Amy Eddings' Food for Thought: Canned Tomatoes

I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, but when our latest Last Chance Foods guest, Carolyn Cope, suggested adding shredded carrots to homemade tomato sauce, I balked. Carrots? No way! Even the red onion, basil leaves and parmigiano-reggiano cheese rind she uses is far more than called for in my go-to sauce recipe.

It's from the January 2009 issue of the sorely-missed Gourmet magazine. The issue was dedicated to Italian-American cuisine. My copy is torn, crinkled, marked up with ink and stained with olive oil. It's packed with good stuff, but here are the recipes I've tried and enjoyed: Lasagne Bolognese with Spinach. Spaghetti with Meatballs. Braciole. And, marked with a star drawn in black marker, Sunday Ragu. 

5 (28 ounce) cans whole tomatoes in juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 Turkish bay leaf, or 1/2 California bay leaf

That's it. That, and time. The recipe calls for simmering the sauce for at least one and a half hours.

I looked up the author of that recipe, Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez, and gave her a call. She grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, and lives there now with her husband and two children. The Italian-American neighborhood could be the local epicenter of the Sunday sauce. "I just came from the supermarket now," she said.  "You have to see the aisle where they have the canned tomatoes. It's insane."

Miraglia Eriquez agrees with Cope that the best canned tomatoes are the whole ones, in juice. The crushed and the pureed have their places, she says, but just not in this recipe. 

Her sauce is surprisingly naked. No dried oregano or basil. No sugar, to offset the tartness of the tomatoes. No garlic powder, or onion powder, like my mom used to use. (Forgive me, I'm not Italian. I'm a mutt from the Midwest.) Just some onion, for sweetness—"it rounds out the sauce, to me"—and garlic for, well, for its garlic-ness.

Does this simplicity make her sauce more authentic? I think so. But authenticity is a tricky thing. Miraglia Eriquez said she would never serve spaghetti and meatballs to her Italian relatives. "They don't eat spaghetti and meatballs. They don't!"  

She said her four grandparents, all from Italy, developed their "authentic" Italian-American staples by trying to reproduce the meals they ate in Italy with the products they were able to get in their adopted home. Money played a big role.

"Think about it. Getting a pound of ground beef, adding cheese and bread, eggs and flavoring, to make all these meatballs—it fed a family," she said. "It was stretching out the most expensive part of the meal," the meat. The same goes for lasagna, another authentic Italian-American dish that Italians would not recognize as their own.

But we do! Italian-American cuisine is our national cuisine, beloved and ubiquitous, and, too often, bland. Think Chef Boyardee and Ragu and Domino's Pizza. My mom's spaghetti sauce came out of a jar, made by machine, not by hand. So forgive me if I get a little crazy about authenticity, and cringe at the thought of carrots in my sauce. I'll cook up Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez's sauce, and pretend I'm having dinner with her Nonna.