can’t find good fresh tomatoes, or when tomatoes are out of season, you are better off using canned whole tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes from Italy are the best). I’ve made the sauce with fresh and canned tomatoes, and it is lovely both ways.

Serves 4


2 lbs. fresh, ripe tomatoes, or 2 cups canned whole tomatoes
5 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large bunch fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. pasta

First, prepare the tomatoes for the sauce. If you are using fresh tomatoes, there are two ways of doing this:

1) Blanching: Bring a pot of water, large enough to hold the tomatoes, to a boil. Add the tomatoes and boil for 1 minute. Remove tomatoes, and when they are cool enough to touch, cut a thin slit in the skin on the bottom of each tomato and peel the skin away (it should come off very easily). Cut tomatoes coarsely, and they are ready to be used. Or, if you prefer a more evenly textured sauce and don’t own a food mill, give them a few pulses in the food processor, until they reach the desired consistency.

2) Food mill: Wash the tomatoes. Cut them in half (removing the stems if still attached). Place them in a saucepan and turn on the heat to medium. Cover the saucepan and cook for 10 minutes. Place the food mill with the disk with the largest holes over a bowl. Put the tomatoes and juices into the mill and puree. Return the tomatoes to the pot to begin the sauce.

Finally, if you use canned tomatoes, you just need to drain the juices, chop the tomatoes coarsely (or pulse in food processor), and then they are ready for the sauce.

Once your tomatoes are ready to go, put the tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, salt, and a few grindings of pepper into a saucepan. Turn the heat onto medium-high, and cook the sauce for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the sauce is cooking, you should boil the pasta according to the package directions to al dente. Wash the basil leaves under cold water. Dry them in a colander or by patting gently with a clean towel. Tear the leaves into small pieces by hand.

When the sauce is finished, stir in the basil leaves. Once the pasta has finished cooking, you are ready to toss the sauce with the pasta and eat!

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

3 Comments on “tomato sauce with garlic and basil”

  1. Mark D says:

    One of my favorites … will you tell the world about the salad we usually have with it?

  2. […] lbs. fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (see this previous recipe for how to peel tomatoes) 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 teaspoon sugar Salt and freshly ground […]

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