La Salsa – An Authentic Italian Tomato Sauce

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We’ve taken to making a batch of tomato sauce on a Sunday evening when we are cooking dinner. It’s easy to watch it bubbling on the hob while we do something else (listen to BBC Radio 4 with a glass of wine). When it’s cool, we store it in glass jars, in a plastic tub or in freezer bags ready for action. It lasts a few days in the fridge or you can freeze it in portion sizes. We use a spoon or two to make a quick bruschetta with a slice of cheese or Parma or Serrano ham on Monday before dinner. On Tuesday we toss it through cooked tagliatelle with a few basil leaves or we make Spaghetti All’Arrabiata by adding a healthy pinch of dried chilli flakes before we reheat the sauce. Sometimes we add a few chopped black olives and capers. On Wednesday we add the rest of the sauce to fried minced beef with a tin of kidney beans to make quick enchiladas. You get the gist! It is a foundation stone for a meal. That’s why it’s worth making it properly. Make extra and freeze it.


2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions (red or white), chopped finely
4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 large carrot, chopped finely
2 stalks of celery, sliced finely
800g (2 tins) tomatoes, with juice
8 basil leaves, 2 sage leaves and the leaves of ¼ stalk of rosemary
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. Add the olive oil to a large heavy saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, carrot and celery. Turn the heat to medium and cook, stirring from time to time until the onion is soft (this will take about 15 minutes).

2. Add the tomatoes, the juice and herbs and stir. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer slowly for about an hour, adding a little more water (or white wine if you have it) if it needs it. Make sure the sauce doesn’t stick and if it is starting to ‘catch’, turn the heat down and stir vigorously. It’s ready when the olive oil rises to the top and has turned golden.

3. Either blitz the tomato sauce in a blender or mash it with a potato masher where you’ll have more control over the texture.

Recipe Tips

– Red onions have a great flavour and are worth using instead of the usual white onions. They add colour to the sauce.

– Add the garlic to COLD oil, not hot. If you heat the oil first the garlic will burn. You want it to cook very slowly. This is true of any recipe where you are asked to fry garlic.

– Use less garlic for a less pungent sauce – two cloves will still make a great sauce.

– If you don’t have fresh herbs, use a teaspoon of dried oregano instead. Fry the herbs for a minute at the end of cooking the vegetables. Dried herbs need to be fried briefly in oil to release their flavour. That’s why you should use them at the start of cooking, not add them at the end.

– To make this a middle-eastern flavoured sauce, switch the herbs for a cinnamon stick or star anise bulb; use fresh or dried mint instead of the Italian herbs and add a spoon of honey. Remove the cinnamon stick or star anise before blending. Serve with spicy meatballs.

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Read how to choose a tin of tomatoes here – they vary greatly, you are looking for tinned tomatoes that are evenly ripe and where the juices in the tin are actually passata or crushed tomatoes (not just the liquid leaking out of the tomatoes). It’s worth spending money on good tomatoes.

Here’s a selection of our favourite Italian cookbooks from writers of the calibre of Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte to Giorgio Locatelli and the world-bestseller, the Silver Spoon Cookbook. These are the books that taught us how to cook authentic Italian food in an Irish kitchen.



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