On Aguila Street in Centro Habana, I walked out of our front door, stopped for a minute, decided to let fate guide me that day, and turned left. It was one of those days where you have no plans and all the time in the world, and of course, for me, that meant cooking. It was my first real trip as a serious girlfriend, and I wanted to impress. What could I, a millennial, inexperienced, college senior, cook? I thought for a few minutes as I walked down Aguila, ignoring the “Hey, Beautifuls”, “USA” being yelled at me, the most Irish-looking girl in the neighborhood for the next few weeks. Then it hit me like the smell of garlic and onions sautéing on the stove.
Whenever anything big happened in my family, we made a “big sauce”. Everyone’s exact recipe differed slightly, but they all included tomatoes, onions, an abundance of garlic, oregano, sweet and spicy Italian sausage, and meatballs. My first experience of feeding the horde happened by melancholy chance. I had begun to make the sauce, sautéing the onions, adding pre-minced garlic, crushed tomatoes from that lovely green can, and was about to add my sausages. My dad solemnly walked into the kitchen and eyed my sauce for a moment. My uncle had died. My mother looked at me and said, “We will bring the sauce.” And so we drove to my aunt’s house for what was my first close experience with death. My great aunts sat in the living room and didn’t get up. They cried and laughed, reminiscing over their brother, and pausing every now and then to sop up my sauce with bread.
So from the most intrinsic and familial part of my soul, and after spotting all of the basic ingredients on a street cart about a block up, in a true mash-up of heart and convenience, I decided to make “the sauce”. Since it was one of those days, I lovingly chopped the onions, garlic, and tomatoes, and placed them in the pot and let them cook and cook and cook until they formed a beautiful sauce, the sauce.
Tomato sauce is present in most cultures, in some form, and each individual grandmother, mother, father, cousin, and aunt has a distinct recipe for the sauce. Frankly, my own tomato sauce recipe isn’t cast in stone, and I change it based on season, and what I’ve got in my pantry at the time. Below is my optimal traditional simple tomato sauce as of now, but, as always, subject to change…
Basic Tomato Sauce:
Notes: In the summer, use all fresh tomatoes, which is how I made this tomato sauce in Cuba. When they aren’t in season, I usually use some fresh tomatoes and augment with a can of crushed or diced tomatoes. If the sauce begins to get too thick, just add some water and keep simmering. This is a very versatile sauce and can be used to serve about 4 people as an accompanying sauce to chicken, pasta, fish, fried eggplant, etc.
-4 lbs of tomatoes
-1 large white or yellow onion
-1 head of garlic
-1-2 tablespoons oregano
-salt to taste
-Sugar to taste
-1 tablespoon pepper
-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
-Fresh basil for garnish if desired
-knife for chopping
- Roughly chop the tomatoes and onions, mince garlic.
- Add 3 tablespoons olive oil to pan, and heat over medium heat.
- Once the oil is beginning to shimmer, add the onions, about 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, oregano, and crushed red pepper flakes. Mix so that spices are evenly distributed.
- Cook this mixture until onions are beginning to become translucent, stirring occassionally.
- Add garlic to mix and cook for about 1 minute.
- Add tomatoes and stir all togther.
- Lower heat to medium low and cook at least 30 minutes, preferably longer. The longer the better, just make sure it doesn’t start burning.
- Taste for salt and sugar before serving and adjust as necessary. Add freshly chopped/chiffonaded basil as you wish.