Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dissecting the Sauce … and Sharing a Secret

Just before I moved into my first apartment, I sat down with my mother and wrote out the recipes for the comfort foods of my childhood — Hamburg BBQ, Spare Ribs with BBQ Sauce, Sausage & Peppers, Lasagna, Chicken Cacciatore, and most importantly, Mom’s Tomato Sauce. The funny thing about the last recipe was, my mom didn’t have it written down. Instead, she recited it from memory, and this is exactly what I wrote:

What you’ll notice first is, aside from the canned items, there are no amounts for any of the listed ingredients. Generally I use a palmful of each herb — the dried variety — going a little light on the oregano, since that can quickly bitter the sauce. In the printable recipe (see link below), I offer suggested amounts, but this is an element of the recipe you need to play with to your liking.

Also, you can see that the recipe calls for whole tomatoes (preferably plum), which you then puree in your blender. I suppose you could buy and use crushed tomatoes instead, but honestly, I prefer following Mom’s directions on this one. Crushed tomatoes are not the same as pureed whole tomatoes – at least not in my book, which this cook-blog technically is.

The next ingredient worth noting is the tomato paste. The use of the paste has evolved over the years – perhaps just a matter of changing palates – but if we use it, one tablespoon is more than enough.

The recipe calls for paste only if you are putting your sauce over spaghetti or another pasta. The paste gives a deeper flavor to your sauce, as well as thickens it. If your sauce is an ingredient, however – say, in a pan of lasagna – you don’t want it to overpower the other flavors, so don’t add the paste.

To the right of the card is a “tip” – the most important tip of all: brown your meat first in the bottom of your pan!* If you take nothing else away from this post today, please take this:

Browned meat = flavor,
no matter what you are cooking.

What type of meat? Almost anything will work: chopped beef, meatballs, sausage, meatloaf mix, pork chops, boneless pork, even veal. I’ll have to give you Mom’s braciole recipe soon – talk about added flavor!

You can then build the sauce from there. The browned bits** on the bottom of the pot from the meat will slowly cook into the sauce to give it a complex, rich flavor. And then, of course, the final instruction: “Cook for hours!”

A good pot of sauce is not difficult to make, but as with Italian Wedding Soup, each step is important to the overall end result. Brown your meat, add all the ingredients, slow cook for hours, and you are assured a flavorful pot of sauce that would WOW! even Marlon Brando. And we all know how beneficial it is to keep the boss happy!

Along the way, you can try what I remember most about sauce-making days as a kid: taste-testing it right out of the pot on a wooden spoon ― or even better, on a piece of good old American white bread. Buono! 

Ask any Italian you know who makes the best spaghetti sauce they’ve ever had, and in most cases their answer will be their mother, their grandmother, or a greatly loved aunt. For me, it’s my mom. This cooked-all-day sauce from her kitchen has kept me out of Italian restaurants my whole life – nowhere is there a pot of sauce like hers (though Aunt Barbara’s comes darn close).

I made this recipe this week, just to make sure I didn’t leave out any important steps when relaying it to you. And truth be told, I’d feel like I was giving away the family jewels, except there’s one more dirty little secret I must share: no matter how often I attempt this recipe, while it’s good, it’s always better when my mother makes it. Still, that doesn’t stop me from trying over and over again. And one day, I know I’ll get it right. Un giorno…

Culinary Key
* My chef-friend tells me the technical term for this browning is the “Maillard reaction.” Google it for an interesting story!
** Again, thanks to my chef-friend, I now know the technical term for the browned bits is the “fond.”

Mom's Tomato Sauce on Foodista


Tess Wittler said...

I've been looking for a good sauce recipe. My mom's got lost and haven't been able to find one that sounds both easy and yummy ... so thank you! (I love this blog!) :)

CraigS said...

I can not wait to make this. Have to be meatless with the fast closing lenten season approaching. What I love about this recipe is the flexibility to make it your own. Play with the quantities. Change up the herbs. Like marjoram? Try that. Try fresh herbs, try different mixes of meats. Make two batches at once for A-B comparisons. You could make this recipe for years and never have the exact same end result, which I think is a wonderful thing. I love recipes that encourage you to experiment.