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Jammy Tomato Sauce Is a Hands-Free Miracle

A plate of long-stranded pasta in red sauce, topped with pine nuts, grated flakes of hard cheese, and green garnish.
Rocky Luten

What started as a procrastination cure—a way to not succumb to the grip of temptation to cook-cook-cook instead of write—turned into a rich, jammy tomato sauce of outsize greatness that will require almost no input from you.

Phyllis Grant, longtime Food52 contributor and blogger behind Dash and Bella, was writing an earlier version of her raw, beautiful, soon-to be-released memoir Everything Is Under Control. “I would promise myself I wouldn’t cook,” she told me. “Because if I start cooking, forget about it. Nothing else is gonna happen.” This hands-free sauce saved her from herself.

What I’ve discovered is that this also means you can tuck her recipe easily into your life, even if that life happens to include a weekly columnnewsletter, and video series, a looming book deadline, and a cheery 10-month-old baby who’s becoming both a night owl and a morning person (for example).

Because, in spite of all of this, you can fling everything into a pot and take care of business for a few hours, swinging back by the stove every half hour or so, just to give it a stir and make sure it’s behaving itself. Meanwhile, you can write, you can chore, you can chill (you can read Phyllis’s book, and the smells coming from the kitchen will grow and intensify, quietly letting you know that you’ll have a very good dinner waiting for you at the end of the day).

Those things that go into the pot, naturally, are the ones that Phyllis often likes to pull from in her cooking, as we saw in her columns for us at Food52—the balsamic reduction, the long-cooked tomatoes, the anchovies, the herbs. But nothing is chopped, not a cutting board is dirtied.

On a cutting board, light brown sugar, thyme sprigs, anchovy fillets, red pepper flakes, strips of lemon peel near a peeled lemon, and garlic cloves.
Rocky Luten

A few hours later, what started as a loose pool of acidic and bright and punchy ingredients has become a tightly woven, entirely new sauce: sweeter, more savory, and jammier—both in stickiness and intensity—than tomato sauces you’ve had before.

It turns out there are some fun-fact reasons for that, beyond just good ingredients and getting the time to do good work.

There are the classic flavor-improvers of reduction, caramelization, and Maillard reaction going on (thank you, as always, Kenji), as all sloshiness bubbles away and leaves a more concentrated, complex base. In other words, with a little heat over an extended period of time, long-cooked tomatoes have evolved to a higher form.

But the one bonus interaction I didn’t know about (or have since had replaced with book design ideas and assorted, conflicting toddler-rearing advice) was this: umami boosters! As Cook’s Illustrated explains, naturally present glutamates (aka umami) may taste pretty great on their own (hi, tomatoes, among others), but will taste even better in the presence of nucleotides (hi, anchovies, among others). Tomato and Anchovy are right there in the name of this recipe, and it’s their interaction that forms the backbone of the sauce (with or without you being terribly involved).

Red sauce in a large pot, with a wooden spoon sticking out, and a bottle of olive oil visible nearby.
Rocky Luten

This is the sort of food science that sticks with me, and helps me remember that my steak would respond really well to soy, and dried mushrooms could amp up my ragu. (And yes, there are vegetarian options on the nucleotides list, too, though it’s worth noting the environmental and health perks of eating anchovies.)

You can use this officially umami-boosted base sauce to dress pasta tonight, smear on grilled cheese tomorrow, and braise beans or chicken this weekend. Be sure to do as Phyllis does, and offer a glut of toppings to give any dinner companions (and you) the impression of being entirely in control.

Jammy Tomato Anchovy Sauce From Phyllis Grant

Makes 2 ½ cups.

2 28-ounce cans of diced or crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, with their juices
½ cup red wine
5 oil-packed anchovy fillets
3 cloves garlic, peeled and microplaned
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic reduction, homemade (instructions to follow) or store-bought aged and thick balsamic
1 tablespoon packed light or dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons sherry or white wine vinegar
3 sprigs thyme
1 teaspoon salt
A few turns of black pepper
Pinch of red pepper flakes

See the full recipe on Food52.

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