For this project I use three tomato sauces: a classic marinara, a sugo di pomodoro which uses a soffritto, and a slow-cooked gravy popular in the U.S. These are recipes by well-known chefs and readily available on the Internet so I won’t copy them here. The idea for this project is to employ mindful eating techniques and then draw conclusions about the aesthetic merits of these three classic sauces. Before tasting, however, it’s important to be familiar with the ingredients and what our expectations might be going into the tasting.
The marinara sauce is exceedingly simple. It cooks for only 15 minutes and contains only olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, a small chile pepper, salt and a basil leaf. Obviously, the aim is to preserve the freshness of tomatoes. But note there is a lot of garlic—7 cloves, and a lot of olive oil, ¼ cup for 28 ounces of tomatoes. The sugo di pomodoro is also simple but it begins with a soffritto (carrots, onions, and celery) and does not have the chile pepper. It cooks for 45 minutes after the tomatoes are added. The soffritto will add sugars and the longer cooking time will produce more caramelization of the tomatoes. Finally the slow-cooked tomato gravy uses carrot and onion for sweetness. The slow, lengthy time in the oven will produce lots of caramelization and concentration. But this recipe reserves some canned tomatoes to add just before finishing to bring back some freshness to the sauce. All the sauces are served over penne rigate. Although it is traditional in the U.S. to use grated cheese when serving, I’m interested in the flavors and textures of the sauces themselves and so I did not taste them with cheese.
The first impression is of bright, fresh tomato flavor encased in the oiled sheen of the fruity olive oil. The green vegetal flavor of the processed tomatoes has disappeared replaced with a quality that hovers between floral and fruity. The flavor is not overtly sweet but the brightness of the tomatoes creates an impression of ripe fruit. (It is in fact difficult to distinguish sweetness from fruitiness. They are not the same since sweet is a taste and fruitiness is coming from the aromatics but the brain seems to link them I suppose because they are typically found together.) The short cooking time means the olive oil still retains some freshness which contributes to the fruit-like impression. Less prominent, but still very discernible, is the vaguely nutty flavor of cooked garlic which is no longer sharp and pungent but provides depth and warmth in a distinct flavor layer. As the intense fruit/floral impression begins to fade, there is some drop-off in the intensity of the flavor until mouthwatering acidity becomes apparent. This acidity is not sharp like lemon but comes across as a stimulating, yet mild prickly sensation that bursts throughout the mouth. This is easily lost and requires some concentration to recognize as the mild wheat taste of pasta comes into the foreground. It is more easily discernible with a spoon of sauce without the pasta.
Most impressively, as I chew through the al dente pasta, the after taste has great intensity and persistence. Mild heat from the chili and the tartness of the tomatoes form a sustained background of prickly tactile stimulation that extends through the tasting experience even after swallowing. This is what is most impressive about this sauce. It gets intensity from the freshness of the tomatoes and the way the aftertaste stimulates the palate and creates length. This effect depends on how large and hot the dried chili is. I used a medium-size guajillo chile without the seeds (they add unwanted bitterness) to amp up this effect.
Also, there is synergy happening between the pasta and the oily, floral surface of the sauce. The pasta is thick and absorbs moisture, but the oil is so prominent that the pasta slips and slides across the mouth, an effect that is in itself pleasing.
One of the key virtues of mindful eating is that it encourages us to focus on the after taste which too often is an after thought when we eat distractedly. Much of the interest of this dish is lost if we don’t have that focus.
Sugo di Pomodoro
The immediate impression when tasting this sauce is sweetness. The addition of carrot, onions, and celery add sugars, which are clearly discernible when you compare the two sauces–the sugo di pomodoro is much sweeter than the marinara. The additional sugar from the soffritto along with 45 minutes of cooking time means more caramelization as well. Thus, the sauce has muted fruity/floral notes but acquires an undercurrent that I would call “buttered toast” which adds depth to the flavor. The addition of a generous handful of basil however just before serving adds anise notes to the sauce which helps restore some of that lost impression of freshness, the inevitable cost of more cooking time. There is only subtle garlic flavor and no oily sheen. In fact the texture of this sauce is thicker and slightly clinging because of the small morsels of carrot, onion and celery. (You can strained the sauce to be rid of these if you want a more elegant sauce) The essence of this sauce is the sweet/toast aspects that cling to the basic tomato flavor. However, after the burst of intense sweetness up front the intensity of the sauce does drop quickly. It lacks the vibrant aftertaste of the marinara with less horizontal evolution. Thus, the basil is critical in adding interest to the dish.
So there is an aesthetic choice here. If you want depth the sugo di pomodo has it. If you want freshness and evolution on the palate, the marinara sauce is best. Of course the ideal would be both which brings me to the third recipe—the long, slow-cooked gravy.
Italian/American Tomato Sauce (gravy)
I chose this recipe because it uses onion and carrot to create sweetness, long, slow cooking that should increase caramelization, but right before finishing, some reserved canned tomatoes are thrown and just briefly cooked to bring back the freshness that is lost with many hours in the oven.
Upfront, the now very rich “buttered toast” notes underlying the tomato flavor have become even more prominent than with the sugo di pomodoro. These flavors meld with the fruitiness of the tomatoes added at the last minute to create a lot of vertical depth to the sauce—top fruity notes supported by rich caramel bass notes. But the sauce has also acquired a meaty flavor that the sugo didn’t have. That is in part due to more concentrated tomato flavor but also because the long cooking has amped up the umami flavor (helped along by the addition of fish sauce). Immediately following the initial burst of toasty tomato flavor there is a brothy impression that spreads throughout the mouth. This is accompanied by prickly sensations that make your mouth water. The feeling is of more taste buds in extant areas of the mouth being activated. It is as if the flavors are acquiring breadth even as they disappear under the wheat and thick texture of the pasta. That expansion is the interaction of umami and acidity—it is what makes this sauce so satisfying making your mouth feel alive. The after taste is a long slow decrescendo with some occasional prickly heat from the pepper. This finish is not quite as intense as the finish of the marinara.
With the right vehicle, the taste experience has duration and evolution.
Additional Posts in the Tomato Sauce Project: