Most commercial tomato sauce adds sugar to balance out the natural acidity of the tomatoes and the savory from the added salt. If you pick the right tomatoes and leave the pulpy seed part in and spice them well you get enough natural sweetness from the tomatoes themselves. I found out yesterday that Sweet Bay, as opposed to regular Bay, really really brings the sweetness out of the tomatoes. Here is what I did, it took two hours, at most, but I never keep track.
Picking the tomatoes is the most important part of a good sauce. I don't promote a specific variety (some people swear by romas, for example), but I have a completely unfounded, un-tested and unshakable belief that whatever variety, the best tomatoes are slightly small and extra deep red when compared to their neighbors. For sauce, over ripe tomatoes are great because they are sweeter, and the perfect shape and firm texture of younger tomatoes is useless in the sauce.
I began by cutting the stem out and roasting the tomatoes in an extremely hot oven (450 degrees), lightly coated in olive oil. If you want to include some peppers (sweet or hot), I recommend roasting them too. Once the skin bursts from the flesh and begins to blacken, they will be very easy to peel. Peel them over the roasting pan, which should have high walls, as they may turn into mush at this step. Don't take out the seeds, the pulpy part in the middle has the most flavor.
Onions or Shallots, Garlic:
I begin every sauce that I make, just about, by frying two or three medium shallots, or one small onion in a sauce pan with some olive oil, along with some finely chopped or crushed garlic (the sauce pan should be big enough to hold all the ingredients at the end). If I am cooking vegetarian, I always add butter to get some extra fat and salt. If I am cooking vegan, I add more olive oil and salt. How much garlic? I usually use about six times as much as the recipe calls for (because I am afraid of vampires, of course). If you, like most Americans, don't have the same devotion to this pungent bulb, one or two cloves will be plenty.
Although this is usually the first step, for this recipe I started the onion family right after putting the tomatoes in the oven. When the garlic and onions/ shallots are starting to brown, I cool them off and deglaze with the following:
Vinegar and Wine:
I heard somewhere (I think from my old room mate Austin) that you should always add some acid (vinegar or citrus), some alcohol (usually wine or vodka), and some water (which is provided by the tomato juice in this case) to every meal, because these different solutions react differently with food, bringing out different flavors. Now I am no chemist, so I take this advice completely on faith. It has served me deliciously so far. Yesterday I used White Balsamic Vinegar (my current favorite, it is cooked and aged differently from regular balsamic, and it is c-h-e-a-p at Trader Joe's) and a half cup of the white wine I talked about yesterday.
What I didn't tell you about that wine yesterday (because I had not read the label yet) is that Evesham Wood grows their grapes with zero irrigation, only the natural rainfall feeds their vines. You may be thinking "oh yeah, sure, in Oregon, but what about the rest of us?" In response, I say, booyah. The guys in the last link apparently have no desire whatsoever to market themselves, but they produce an amazing zinfandel that Courtney and I had the good luck to stumble on in Cambria as we were coming up the coast. Oh, yeah, and they don't irrigate either. In Southern California.
Anyway, if the tomatoes are not ready yet, take the onions off the heat until they are. When the tomatoes are ready, peel off the skin and dump all contents of the roasting pan into the sauce pan. Next, add the...
Fresh thyme is the most important herb for any savory dish, in my opinion. After that rosemary, sage, marjoram and oregano, or whatever else I have handy take roughly equal second place. Somewhere, someone right now is cursing at the computer and saying "what about fresh basil, you jerk." Well, I don't like to use fresh basil in something that I am about to boil for an hour, I usually reserve it for a cold, summer sauce like pesto. If you want basil in your marinara, I suggest adding it near the end of cooking.
One more essential herb, as mentioned above, is Bay. Once all of this is in, boil until the tomatoes are pretty much dissolved. This step is what takes all the time, but luckily all you have to do is stir it every 10 to 15 minutes. And hey, since the oven is still hot, now would be the perfect time to put a small chicken or medium winter squash in there (assuming you already prepped it before hand). When the tomatoes are mushy enough (purely subjective) it is almost ready to serve. Taste it and see about adding salt and pepper (to me by the way, pepper always means black, red, white, and paprika). If you have parmesean handy, don't worry about the salt so much.
I always make way too much sauce, not because I don't know how to plan a meal but because the sauce is always smoother and the flavor is always more evenly absorbed when you freeze it and re-heat it later.
Yesterday I threw a squash in the oven while the sauce boiled which I will call pumpkin?, because I have no idea what it was. Courtney said it was probably pumpkin adjacent. We tried to toast the seeds, too, but that was a complete failure, perhaps because we forgot to coat the seeds with oil. The pumpkin? was delicious though, and the sauce was excellent. The flavor of home made tomato sauce is a little different every time, but it is always more interesting than grocery store canned sauce. The time commitment makes this a weekend recipe, but the easy freezing means quick delicious pasta later.
Final note, since I started the no sugar thing up there, serving this sauce with white kidney or cannellini beans instead of pasta is a good low carb alternative for diabetics or otherwise dieting people.