I appreciate the beautiful and simple notion that in Italian cooking, the same four or five ingredients get remixed into completely different dishes based entirely on subtle changes in preparation.
One of the key ingredients in the Italian food lexicon — and often the most misunderstood — is garlic. Allium sativum, a small, pungent relative of the onion, radically changes its flavor profile based on how you slice it (or press it or crush it) and then does so again based on cooking methods, temperatures and timing. A clove of garlic roasted in foil for 20-30 minutes at 400° while still in its bulb makes a mild and sweet spread for crustini (or a decadent treat when blended into mashed potatoes) while a thinly sliced one releases savory tones when charbroiled atop fish. A teaspoon of pressed garlic gently simmered in olive oil for just a few seconds before forcing it too cool can flavor an entire pot of red sauce whereas that same teaspoon of pressed garlic, if overcooked, will leave your food inedible and your dinner guests wondering why they didn’t just go to Olive Garden. (On the plus side, vampires will also keep their distance.)
As it turns out, mastering this press-and-sautée method of cooking garlic is really all you need to do to make a great pomodoro, the most basic of Italian sauces — yet probably also the easiest to screw up. Like anything, good garlic management skills improve with practice. As your nose gets more attuned to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in the smells released by cooking it, you’ll soon master when to cool the garlic by adding tomatoes — or when to throw everything away and start over.
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, pressed
1 can of crushed tomatoes, opened (or you can use blanched, skinned and blended fresh tomatoes and maybe a tablespoon of tomato paste, but it never makes sense for me to do this from a cost/benefit perspective)
1 t dried oregano
3 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 pinch of crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Before doing anything else, open the can of tomatoes
This sounds ridiculous, but it’s super important because the last thing you want to do is run around looking for your can opener while you’re overcooking the garlic. (Yes, I’ve done that. More than once.) So open the darn can and just set it down right next to your sauce pot. (You can thank me later.)
Now chop the basil, press the garlic and get ready for the fun part
Heat the olive oil in the pot under medium-low heat for about a minute. It will start to become less viscous, so you can tilt the pan and allow it to pool on one side. Confirm that your can of tomatoes is open and nearby and ready to reach with one hand while you hold a wooden spoon with the other. Place the pressed garlic on the wooden spoon and carefully add it to the pool of hot oil, stirring constantly. The garlic will sizzle a lot at first as it releases liquids, then it will quickly start to brown and give off all sorts of wonderful smells. (Our beloved family dog would come running down two flights of stairs the moment she smelled garlic cooking in olive oil, then she would put her snout as close to the range as possible without getting burned, just to take it all in.)
There’s a critical apex reached — once the garlic has released all of its “good” flavors and smells — when suddenly it starts to turn dark brown and produce rancid, nauseating odors that will ruin anything in their path. If that happens, pour everything into your compost pile and cover it with food-soiled paper or scraps to contain the smell. Then open the windows, clean the pot thoroughly with soap and water and start over.
With garlic, it’s okay to error on the side of not-yet-done but it’s never okay to error on the side of OVERdone.
At the critical moment, usually no more than 10-20 seconds in, grab that can of tomatoes and smother the garlic and olive oil by quickly adding the contents, then stir to normalize the temperature of the tomatoes, oil and perfectly-cooked garlic. (You’ll probably get some tomato on yourself in the process. I usually do.)
The rest is easy: Add all the other ingredients, stir them in and simmer on low for at least 30 minutes, up to 2 hours (or more if you add water). Stir the sauce every ten minutes or so to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom and burning, which is another great way to ruin your pomodoro. (If any of the sauce burns, the whole pot of sauce is ruined and needs to be composted.)
Serve pomodoro in a million different ways: over penne or spaghetti, on pizza, on stuffed peppers or zucchini, inside (or on the side of) a calzone, as dipping sauce for anything fritti, etc.
Whatever you do, just do the garlic right and everything will turn out well. Even the vampires will like it.