As the cold weather hits, I start to think about autumn food, and tweak my go-to dishes accordingly.
The basic tomato sauce is probably the cornerstone of my cookery empire. I base innumerable meals on it, and the surplus is dead handy to liven up midweek “can’t be arsed” pasta meals. But it varies with the seasons. The spring and summer sauce is a light and lively affair, bright with fresh herbs, quick to put together. I’ve even made a no-cook version that’s closer to a salsa. Sloshed over a steaming bowl of spaghetti on a warm evening with plenty of bread to soak up the juices, this can be a winner.
The autumn and winter sauce is a different beast. Slow-cooked, warming and earthy, the base for a ragu or a sausage casserole. Something to linger over, both when cooking and eating.
I start with the usual suspects. Onion (usually red), garlic, celery and bacon. Chop em up finely, using the lessons you learned at the Ludlow Food Festival at your knife-use course. Use a rocking, pushing motion to glide the sharp, sharp blade through the veg. Get distracted at just the wrong moment and open a flap in your thumb. Swear. Get TLC to kiss your owie, and get on with it before the blood soaks through the dressing.
Sweat off the bacon in a little oil (I use a decent English rapeseed oil for everyday use) and add the onion and celery once it takes on a bit of colour and gives out a little fat. Leave it for a good fifteen minutes over a low heat to get acquainted.
Meanwhile, chop up a few mushrooms (chestnuts would be good, but use what you’ve got) and if you can, some porcinis that have been soaking in a little hot water. I probably should have told you about those sooner. Sorry. It’s the blood loss making me a bit woozy. Anyway. Porcinis. Soak them for 20 minutes, then drain and chop them, hanging onto the dark brown broth they’ve left behind.
By now, your veg and bacon should be golden and smelling glorious. Tip them into a bowl, add a little more oil to the pan, and gently cook the mushrooms and garlic. Throw in some dried herbs at this point. Oregano, thyme, maybe a bay leaf. Be heavy-handed.
Once the garlic has softened and the mushrooms have taken on a little colour, return the bacon/onion/celery to the pan, and introduce everyone. It’s not a party without alcohol, so throw in a glass of red wine. Have one yourself. What the hell, it’ll take your mind off your poor throbbing thumb.
Let this bubble away until the wine has reduced to a red smear at the bottom of the pan, and then add a tin of tomatoes. Fresh will work, but I think you’ll lose a little of the deep autumn flavour. There’s something unquantifiable about tinned toms that’s just a bit more appropriate for this sauce. Plus, you don’t have to skin and seed anything.
The tin will have plenty of flavour left after you upend it into the pan. Don’t waste it. Sloosh the mushroom stock that you didn’t throw away into the can, and throw the lot in. There. Cookery and sorting out your recycling in one easy step.
That’s about it. Taste and season (bear in mind you’ll be getting salt off the bacon, so easy on the Maldon, cowboy) and let it cook slowly until it goes thick and glossy. About half an hour, give or take.
This went over meatballs and little cubes of roasted potatoes yesterday, with enough left over for later contemplation in the week. To be honest, it’ll go with just about anything that needs a rich, robust tomato sauce. You could even use it as a relish or dip. I’ve blitzed it and used it on a pizza base. It’s incredibly useful.
And eminently tweakable. Leave out the bacon, or replace it with pancetta or chorizo. Add carrots, peppers, maybe some courgettes and aubergine for something a bit more ratatouille-y. Some chili would be nice. Perhaps some cumin and coriander, added to the onion at the start of things for more of a Middle eastern vibe. Slosh it over burgers, sausages, a baked potato, monkfish…
Come the spring, you’ll be jonesing for something lighter and fresher. But as the damp and cold rolls in, you’ll need a sauce like this to help you hold the line. It’s so good, it’ll even help you forget about the wound you’ve gouged in your thumb.
(Image via Tomato Casual, who also have a great cold-weather tomato sauce.)