Cooking in Quarantine: Travelling by plate during coronavirus

A Nigerian food writer shares the one thing she keeps in her pantry for emergencies and how she is using it now.

Ozoz Sokoh - cooking in quarantine
Ozoz uses canned tomatoes for dishes that you can soup, sauce, and bake [Photo courtesy of Ozoz Sokoh]

Tomatoes are essential to Nigerian cooking. Though fresh tomatoes are popular, I always have canned tomatoes in my “store”, aka the Nigerian pantry for emergency situations – like this quarantine and lockdown.

If you want a sauce that is versatile and delicious, easy to make in big batches and relatively cheap to boot – look no further than this Italian “sugo”. This is one of those occasions where canned tomatoes, by virtue of being skinned produce, create a much nicer and smoother result compared with fresh tomatoes. I recommend checking to make sure the canned goods are BPA-free.

Food television has always brought me comfort, giving me the ability to travel by plate and explore food cultures and cuisines from the comfort of my couch.

If there ever was a show that bound my children and me, it’s Masterchef Australia. Everything about the gorgeous seasonal produce featured, the pure joy shared by chef teachers and students and the creativity, makes it exceptional programming.

This was our ritual with each new season, watch the show together after dinner and before bedtime every day. It brought us together, squished and squashed on the couch, exhaling at the end of each new challenge, excited for new ingredients and techniques.

Quite often, we left an episode with a list of “must-cook-this” and this sugo by Andre Usini, a chef of Italian heritage, with just four ingredients, olive oil, onions, canned tomatoes and fresh basil, topped the list.

My version has a few more ingredients but nothing you will need to search for. And with only a handful of things, you’ll have made something that you can soup, sauce and bake. 

Ozoz Sokoh - cooking in quarantine 2 Ozoz’s version of canned tomato ‘sugo’ [Photo courtesy of Ozoz Sokoh]

Canned-tomato ‘Sugo’


1 or 2 cans of whole peeled tomatoes (800 grams)

½ tsp coarsely crushed black peppercorns

1 tsp dried herbs (Italian seasoning, Herbs de Provence, basil, thyme, etc)

1 large onion, roughly chopped

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

A handful of fresh basil leaves

½ tsp red chilli flakes

2 whole cloves of garlic

Brown sugar, to taste

Salt, to taste


1. Set a deep pan on the stovetop. Pour the oil in and set the stove to medium-low heat.

2. Add onions, garlic, dried herbs, peppercorns, chilli flakes and some salt. Stir often and cook gently for 2 – 3 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and stir gently. Go easy on the salt here, as you will have a chance to adjust seasoning at the end.

4. Turn up the heat and bring the mixture to the boil, then lower and let it simmer for about 10 – 15 minutes.

5. Add a cup of water (250ml) and fresh basil to the pot and continue to simmer 30-40 minutes until a layer of oil appears at the top. Turn off the heat and let cool.

6. Blend with a stick blender or your regular blender to your desired texture – I like smooth and creamy. The sauce will turn orange.

7. Once blended, return to the pot. Balance the acidity and sweetness, as you desire, with a touch of sugar and salt.

How to use it

1. Soup it – Thin with some stock and serve with crusty bread.

2. Sauce it – Saute vegetables and/or protein, add sauce and let simmer until cooked through.

3. Bake it – Use it as the base for any ragu.

Other options

Chunky sauce – For this, you’ll need to make slight adjustments in the preparation. Finely chop the onions and strain the tomatoes, keeping the strained tomato juice. Chop the tomatoes and continue simmering for 30 – 40 minutes, replacing the water with the strained juice. Cook through and omit the blending step.

The chunky sauce is a great base for shakshuka. Simply pour it into a wide saucepan with a lid and add a few fresh herbs (parsley, coriander, dill, whatever you have). Make a few hollows to break your eggs into. Sprinkle salt, pepper, crumbled feta, whatever you like, over the top. Put the lid on and cook over medium heat until the eggs are as done as you like them.

Season differently – Ditch Italian seasoning for a Nigerian blend of curry powder, dried thyme, ginger and bay leaf. Serve with white rice or use as the base of Jollof, a seasoned red rice dish.

Recipe courtesy of Ozoz Sokoh

Source: Al Jazeera


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