‘After half a lifetime searching, my father agreed we had finally perfected pomodoro’

The Irish Times: We Love Food – Dominic Coyle, deputy business editor

Deputy business editor Dominic Coyle in the Irish Times newsroom. Photograph: Alan Betson

Deputy business editor Dominic Coyle in the Irish Times newsroom. Photograph: Alan Betson


It was only for a few years, but growing up in Italy was a glorious adventure – not least for the discovery of the secret of cooking simply with good ingredients.

And the most simple dish of all is the classic Italian Spaghetti Pomodoro. Simple maybe, but replicating the wondrous taste of a good restaurant tomato sauce for pasta proved infuriatingly difficult.

My father, who became an avowed Italophile during his time in Rome and was an accomplished cook, spent the rest of his days trying to create the “perfect” pomodoro sauce at home. He spoke to his favourite Italian chefs, scoured the internet, even quizzed Italian mammas at open air food markets on his regular visits back to the country, but success eluded him.

One day, thumbing through the shelves of cookery books in my own home, I chanced across The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, the storied Italian cookery writer credited with introducing classic Italian cooking methods to the US and Britain, who died in September.

Hazan called her Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter the “simplest” of all sauces: she wasn’t kidding. You can use fresh or tinned tomatoes but, unless you’re in Italy you simply won’t get fresh tomatoes with sufficient flavour.

Don’t cut corners on the tomatoes – you want good quality, preferably imported, skinned plum tomatoes in their own juice which you will cut up yourself in a bowl. Given how central the tomatoes are to the recipe, my experience is that you will pay a high price in the finished sauce if you opt for pre-chopped or supermarket own-brand product.

Hazan’s recipe calls for 500g of tomatoes with one onion peeled and cut in half and 75g of butter. As canned tomatoes tend to come in 400g units, I use three cans of tomatoes (1.2kg) with 150g of butter and two peeled, halved onions.

Put all ingredients in a good pot with a liberal pinch of salt and, according to taste, a small teaspoon of sugar.

Apart from the quality of the tomatoes, the secret is in the cooking – uncovered and at a very slow but steady simmer, stirring occasionally. Mash any tomato lumps gently against the side of the pot with the back of a wooden spoon. Hazan suggests 45 minutes cooking time; I find the longer the better – anything up to 90 minutes or even two hours, but very slow. Remove the onion and toss the sauce with any pasta or gnocchi.

You can even freeze it for use later. And, if you want anything richer, add a dollop of cream just before serving.

My father died last January. A month earlier, on his final visit home, I cooked him Marcella’s tomato sauce for the first time. After half a lifetime searching, he agreed we had finally perfected a home-cooked spaghetti pomodoro.

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