Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lost in the Sauce

Here in New Jersey, Italian-American culture is somewhat ubiquitous. Growing up, I didn't know that most people aren't Italian-American. I just figured I was one of a small minority of non-Italians in the whole country. I never really came to terms with how different that is with the rest of the country until I tried to make Eggplant Parmesan in Texas. Finding Mozzarella cheese was a major ordeal. And, the meal was well-received, but thought to be somewhat exotic. Italian food, exotic? It was an eye-opening experience and made me a little sad to find out that people have been deprived of mozzarella cheese for so long. Then again, it comes right back around because the only place I know of to get really great Mexican food outside of Texas is in Mexico. I'm sure California and Arizona and New Mexico do fine too. Makes me think that there should be some sort of system whereby we send some Italian restaurants down there, and we get some Mexican ones in return.

This past week with me being busy for finals, and the Mrs. patiently waiting for the little man to arrive, I put together a lot of comfort food type dishes. Nothing fancy, but the kind of food that keeps you full and warm. One of my favorites is Lasagna. But we also had a really outstanding Spaghetti and Meatball night recently. On Meatball night, I baked some of the fresh homemade bread dough that I had living in my fridge.

The good news about my bread was that it was beautiful and delicious. The outside had that incredible crunch-crackle sound that only good bread can produce. The bad news is that I still haven't mastered getting it to be as light as a real loaf of french bread. Still beats the store bought stuff though.

So, with all of that said, I wanted to share with you a little bit of New Jersey's home cooking. I saw that the Amateur Gourmet recently gave a recipe for Sunday Gravy, a meaty version of your basic marinara sauce. It goes by a lot of names, but for simplification sake, I generally refer to it as spaghetti sauce (which is made of but not synonymous with tomato sauce). Some people call it gravy. Some people call it Ragu, or Marinara. You can call it whatever you want, but I usually either say red sauce or spaghetti sauce. Or, as my Grandpa used to say, "sketty sauce".

Anyway, Amateur Gourmet just gave you a pretty good sauce recipe, so I'm not going to do that. I wanted to do something a little different. The fact is, you don't really need a recipe for spaghetti sauce. I don't think I've ever actually measured anything while making red sauce. My recipe often consists of whatever I find in my closet and fridge. Sometimes I put wine in it, if I have some open red wine. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I've got lots of peppers but not enough onions, other times, its the other way around. Either way I'm eating red sauce, and either way I'm putting in whatever I have. Sure I'd prefer to have this or that every time, but red sauce isn't the sort of the thing that I tend to plan out ahead of time. It's just something I throw together on a Sunday afternoon.

Instead of a recipe, I'm going to go over some basic principles that you should know about making the sauce. These are either common pitfalls, or little tricks that I've learned, or suggestions to make the sauce better. Much of it is common sense, but if you think I've missed anything, that's what comments are for.

1) The better your ingredients, the better your sauce.

Ok, this might be fairly obvious and truly does apply to all cooking, not just sauce. I bring it up though to remind you to try to strike the right balance between quality and price. Don't just buy a jar of pre-minced garlic, some dried out basil, and expect to have a noteworthy red sauce. You won't. But, on the other hand, we could blow $50 on red sauce ingredients if you got the best tomatoes in the store and had everything fresh and perfect. I don't think you want to do that either. You don't need organic shallots in your red sauce. Onions are just fine.

2) Don't use a cooking wine that you wouldn't drink yourself.

If you have "cooking wine" from the supermarket in your house right now, I want you to open up the bottle, and pour yourself a nice big glass of it. Have a sip. Disgusting, yeah? Why would you put that in your food if you can't stand the taste of it? I guess we're back to balancing quality ingredients, but this just had to be pointed out. Buy a bottle of red wine that is less than $10, and use that.

3) Treat your garlic the way you want to be treated.

Ever see the movie Goodfellas? There are a couple of lessons to learn about making sauce from that movie. First. Do you see those guys with a jar of pre-minced garlic? Hell no. They have fresh garlic, and they chop it really thin with a razor blade. They take pride in their garlic. They treat their garlic the way that they hope the garlic will treat them: with kindness and respect. You don't have to use a razor blade to chop your garlic, but chop it fine and with love. The Second sauce lesson from Goodfellas is my number 4 on this list.

Another pearl of garlic wisdom is that, like many ingredients in the sauce, they change character the longer they are cooked. Garlic is typically sauteed first as one of the first few steps of making a sauce. I do that too. But, I also chop up a little more garlic after the sauce has been cooking for a while. This garlic has more bite to it. The original garlic that you've added becomes a part of the character of the sauce, and has almost a smokiness to it. The second batch of garlic bites a little bit more and says, "Hi!, There's garlic in this!" You want to give it time to cook, so it won't be like eating raw garlic, but the second batch of garlic is just a little more awake than its long simmering brethren. Of course, if you don't care for garlic, don't bother with the second batch.

4) Stir-it, then Stir-it. Then Stir-it more.

The second Goodfellas sauce lesson is from the scene where Henry is being followed by the helicopter, making a drug run, and worrying about the sauce getting stirred. A good red sauce takes time. It would be a shame to put all that time in your sauce only to get a burnt flavor permeating the whole thing just because you didn't stir it. So, no joke. Stir the sauce. Otherwise, you'll be sorry.

When I start my sauce, I have all of my vegetables ready for sauteing. Prep comes first so that I am free to stir and stir and stir my veggies without risk of burning them.

5) Add your herbs and spices last.

There is a temptation to throw in all of your tomatoes and onions and garlic, then add basil, oregano, and whatever other herbs you plan on using. But save the best for last. Remember I said that garlic changes its character after cooking for a very long time? Well, so do herbs and seasonings. The flavor tends to die out after being cooked for very long. It's the difference between a raw chili pepper and a slow roasted one. Basil and Oregano are no different. If you cook them all day, their flavor will be significantly diminished. This seems to be more true of fresh herbs too. Dried herbs first seem to re-constitute, then eventually diminish too, but their sweet spot is a bit later than the fresh stuff.

6) Tomato Sauce vs. Tomato Paste vs. Crushed Tomatoes vs. Fresh Tomatoes

Always add fresh tomatoes if you can, but you can't, it is not the end of the world. You can still have a pretty good sauce with just the canned stuff. But, first you gotta know what all the canned stuff is. Tomato Sauce is a thin sauce that is very similar to the consistency of V8 juice. You can use this as your base, but you will need to thicken it up quite a bit. Tomato Paste is what you use to thicken the sauce. It is, you guessed it, a paste. A little goes a long way, and it needs to be stirred in order to meld with the sauce.

I rarely use tomato sauce in my red sauce, and instead opt for a combination of fresh tomatoes and a couple cans of "crushed tomatoes". Crushed tomatoes have a slightly chunkier consistency and make the sauce feel more like homemade than regular tomato sauce. I also puree some fresh tomatoes as the first ingredient after the sauteed veggies. With all of these tomatoes, but especially the fresh ones, you have to cook them for many hours in order to reduce their acidity. Don't even taste your sauce until you've been cooking it for at least a couple hours.

Both crushed tomatoes and fresh tomatoes tend to release a lot of water. This is what tomato paste is for. You add it and your sauce is less watery.

7) Meat? Yes. Or not.

Sausage, Meatballs, Pork ribs, Veal Shoulder, whatever. These are all great in your sauce. Try whatever you like. I usually just go with turkey sausage and turkey meatballs. You really can't go wrong.

Vegetarian? Add mushrooms, try eggplant. Zucchini has been done successfully.

8) Tomorrow is another day... to eat sauce.

Make as much of this stuff in one batch as you possibly can. It lasts a long time, can be frozen, can be used on a number of different recipes, and takes a long time to make. But best of all, magically, red sauce is always better the next day. After it has had some time to sit and mingle with itself your sauce will be even more fantastic than it was when you first tried it.

9) Ask your guests how they like it.

Everybody has different ideas about what red sauce should be and how they like it. I like a red sauce that you could pour into a bowl and eat by itself, very thick with lots of peppers, onions, garlic, and meat. The mrs. likes a less chunky, more pasty sauce. Others like a watery sauce. If you're having guests and plan on making some sauce for the occasion, ask them how they like it. Use tomato paste accordingly.

10) There is no wrong way.

Sure, it's possible to screw up red sauce. But there is no right or wrong way to make it. There is always some Italian guy who says "mutz-za-rel" instead of mozzarella and "mani-got" instead of manicotti and will tell you that the only way to make Italian food the right way is to make it the way that his grandma from Avellino used to make it. But, that's all wrong. Sunday Gravy is more about Sunday, spending time with family, than it is about gravy. The sauce is just something that brings you all together. If you like it, you made it right.


  1. I really love your sauce! "The Mrs."

  2. My beloved Debbie learned how to make spaghetti sauce from her college roommate's New Jersey-Italian grandma. A recipe is anathema to a good sauce to her.

    Me? I'm German in heritage and an engineer. I like to measure, and preferably weigh, all ingredients.

    But you're right, either way brings you all together around the table, and that's good.

  3. Yeah Chuck, my grandfather was an engineer. His head practically explodes when I tell him that there is no recipe.

    Or he says, "how much butter do you put in?" and I say, "however much it needs." *kaboom!*

  4. I'm thinking about starting a sauce by roasting some pork neck bones in the oven for like 3 hours.

  5. Tim,

    Good idea, but if I had some pork neck bones, I'd make a rich pork broth with it, simmer it with five spice powder and sechuan peppers and make a homemade ramen. Booyah!