The best recipes give you more than the food they describe; they give you the skills to make a dozen more dishes. Sometimes they do so by incorporating many different techniques, calling for ingredients you have to research, or putting the pieces together in a surprising way. Other times, they just describe a simple process which lends itself to endless variation.

Today, one of the last variety: a fake book for a tomato-butter sauce. I got it from Cathy Whims, the chef at Portland’s excellent Nostrana.

Pappardelle with tomato/sausage sauce

Why am I talking about tomato sauce in January, about as off season for tomatoes as we get here in the US? (If you’re in Australia, there’s still some good ones about, probably.) Well, I really wanted to have some tomato sauce the other night. Really. Then the lesson is: compromise and make-do are great friends to have in the kitchen.

There’s nothing like in-season tomatoes, of course - ah, the smell alone! - but did you know that the closest thing comes in a can? You can pretty much ignore those yellowish, hard, watery, tasteless red fruits in the winter; instead, reach for a can of San Marzanos or Glen Muir tomatoes; whole and peeled, please.

For this recipe, put the entire contents of 1 large, 28 oz can in a large plastic or glass bowl and crush the tomatoes with your hands. It’s fun! Get them to sub-bite-size, then put them in a nice pot or pan (I’ve used a saute pan and a sauce pan; either works.) Add some butter, cubed. How much butter? Oh, about a tablespoon per tomato. Or less if you’re watching your fat, or more if you’re not. Add a medium onion, peeled and cut in half; you’ll take it out when you’re done (you can then eat it; I do!) This way the onion will add sweetness without the crunch and bite you’d get if you chopped it into the sauce.

Start this on medium and bring to a simmer. You’ll want some infrequent bubbles at the surface and a heat that won’t scorch the bottom. Cook for 40-50 minutes, stir now and then, crushing any large pieces with your spoon or spatula. Salt as you go; start with just a little bit and add the bulk of it near the end; remember that sauces get saltier as water evaporates.

That is it - really, that’s all! Four ingredients. Now, the jazzy part is, you could start adding things. Herbs, meats, bits of Parmesan rind (don’t throw these out! In your soup or sauce they go), maybe some red pepper flakes. This sauce doesn’t need any of those, and I encourage you to try it in its sweet, jammy simplicity first. One of the reasons to cook this is that even the best jarred sauces - and there are some great ones - can never be of this bright, fruity quality; the fact that they’re mass-produced and stored on shelves guarantees that. So, start simple, but remember that you can use this recipe as a base for richer sauces.

As it is, I love it over fresh or nearly-fresh pasta; Bionaturae is my favorite in the latter category. Don’t be fooled into thinking fresh pasta is somehow superior to dried stuff by default. They’re different products, with different up- and downsides. Your typical “fresh”, refrigerated pasta from the grocery store is doughy and heavier than good dried pasta.

I also skip the Parmesan on this sauce and let the sweetness speak for itself. Jam on bread with butter, it is.

If you remember this recipe in the summer, do make it with fresh tomatoes. You can peel them by putting them in boiling water for 30 seconds, then promptly moving them to an ice bath; this will crack the skin and make peeling effortless.

I was told Smitten Kitchen posted a similar recipe recently - great minds think alike! The sauce really is that easy and that tasty.