I've prepared many birthday cakes and treats, but birthday dinners have never been as common for some reason. My family would often celebrate with dinner out and treat ourselves to sitting and enjoying a meal prepared and served by someone other than ourselves. Looking back I’m surprised by the tradition. Mealtime was always special, and we took pride in making it ourselves. But when birthdays rolled around we all gathered at a restaurant in town and paid for our dinner. I remember nearly every year riding a fake bull (a horse saddle that was strapped to a high chair seat with fake wooden horns hanging from the front — it was very Texas) at a steakhouse in town and being sung to by off-key 20-something waiters and waitresses who announced to the entire restaurant it was your birthday. The song wasn’t complete until your waiter yelled to those around to “give a big Texas yeehaw.” This was my childhood. It was so weird.
My boyfriend, Todd, had a much simpler and likely much more normal birthday tradition — spaghetti. His mom, Sandy, has even shared with me that spaghetti was the first meal she learned to make after marrying Todd's father, Bing. She told me she knew absolutely nothing about cooking when they married, and she and Bing learned to make spaghetti together.
When I asked Todd what meal he wanted for his day I expected a night out to our favorite sushi restaurant, or to the tavern we frequent for duck tacos. Nope! Spaghetti was on his mind. This made me laugh because we honestly have that meal once a week. It’s cheap, fast, and in a pinch it’s usually what we make. We doctor up canned sauce with herbs and Italian sausage and bake simple vegetables like asparagus to serve on the side. It’s such a common meal in our home that it was probably the very last thing I expected him to want. But that’s Todd — always surprising me.
With his chosen meal in mind, I made a trip to the farmers market and scouted the tents for the prettiest, brightest, vine-ripened tomatoes I could find. I’d heard great things about the simple Marcella Hazan sauce recipe while listening to the food52 podcast one day, and had just recently purchased the cookbook the recipe is featured in, so I went for it — two pounds of tomatoes and the best Irish butter I could get my hands on.
I was wary. Three ingredients (four if you count salt) didn’t seem like enough. I thought to myself, “wouldn’t I need fresh and complicated herbs, robust red wine, and hours of simmering to bring a big bag of tomatoes to life?” No. The answer is no. You do not need fussy ingredients or multiple complicated steps to make a great sauce. The sauce was perfect. It was a pure, no-nonsense, shockingly delicious sauce. I loved it for its taste but also for its attitude. It was completely itself, not trying to be anything it wasn’t. Marcella wrote in 2004, "simple doesn't mean easy." I agree with her, simple ingredients or a simple process doesn't equate to easiness. It's often hard to overcome your expectations of what will make something great — but simple can be, and often is, great and more than enough.
*Click here to download a PDF version of this recipe!
- Put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking and the fat floats free from the tomato.
- Stir from time to time, mashing up any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon.
- Taste and correct for salt. Before tossing with pasta, you may remove the onion (as Hazan recommended) and save for another use, but many opt to leave it in. Serve with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for the table.
Making Fresh Tomatoes Ready for Sauce
- The blanching method: (this is what I did!) Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for a minute or less. Drain them and, as soon as they are cool enough to handle, skin them, and cut them into coarse pieces.
- The freezing method (from David Tanis, via The Kitchn): Freeze tomatoes on a baking sheet until hard. Thaw again, either on the counter or under running water. Skin them and cut them into coarse pieces.
- The food mill method: Wash the tomatoes in cold water, cut them lengthwise in half, and put them in a covered saucepan. Turn on the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Set a food mill fitted with the disk with the largest holes over a bowl. Transfer the tomatoes with any of their juices to the mill and puree.