It seems to me that for many years, our mainstream culture has shunned foods that are simple and economical in favor of that which is “gourmet”. Lately, though, economic necessity has brought cheap eating to the forefront of our consciousness, and I, for one, could not be happier.
I was talking to my childhood BFF Denise the other night. She had decided to write down recipes for things she cooks without really thinking about it, and we had a lively discussion of tomato sauce and its many variables.
For me, there is nothing more versatile and inexpensive than a large pot of tomato sauce, which can be turned into many different, nutritious meals. As children, we ate “macaroni” several times a week. Served with a salad, it was a nutritious way to feed three kids with enormous appetites without spending a fortune on groceries. We will focus this week on making a good sauce, and using it in a variety of ways.
First, though, let’s clarify a few things for all you Tony Soprano wannabes out there. First, there is no such thing as one true and correct Italian tomato sauce. Italian cuisine has many tomato sauces, each tailored to the ingredients it will be served with, the region it is prepared in, and the whims of the cook. Second, “marinara” is strictly an Italian-American invention. If you visit Italy and ask for pasta with marinara, you will likely get a strange look and a plate full of pasta with seafood in it. Finally, and I am going to apologize to my fellow Belleville, New Jersey natives here, “gravy” is brown, and it’s made from meat drippings. There is a tendency among the children of southern Italian immigrants to the Newark and Brooklyn areas during the 20th century to use the term “gravy” to refer to tomato sauce cooked with meat, but, again, it’s not Italian, and it certainly isn’t gravy.
It is also interesting to note here that my grandfather Angelo, born in the northern mountains of the Veneto, never tasted tomato sauce until he emigrated to Newark in the 1930s. For him, real Italian food was polenta, cheese, and plenty of fresh vegetables, preferably fresh from the garden. It was his landlady Mrs. Nisovoccia, as well as my grandmother Josephine, a fantastic Italian-American cook who was born in Newark to parents who emigrated from Emilia Romagna, who introduced him to the food that, in our part of New Jersey, is considered “real” Italian food.
With my rantings about what is correct out of the way, we will proceed to the recipe for our basic sauce. We will be making “sugo”, a long-cooked tomato sauce that provides excellent flavor even when using canned tomatoes. Of course, if you have put up your own jars of tomatoes and still have them at this time of year (we don’t, as I used my last jar to brighten a dark and miserable February day), all the better.
This recipe will yield about seven pints of sauce, enough for six or seven meals. It freezes well, and can be used in a variety of ways, which we will explore over the next few days.
Gather the following:
4 28 oz. cans of tomatoes, preferably your own, or a San Marzano variety (make sure the jar says D.O.P, a designation that indicates real Italian San Marzano tomatoes), or Redpack, a very decent-tasting canned tomato from California
1 small onion, minced very fine (I mean it, no big chunks!)
2 ribs of celery (don’t use the tough outer ribs for this, or they won’t disappear into your sauce), minced very fine
1 carrot, minced very fine
3 cloves of garlic, run through a garlic press, minced very fine, or, if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing, sliced very thinly with a razor blade (We do this once a year, during a garlic slicing contest at our annual “Goodfellas” dinner and movie screening that becomes dangerously competitive. ).
¼ cup of good extra-virgin olive oil (if you say “EVOO”, I’ll have to slap you around, so don’t).
A pinch each of dried oregano and dried marjoram. Just a pinch. Please. You want to taste the tomatoes here.
½ cup dry white wine
Pepper, to taste.
A handful of fresh basil, torn into smaller pieces.
In a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat for a minute or two. Add the onions, and immediately salt them. Adding salt right away will ensure that the onions release their liquid and break down in the sauce. There is nothing worse than biting into a piece of onion that still has some crunch to it. Both of my parents were guilty of this sin (as well as the sin of using too many herbs). It’s one of the reasons I learned to cook when I was very young – self-defense.
Stir the onions constantly, until they begin to lose their color and become soft and opaque. Do not let them brown. Add the carrots and celery, and immediately add a little more salt. Cook for about five minutes, then increase the heat to medium-high and add the garlic with a little more salt. Stir for about another minute, and add your tomatoes all at once. It’s up to you whether you use whole or crushed, or how much you break them up (my husband likes a very smooth tomato sauce, so I usually run the tomatoes through a food mill). Bring to a boil, add the dried herbs and reduce the heat to low. Cook for an hour or two, stirring frequently, until the vegetables in the sauce have broken down completely and the whole house smells like Sunday morning at Grandma’s.
I like to skim any foamy orange “scum” that rises to the top of the sauce occasionally, being careful to leave behind the delicious onion and garlic flavored olive oil immediately below.
Add the wine, a little fresh pepper, and a handful of torn basil leaves, and cook for another five minutes or so. Take it off the heat, and finish with another drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, as you want to taste it in the finished sauce.
Notice that I’m not specifying a quantity of salt. Canned tomatoes contain varying amounts of sodium, and you need to taste and let your palate be your guide.
Cool your sauce, and pack whatever will not be used within the next day or so into freezer-suitable pint and quart containers.
For dinner, have spaghetti! (Or, if Denise is here, have linguine, since it’s her favorite.) Cook your pasta, and heat your sauce (I like about 2 cups for a pound of pasta, although varying shapes use varying amounts of sauce, so use your judgment) in a large sauce pan. When your pasta is cooked but still al dente (firm to the bite) save a cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain it quickly. Add your pasta to the bubbling sauce and toss for a minute or two. If it looks dry, add a little of the pasta cooking water that you saved (you did save it, right?). This method, called ripassatura, ensures that the pasta absorbs some of the sauce. Remember, you don’t want to drown your pasta in sauce. The sauce is a condiment to the pasta, not the whole dish.
Remove from the heat, drizzle with a little more extra-virgin olive oil and grind a little fresh pepper. If you like, toss in a little more torn basil. Serve immediately in heated bowls, with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or, if your diet is pure vegan, fresh bread crumbs that you have tossed with a little extra-virgin olive oil and toasted in the oven until crunchy.
Tomorrow: Six pints of sauce to go. We’ll be making whole wheat pasta with cauliflower and tomato sauce.