Three ingredients, one pot, forty-five minutes

My mom and I spent a dinner out at an Italian restaurant last week marveling at the complexity of the sauces at our table. They looked so basic - two in particular - yet contained so much flavor. The two that had our attention most were seemingly standard red sauces. Both were hardly flecked with herbs; one was more textured than the other, though both were essentially smooth and thick. They were different, though. Naturally - two different sauces for two different dishes. These dishes were the most simple on our table. We wondered what made the penne marinara just as remarkable as the extravagant seafood ravioli in creme sauce.

I'm not sure, but the answer could be butter. A little butter makes most foods a lot better. In the case of this sauce, a lot of butter elevates tomatoes and an onion to a whole new level of richness.

The world of food bloggers has been up in arms about this sauce from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for quite some time now. I'm not familiar with this cookbook, and I don't know who was the first to share. As I am only a voyeur of this community, it took me a bit longer to stumble upon this here and then decide I couldn't make it quick enough.

A friend walked into the kitchen only minutes after all the ingredients hit the stove and yelped. Oh butter, he sighed sniffing madly. He commented every time he came back in. It felt a little wrong to accept any credit; the recipe wasn't mine, and I had hardly done a thing to prepare it. Forty-five minutes on the stove is all the three ingredients need, save for an occasional stir. A can of tomatoes, butter, and a halved onion, discarded when it's done.The deliciousness lies in the simplicity of it all.

Dinner was another batch of garlicky broccoli rabe with peas alongside a scoopful of spaghetti covered with a dollop of sauce. Joe and I ate silently, save for the occasional slurp and mmm.

Though everyone refers to this as Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, to me it's the 45-minute Tomato Sauce.

The 45-minute Tomato Sauce or Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan

I've shied away from making tomato sauces in the past because while they're easy to make, they're not always easy to make really really good, and mediocrity is always a shame. But with only three ingredients and this much hype you can't - and really shouldn't - resist.

The recipe says to discard the onion before serving the sauce. Do take it out, but don't discard it! It will be soft but heavy with flavor. Eat alone or spread on a baguette - maybe with a little extra smear of butter.

one 28-oz can whole, peeled plum tomatoes and their juices
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
salt, to taste

Combine the tomatoes and their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, at a very slow but steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary, for about 45 minutes, until droplets of fat float free from the tomato. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and salt as needed.

Remove the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.

Serves 4 as a main course; makes enough sauce to lightly coat most of a pound of spaghetti


  1. I made this tonight and my sis and I were both very pleased! Thanks, Jenny. Ace in the hole.

  2. Adele, I can't tell you how that thrills me!

  3. This is a super site for you, Jenny. Well written and jam packed with tasty ideas. A real home run! All the best, Joe's Dad

  4. yum. guess i know whats for dinner when we get home from vermont!

  5. so jenny, as i read about your sauce more carefully and looked at the book you referenced, i realized that i, we, own two of marcella hazans books, one of course being the essentials of italina cooking, given to me by who else? my mother..... go figure??