From time to time, Alex will call me during the day at my office to check up on me (cuz he’s sweet like that). But occasionally I wonder if he has ulterior motives. You see, to you, “what’s for dinner tonight?” may seem like a casual question, deftly inserted into an otherwise benign conversation. A question to which you might not even hesitate to answer, even if the answer involves someone besides you doing the cooking. To me, however, these words represent the ultimate challenge, some sort of twisted home-chef code for “how do I intend to satisfy my man tonight”…er…you know, his stomach…with food. Geez, people get your minds out of the gutter!
When this happens, as it did yesterday, my mind races: What can I say, on the spot, in response to that question that will elicit from Alex that innocent, childlike glimmer of excitement and anticipation that I apparently yearn for? (again, for the food) Not that a lack of such response would ultimately change my mind about what to make–indeed, many of Alex’s skeptical “that sounds interesting…” responses turn into relieved refrains of “this is yummy!” one bite into a meal.
(I know, I know, I should listen to my own advice and plan out the entire week’s menu so I won’t get caught in these types of situations. But a mini kitchen remodel tends to throw you off track. Yes, yes, I promise a progress photo at the end of this post).
Well, friends, comrades, yesterday, my mind was sharp, the stars must have been aligned, and the response that came out without missing a beat was “chicken in a tomato cream sauce.”
An instant “smile” was heard over the phone as Alex ooOOoo-ed his approval and we hung up to continue about our work days.
Now, I have made a buttermilk tomato sauce before, and I’ve made Jamie Oliver’s tomato sauce before – the one that accompanies his spaghetti and meatballs. But in collecting an assortment of inspiration recipes, I was intrigued by the simplicity and rave reviews of one of Smitten Kitchen’s older recipes: tomato sauce with onion and butter – seriously click over and read through the 600+ comments! This recipe is the essence of simple cooking: with the exception of the ubiquitous salt, there are only three ingredients. Tomatoes. Onion. Butter.
The whole premise of this sauce (which is apparently adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking) is that you let the tomatoes cook down and do their beautiful thing, all the while flavoring it with onion (which is removed later), and letting the butter melt all over everything so that it’s luxurious and delicious and sexy.
Unfortunately, I also had a head cold while I was making this dish, so my smelling powers weren’t quite up to snuff. Nor my tastebuds. So while I recognize the simplicity and beauty of the idea of this sauce for its good-quality, almost virginal flavors, it just wasn’t
making me hot producing the “wow” factor I was looking for. So I took some creative liberties. First, I added a single bay leaf. Then a sprinkling of dried oregano. Then I whisked in a bit of heavy cream (heavy cream that, admittedly, may have been sitting in the back of the fridge a bit longer than it should have? Don’t tell Alex. He gets all freaky-deaky about that kind of thing).
I know, I know. Call in the crazy police. This improvisation thing is out of control!
(Really, it’s not. I’m sure someone, somewhere has made this exact sauce and probably even written about it. In fact, someone, somewhere in the world, is probably making it right now. And I commend them. Cuz it’s dang good).
To be fair, though, I tried to be faithful to the simplicity of the sauce by just adding a couple more ingredients (in green) – one additional ingredient to mimic (what I determined to be) the purpose of the original three ingredients (in red). Here is my tomato-sauce-building logic, presented in a rare display of fairly-accurate mathematical genius:
Tomatoes + oregano = base Italian flavors
Onion + bay leaf = subtle, undercurrent flavors
Butter + cream = hull-oh, need I say more? (i.e., texture, richness, silkiness, voluptuousness)
So, taken all together, tomatoes + oregano + onion + bay leaf + butter + cream = the sexiest tomato cream sauce you’ll likely ever make (AKA the recipe I am about to share with you).
Tomato Cream Sauce
Yum Factor: Alex – 8.2, Jessalyn – 9
– 7-10 smallish Roma tomatoes, peeled (if you don’t have these fresh, add another can of diced tomatoes)
– 14-oz can good-quality, diced tomatoes
– 1 sweet red onion, halved
– 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
– 1 small bay leaf
– 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
– 1/4 cup heavy cream
1. Add everything but the oregano and cream to a sturdy saucepot. Bring to a gentle simmer. Add salt to taste (I added quite a bit) and just a dash of pepper. Smoosh the tomatoes with your wooden spoon as necessary.
2. Lower the heat so it stays at a very, very gentle simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
(In the meantime you can prepare your chicken – I used chicken breast which I diced and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder and cooked in a bit of olive oil in a skillet – or your pasta – I used a fun assortment of pasta that Alex’s dad brought back as a souvenir from his recent Tour of Italy. Because, you know, it seemed a shame to make this beautiful sauce and not have some pasta to eat it with).
3. After 30 minutes, add the oregano. Then add the heavy cream, slowly, whisking it in as you add it. Remove the onion halves and the bay leaf.
4. Toss in your prepared chicken, pasta, whatever you’re eating with it.
Now look, I’m not a tomato-vodka sauce kind of girl. And I don’t like it when jarred sauces try to get all crazy and add things like mushrooms and roasted garlic and red peppers and olives and basil and cheese and sausage and whatever else they’re adding these days. And thick, creamy, white pasta sauces creep me out. And bologneses and ragus have their place, but you only want them once in a while, right? cuz they’re almost like stews in and of themselves? And pesto doesn’t count as a pasta sauce, in my humble opinion. (I do love a good carbonara, but come on, people, that’s a whole different ball game). Bottom line: if by some bizarre twist of fate I were suddenly forced to choose only one sauce that would accompany my pasta for the rest of my life (why yes, I do have a good imagination), it would definitely be a tomato sauce, and this one would definitely be it. For real. I’m serious. It’s teasingly sweet, slightly savory, sultry and silky, tantalizingly rich…and I have now run out of appropriate descriptive phrases. You’ll just have to make it for yourself. Like now.
Remember those t-shirts that say things like “my grandma went to Myrtle Beach and all I got was this lousy t-shirt?” Yeah, the subtitle of this post should have been “Jessalyn uncovered the secrets to tomato sauce bliss and all you get are these lousy photographs.” It seems I was too busy eating to take a decently composed picture. Mama mia.
So, to make up for it, why don’t we take a sneak peek at our kitchen in its current state of transformation?
First, a look at the kitchen as it has existed for over a year:
And now in its new, light and airy glory (two shots with different lighting):
Pardon the mess. That’s what happens when you get all home improvement-y in the kitchen. (Oh, and what do you think of those awesomely convenient island chairs I finally snagged at TJ Maxx?)
What do you think? The pale blue definitely lightens things up a bit, doesn’t it? (The after photos were taken at night, so the light is not quite the same as the before picture, but you get the idea). The paint color is “Aqua Sparkle” by Olympic in the no-VOC eggshell formula. Remember, we’re going to be painting the cabinets, too, so this is by no means the final “after” shot. Stay tuned.
Okay, so spill: What is your reaction when someone asks “what’s for dinner tonight?” What do you think is the ultimate pasta sauce? Have you mastered your own go-to tomato sauce yet? Could this recipe be the one? When it comes to kitchen wall colors, are you a fan of deep, rich colors, or a light, airy palette? Do tell.