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Tomato sauce - the possibilities are endless

"knocking one's socks off isn't the point of a simple tomato sauce, but it ought to be good enough to need no further adornment." Felicity Cloake

What on earth did the non Americas world cook before the tomato? And why, when they finally got it in the fifteenth century did they not embrace it right away? Had they not seen what the Incas, and the Mayas and the Aztecs and all the other American tribes did with it? In fact did the South American Indians eat it anyway?

Well yes is the answer to the last one, though I have to say that if you try to find out much about the history of the tomato there might be heaps about it being brought to the rest of the world, but virtually nothing about whether the South Americans themselves were eating it and if so how. Wikipedia seemed to think the Aztecs were cultivating it as early as 500 BC so we have to assume that they did indeed have tomatoes in their cuisine.

I'm writing about tomato sauce because the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival's newsletter had an article on how to make a perfect tomato sauce. Which is really a bit of a silly notion is it not? I'm willing to bet that everyone has their own version of a perfect tomato sauce, and indeed their own version will vary depending on the season, the tomatoes available and a whole heap of other factors - including whether they actually just buy a bottled version from the supermarket. And if they do that, what brand do they buy and from which supermarket? A posh one where a 500g jar might cost you more than $10.00 or your local Coles, Woollies or Aldi where a homebrand jar will cost you around $3.00?

Another reason I am writing about tomato sauce is because this week's cooking lesson is going to be the dreaded meatballs in tomato sauce. For this particular recipe my tomato sauce differs from other tomato sauces I might make in that it is runnier than most. It thickens up from the flour the meatballs have been tossed and fried in, but it starts out as fairly runny - a sort of soup really. I mean tomato soup is really just a step away from tomato sauce isn't it? Indeed are they the same thing? Well yes they could be. And considering that legend story of the origins of chicken butter cream, being some leftover tandoori chicken heated up in some puréed tomato soup (the implication is out of a can), then yes I think you can say that tomato soup and tomato sauce are one and the same thing.

My tomato sauce also varies according to a number of different factors. Do I have good - I mean really good - real tomatoes, either from my garden or the market? The answer is no at the moment, and so I shall be using canned Italian tomatoes on Sunday. Then do you use whole ones, diced or crushed? Whole for me, although I notice that the proportion of tins of whole tomatoes seems to be diminishing in favour of diced. I used a tin of crushed tomatoes for that chicken butter cream and I have to say it looked a bit watery to me.

Then do you start with onions and garlic? Well yes I always do, but there are lots who don't. Indeed I was surprised to discover that in some circles onions and/or garlic are definite no-nos. The picture on the left, perhaps shows what are generally thought to be the basic ingredients, but I notice even here that there is chilli. Not generally used in Italy, well the north anyway, I would have thought. Do you stack the mix with other vegetables such as celery, carrots and zucchini to fool the kids? If you purée it at the end they will never know. And this is an option that is favoured by Jamie Oliver who has five kids of his own, some of whom, it seems are a bit fussy. When the fancy takes me, yes I do that too. I also add leftover things from my fridge, like gravy, or sauces of one kind or another. I have even been known to add mushrooms. If I have some wine I'll add that too. Water, or milk if I want to make it runnier - even cream. And maybe a stock cube as well if I'm making a sauce for meatballs. I have seen others adding things like Worcestershire sauce, which is certainly not Italian. The French might add some olives. Then do you cook in olive oil or butter, or indeed any of the other multitude of oils on offer. Basil or oregano? Parsley or marjoram - even mint, tarragon, rosemary, bay? Do you add some tomato purée for extra depth of flavour? Well that depends on how good the tomatoes are doesn't it? Sugar? It's supposed to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes, or perhaps, rather, cut down on the acidity of the tomatoes. A touch of chilli? Not in this household.

Then how long do you cook it? and how hard? I just read somewhere that you're supposed to cook it for at least half an hour, preferably longer, but for me that entirely depends on my time frame and how early I thought about getting on to this.

And then when you have finally finished and decided how thick you want your sauce to be, do you purée it with a stick blender, push it through a sieve? Yes apparently some people do - but you'd lose a whole lot of goodness that way. Or do you just leave it chunky - and how chunky depending on how small you chopped your tomatoes and veggies?

A dob of butter at the end? A drizzle of olive oil? A swirl of cream? A scattering of herbs? Which herbs?

The Italians even have a dish called pasta fresca which is shown at the top of the page in the second row, and consists of pasta dressed when cooked with a raw tomato sauce if you can call it that - chopped raw tomatoes and a whole lot of other stuff - or not, mostly the things listed above, but there could be capsicum in there too. Maybe even zucchini and cheese - yes cheese - which cheese?

As I say the possibilities are endless.

And I've only been talking about Italian style tomato sauce. The type that might give you a perfect dish of pasta al pomodoro like this one. It looks like somebody did indeed push the tomatoes through a sieve here. Or maybe it's just passata, another kind of tomato sauce if you like - just cooked puréed tomatoes I think, basically with no additional seasonings, but I'm guessing the best home-made ones add soemthing. I mean how could you resist? Garlic, surely?

And the rest of the world has tomato sauce too. I already mentioned the chicken butter cream, but the Indians have multitudes of tomato chutneys, both fresh and cooked all made with somebody's secret recipe. The top of the page gallery has a jar of kasundi at the bottom. It looks similar to an Italian pasta sauce, but would not taste at all the same. The Mexicans have spicy tomato sauces and tomato salsas - salsa means sauce after all. Again an infinite variety of possibilities are possible. And then there are the Americans with their barbecue sauces, and their glazes, that are a kind of sauce, and their Tex-Mex salsas. I have no idea what the Africans do but I'm sure they do something, as do the Middle-Eastern peoples and the Asians too. What about the northern Europeans? Hmm. Don't know about that. Not their own versions anyway. I mean I'm sure they eat a lot of pasta - like the rest of the world.

And then there's the Australians and the dreaded squeezy bottle of tomato sauce that can be slathered over just about anything.

Tomato sauce - a wondrous thing. Can't live without it.


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