December 19, 2014

Blog the Twenty-sixth: Sauce, sauce, & sauce.

(Tomato) Sauce Three Ways.

Back in Brooklyn, dinner came in a weekly round of foods—not to be confused with a regimen of recipes [think Nature, not Army].  Our week had an alimentary shape, with two rises and their twin dips, like the curves of a Venus de Milo.   The high points were Thursdays and Sundays, which were buxom by virtue of a first dish of pasta with sauce, invariably followed by a fancy second dish, and an especially fancy one on Sunday, when dinner was eaten midday, soon after coming back from the late morning Mass.  This first dish of some pasta shape or other with tomato sauce was a kind of basso continuo for the varying main dishes, which chased the graces of the seasons, the sales, or the moods of the moment. 

After the big Sunday dinner, Mondays and Tuesdays were lighter meals that might include leftovers or grilled meats, buttressed by  first dish of pasta soup or pasta sauté with seasonal vegetables.  Wednesdays and Fridays were fish days, not usually preceded by a first dish (so as not to blunt the appetite), but often followed by cheese (so as to fill out the fish).  Saturday was the day for roasted meat with a variety of fancy vegetable sides.  

I once had a gentile friend liken my mother’s round to his mother’s rotation of seven recipes [no need to mention the woman’s particular Northern European provenance—could have been any]:  she had one recipe for each day of the week, the same week after week.  That sounds to me like a post-modern Dante’s reconstruction of an infernal punishment, a gustatory No Way Out in which an eternal return of the same is greeted by a desperate Pereat mundus! instead of an exuberant Da capo! 

 no, my mother took a Bachian delight in inventing fugal variations on gustatory themes, imitating Nature’s ingenuity in varying her fixed species.  Of course we but imitate, and lacking Nature’s power of self-renewal, our cycles, unlike Hers, roll out in straight lines that have a beginning and an end.  Fix on such successive delights as your end, and human life becomes a restless desire of desire after desire ending only in death; but make use of them as sacramentals, and they offer a foretaste of what lives without dying. 

This waxing and waning of aliment, in alternating forms of fish, fowl, kine, or swine, variously winged by seasonal vegetables, kept appetite alive with expectation.  It was a little like Christmas—you knew the sort of present you might get, but you were never sure of what exactly until the day came, and your expectation could be as delighted by the unexpected as by the long-desired.  Yes, yes, it was like Christmas every day!

Or so it seems to me now, when I get home from work, and didn’t plan much for dinner, and have to forage in the frig.   I’m committed to keeping my culinary week shapely, even if not as buxom as my mother’s.  She had more time, more love, and more mouths to feed than I, but I have a bigger slush fund for picking up a rib-eye and good bottle of wine on the way home from work when I need to console myself for not having my mother’s time and t.l.c. to render cheaper meats more savory and satisfying than a steak.  

I heard an N.P.R. interview of a N.Y. Times food columnist—was Bittman his name?—promoting his new book on fast cooking—dinner in half an hour—“It’s what people want,” he said.  Demagoguery, I say.  You give them what they want?  And if a friend gone mad demands his gun back, you give it to him?  A fortiori, if a whole people is fevered from an encephalopathy of the Natural Law induced by electronic distraction after electronic distraction ending only in take‑out; and if whilst the prodigals wallow in the slop of their take-out and tablets, a recollection of the home-cooked scraps from their Mother’s table should stir conscience and remorse to yearning, you meretriciously hand them a quickie!  A chicken alla parmigiana broiled instead of fried?  And please, please don’t say you put marinara sauce on it, please

No, no, Gentle Reader, if you are reading this blog, then you have Socratic humility enough to know that you do not know what you want, that you’ve come searching for just that, and that you and I together will be brave enough to keep seeking to eat as a human being should want to, and if we meanwhile make do now and again with picking up a rib-eye and opening a better bottle of red than we should of a Tuesday, we’ll be man enough to suck up our wine and our misery calling it by its name, without prevarication, for the lie we tell ourselves is the most hateful lie, is it not, mon semblable, mon frère?  

There’s some consolation prize for me, however, in the fact that a poverty of time and opportunity taught me to be far more inventive than my mother about reincarnating leftovers, endowing me with an almost divine knack for making a little something out of almost nothing.  I sometimes stun friends with such impromptu creations, be it at my house or theirs, but I never, like Paul, tear my garments and call it madness when they extol my culinary miracles.

These days, my mother is far less likely than I to make the sauce I grew up with.  It was time-consuming and labor-intensive to make, taking the better part of a Sunday morning before Mass, but I remain attached to it, even though my parents’ new and simpler sauce is favored by my family (by “new” I mean only 3 decades old; and as for “simpler”, more on that later). 

Thing is, my mother’s sauce is not the sauce of my mother’s people.  The sauce of my infancy is not an anomaly only because the innovation was well-received by the rest of the extended family.  Would you believe that the recipe came from the New York Daily News?  My father, ever the culinary innovator in my mother’s behalf, used to read the paper on his subway commute “to the City” [that’s how the sign read in Brooklyn subway stations, as if only Manhattan were “the City”], and one day he saw this recipe, and the rest is family history. 

In this newspaper recipe, you first boil whole peeled tomatoes with very roughly chopped onion, carrot, and celery; when this aromatic medley has cooked down for a while, you pass it through a food mill (which we call a passapomodoro) to get a passata (or puree).  Then, herself innovating on the recipe, my mother in her sauce pot sautéed several scored garlic cloves in (regular) olive oil until golden, and added the passata with salt to cook down to a pulpy thickness.  She would add a couple of whole fresh basil leaves for the last 10 minutes, if she had them, only to be fished out later along with the garlic cloves, before saucing the pasta. 

This sauce is plain yet delicious, which is the kind of delicious you want a staple to be.  Its taste is mellow, its texture velvety, and its nose sweet.  We refer to it just as “sauce”—not  “tomato” sauce, for we have no other sauces, and you’ll give yourself away as a Gentile if you call sauce “tomato sauce,” as though there could be others—although we might call it “smooth sauce” to distinguish it from chunky marinara, or else “plain sauce” to distinguish it from Sunday gravy.   

Marinara and gravy are the two staple sauces of my mother’s people.   Marinara is quick and zesty:  you boil down whole peeled tomatoes, a.k.a. pelati, with garlic cloves sautéed in olive oil (and salt, needless to say), mashing with your baletta, your wooden spoon, as you go, and in half an hour you have a chunky, zesty, crowd-pleaser of a sauce.  I teach it to my Gentile friends, and they stay friends for life.  They call it John’s sauce, but it isn’t (I know they know that, yet I don’t stop them calling it that).  This was my grandmother’s usual sauce when I was growing up, and I didn’t like it, without knowing why, being used to smooth, sweet sauce; but I do like it now (although I’m apt to divest the pelati first of their embittering seeds, shamefully gourmet though it be).

As for the other sauce of my people, I’ve already written you a post on how to make a Sunday gravy or sugo, which is a pretty big deal, although that didn’t stop my aunt from doing it every Sunday.  My mother liked the richness of a sugo on holidays, and would never use anything but a sugo for any ricotta-filled pasta such as lasagna or ravioli, but we found it heavy as a weekly staple, and preferred our salsa semplice.  Like our “simple” sauce, a sugo starts with a smooth and strained passata of milled pelati, but its savor comes from the gilded fats of browned meats boiled in it, the flavors of which are rich, as they should be, in contrast to the light fruitiness of olive oil.

My family’s name for our family sauce is salsa semplice, but how shall I name it for you in English, gentle Reader, poor Gentile, metaphysically disenfranchised child of an age not only post-metaphysical but post-mechanical?  For when I say to you “simple sauce,” you hear “simple to make,” don’t you?  And if I should say to you, “No, no, I mean simple in essence, a quintessence,” your mind conjures up medieval wizardry or sci‑fi fantasy, doesn't it?  

For you believe that the really real at the bottom of all things is one and the same thing—if not Mass, then ENERGY; and that the multitudinous forms of it which we perceive are, if not illusory, then epiphenomenal; and since transient, alterable; and because emergent, subject to chance, and so in principle subject to human will.  Admit it, you expect action at a distance more and more:  not a mere press of a button, but a word to SARI shall accomplish your will.  [Often passengers in my Saturn unable to find the control button for the door buttons ask me, “How do I get out of here?,” and when I reply, “Let me show you a trick,” and lean across them to reach and pull up their door button for them with my fingers, they stare at me in wonder and giggle with perplexity.] 

But let’s you and I, Gentle Reader, for a moment speak not only in confidence, but in secret.  Let’s enter into my culinary confessional, sealed with the seal of electronic anonymity.  In here, I bid you descend deep, deep within, and have faith in what you find!  Confess to Reason, to yourself, and to me, that deep, deep down, you do believe in the being of what your eyes see, and your hands touch, and most of all, what your tongue tastes:  you believe with a moral certainty more inconcussible than any scientific one, that the diverse forms of food are really real; that they delight or disgust not by chance, but with reason, reasons that Art can learn from Nature; that at the heart of a thing lies a form that forms formless energy into a being, a being glorious to behold and gloriouser yet to taste, a veritable golden apple, a pomodoro! 

And if it was Chance that discovered to Art how to simmer, smooth, and distill this rosy apple’s substance to a saucy quintessence that vouchsafes us a primordial form of delectation, then let us confess Chance not only benevolent but beneficent, yay, let us acclaim her Providence, elder sister of Nature, and sit at the sisters’ table to be healed of our affected unbelief by seeing, touching, and tasting their graces.  Uncouth Monster, be not skeptical, but eat, drink, and be merry!  Put forth your hand to the feast prepared for you from the heart of Being!   

Now, though our plain sauce be simple metaphysically speaking, it is no simple matter for human art to imitate Nature’s simplicity.  The sauce my mother made when I was growing up was troublesome:  it involved two pots, or at least washing one for reuse; careful monitoring of the pre-boiling pelati and aromatic vegetables lest, for lack of any oil, they stick to the bottom of the pot and burn; then the milling of the hot and splashy stew; and finally a second round of boiling down the milled puree with garlic-scented oil.  It was a cumbersome and protracted business, reminiscent of fussy Frankish food to the north.

Now, despite my relentless caricaturing in this blog, truth is that I did not grow up with any consciousness of a Northern Italian cuisine as an alternative, not to say antipode, of our own.  It’s Northern Italians (and the Italophiles that fall for them) who like to diss Southern Italians; the Southern Italians I grew up with barely mentioned them.  If they mentioned their food at all, it was in passing, by way of a contrast, without disparagement, more likely respect.  But when I later became acquainted with the differences, I assumed my mother’s sauce recipe must have come from North Italy (and Marcella Hazan in fact gives one like it).  But then I once went with my mother to visit a paesana of hers (a “homey,” as it were) in Toronto, and she made us sauce by boiling down a passata with a whole onion, carrot, and celery floating in it, which she fished out at the end.  She said that’s the way her grandmother did it back in Sacco.  Go figure.  In any case, when I make my mother’s sauce these days, I go the way of the paesana, and instead boil the aromatic vegetables whole in a passata of pre-milled pelati, fishing them out at the end. 

As for my mother, she was delivered from the tedium of the newspaper recipe decades ago by yet another innovation of my father’s, namely, canning a year’s worth of their own passata every August from Jersey tomatoes (easier to get off the backs of trucks in Brooklyn than in Jersey, due no doubt to the calculus of capitalism).  My gourmet foody-friend calculated that my parents canned nearly a half-ton of tomatoes one year (24 bushels).  In Brooklyn, they used to do it in the basement, where they had a second kitchen that my mother used for messy cooking, so as not to mess up the real kitchen; in Jersey, they do it in the garage. 

Their set-up is worthy of the industrial revolution.  It involves an assembly line of specialized equipment and conscripts.  The bushels of tomatoes are pre-sorted the day before, to separate the ripe from the unripe, which are laid out in the sun; the rotten are tossed.  On the day of canning, there’s a huge tub of water fed by a garden hose, for one conscript to wash the tomatoes.  Another huge tub over an industrial strength gas heater contains boiling water in which the tomatoes are simmered by another conscript only long enough to loosen their skins.  They are scooped out with a sieve and fed by yet another conscript into an industrial-grade food-mill that separates skin and seed from pulp, milling the pulp into a puree that comes pouring out a trough into a collection pot.  The puree is then salted (not so much for seasoning as for preservation) and passed on to be distributed into previously sterilized half-gallon mason jars.  A fresh new top is screwed on each jar, which is delivered to the (real) kitchen where another huge pot of boiling water is at the ready, in which the jars of passata must simmer covered until the tops seal.  Then the jars are fished out with giant tongs and lined up for cooling.  It takes a family crew a weekend to do it, leaving out of account the reconnoitering for bushels of optimally ripe tomatoes during the week prior. 

But then you have summery sauce in no time for the rest of the year.  With her jar of home-milled passata ready at hand, in a sauce pot my mother sautés garlic cloves in olive oil until golden, pours in her passata, simmers lively, and in under a half hour, sauce!  (That television myth about sauce cooking long and slow applies to sugo and to ragú, but not to other tomato sauces.  Tomatoes get sharp as they cook.  For a smooth sweetness, you want to cook only long enough to thicken it, which means at a lively simmer.)  For a while, my father prevailed upon my mother to do as his mother did, to toss in raw garlic cloves at the beginning and mix in raw olive oil at the end, after the sauce cooked down.  This yields a medley of more edgy flavors in counterpoint, an effect I do not like, but others do. 

When the tomatoes are good, “You don’t need anything else,” my parents say, and my parents’ plain sauce tastes of summer tomato all year long.  My Gentile friends like it so well that I give jars of my parents’ passata as birthday and Christmas gifts, with directions for how to cook it, and sometimes even pre-measured containers of olive oil and grated Romano Pecorino, for they can’t always be trusted to follow the directions (Oh, I just …).  But to confess the truth, I still yearn for the sauce of my infancy.  I like my parents’ gardeny fresh sauce in season, but in the cold of winter, I yearn for the warm layers that the old sauce’s root vegetables layer between the tomato’s fruity ones, for a mellow integration of savors and scents.

And what if you don’t have access to my parents’ passata?  All this blogging becomes moot, No?  No, here’s what you do.  You get yourself the best tomatoes you can.  By the best, I do not mean the most expensive; but I do mean imported—from Italy, needless to say.  The most expensive these days are San Marzano, and I was relishing the intention of telling you, categorically, that they are a waste of your money.  But then I saw some Cento San Marzano Pomodori Pelati on sale down from $4.99 (read $5) to $2.99 (read $3)—and I thought, “Well, what about for $3?”  Not if you have a family to feed, I don’t think so!  “But you don’t have a family to feed. What about just for you?”  The question was arresting.  Brows furrowed.  Smirk.  Then, with Nietzschean exuberance, right there in the middle of the supermarket isle, “Yes, yes, I am worthy!  I am worthy!”  And I bought, not one, but two cans.  And they were good.   Good enough, that when I saw the gallon-size can of Cento San Marzano at Giolitti’s for $9.99 (read $10), I had to reenact the dialectic, “What if you were having a dinner party?  Would you, or at least it, be worthy?”  [Every once in a while it occurs to me that, protest as I might, as a son of capitalism, I am a son of Puritanism.]

But, don’t get me wrong.  I could have told you stories of buying San Marzano cans that were not only not better, but inferior—I say it categorically—to my staple PASTOSA Pomodori Pelati, my faith in which the eyes of the sensible sales lady at Pastosa reaffirmed when I asked, “I don’t know, I usually get the regular pelati; I don’t think the San Marzano are really better, right?” I’ll tell you what, even the regular Cento Pelati are plenty good, at half the (regular) prize of their San Marzano.  The critical thing is that you get pelati imported from Italy—never not imported!—and not just so-called “Italian style” pelati, which a little lable-reading will reveal to be grown in California.  Well, California is a veritable Eden, I do not deny it, but their pelati are round rosey things, not dark red pear-shaped things, and they taste gardeny in a frivolous sort of way.  They lack mettle, depth, intensity.  They’re Beaujolais Nouveau.

Your sauce is your tomatoes.   More precisely, it is the quintessence of your tomatoes.  If your tomatoes have not substance, they have not essence.  That’s apodictic.  You don’t have to understand what that means metaphysically; it suffices that you do as I say, and I say, buy tomatoes never not imported and never not whole Why never not whole?  Why not buy the crushed tomatoes?  For that matter, why not the pureed?  Because the heart of man is an abyss, that’s why.  Do you really trust man (not to say woman) to crush the best of his/her tomatoes, or more, puree and reduce them to a passata, and sell them to you side by side with peer choice whole tomatoes?  Trust them rather than me, if you want, but then I won’t trust your sauce.  No, better trust yourself:  buy whole, crushed, and pureed, all three, and do one of your little controlled experiments, side by side, and see if you see a difference.  For my part, I will go on trusting my eyes.  I want to open my can and see my tomatoes for myself.  Call me a doubting Thomas, if you will:  I must probe with my eyes to believe.

Okay, once we have worthy tomatoes, what next?  Well, we choose between a zesty, chunky, and garlicky marinara—a favorite of the Gentiles.  Or we surprise them with a Sicilian twist—still chunky, but oniony rather than garlicky, and hot rather than zesty.  Or else we go for the refinement of simple sauce.

Alla Marinara

Whatever its origins, my mother’s people credit Neapolitan sailors for sailor’s sauce—alla marinara.  The story told, which need not be true to tell the truth, is that sailors cooked it dock-side, quick and easy.  There are clear aromatic accents of garlic, although with the restrained flavor of whole cloves fished out at the end, rather than chopped and cooked in. 

I part ways with the frugal gourmet and homemaker both who pour their can juices in with the pelati.  Be those juices watery or thick, I ask you, Where do they come from, if not from whole tomatoes unfit to be presented whole?  Be your answer as it may, I’m sticking to my whole tomatoes and my diffidence of fallen human nature.  That might sometimes mean adding plain water to the pot, if those tomatoes thicken before they sweeten and need more cooking time, but I know where that water comes from; it also means that my sauce takes less time to cook, which keeps it sweeter.

For a pound of pasta and quart-size can of pelati (35 oz.), I pour out a pool well shy (to my eye) of a quarter-cup of regular olive oil.  Extra virgin would be too assertive, unless the pelati be not assertive enough.  We can always add in a remedial tablespoonful (or two) of extra virgin at the end, if the sauce seem not tasty.  But our aim is that it taste tomatoey, not olivey, nor garlicky.  Keep your priorities straight. 

I grab, say, three fresh garlic cloves—white-skinned, plump, firm—and lightly crush them with my knife handle and palm, just until I hear a crack.  Then I slice off a good bit of each end, with my knife pressing the skin against the cutting board as I pull the clove up and away, loosening the skin enough to easily pull it away without any bourgeois aids from Williams Sonoma.  I might score these three skinned cloves, or instead choose only two big cloves and cut them half.  Then into the cold oil they be tossed.

Now I turn the heat on to medium and heat up the pot.  When I hear oil sizzling, I tip the pot to create a pool of oil for the garlic cloves to float and sizzle in.  I want them golden, not browned.  If I’m not paying attention, or cheat and go off for a minute to do something else, so that the sizzling cloves touching the bottom of the pot brown underneath, then I cuss like a sailor, throw it all away, cuss some more, and start over.  Don’t you do that!  When the cloves are golden in color with only hints of gilding at the edges, and smell sweet enough to make passers-by think something really delicious is cooking even though you’ve barely begun, then remove the pot from the heat (to mitigate oil rage) and pour in your chopped pelati gently (to avoid splashing).

Chopped pelati?  When did that happen?  Okay, okay, so I chop them, I confess it, even if my mother didn’t, nor my mother’s mother, nor her mother’s mother.  Not only that, if you must know all,  I preciously arrange my pelati on a plate, slice each down the middle crosswise, and gently squeeze each half to make its juices run out into the plate, bearing its embittering seeds along with it; yes, thus I do, one by one, as though playing house, as my mother would say (except that she recently admitted to doing this too, after I told her, at least when she’s cooking for only my father and herself, because, well, it makes a difference, although I bet she’d never admit it if cooking for a score on a holiday, recurring rather to her, You don’t cook; you play house).  I pile up my pelati on a cutting board to be chopped very roughly and haphazardly (as though in reparation for the precedent preciousness), and scrape these into the pot of garlic cloves sizzling golden, as well as straining the pelati juice on the plate from the embittering seeds into the pot.

But grandma just dumped those pelati into the pot as they were, so you may do so with a clear conscience and perhaps healthier psyche.  Return the pelati to the heat, shower them with a shower of salt, and cover the pot to heat up to a lively simmer. When it simmers lively, remove the cover and begin a first mashing of the pelati.  The ancestral way is to mash as you go with your wooden spoon, your baletta (with which it used to be not only legal but advisable to swat your misbehaving kid’s butt in flight).  But I discovered that, once the pelati soften enough, a potato masher does the job well in one mashing.  Because I associate potato mashers with mashed potatoes and the Irish, I’m embarrassed about doing this, but I do it anyway.  That’s not the only thing in my life about which I could confess that.

Now I want my sauce to simmer away with the lively chatter of my people—not a muted simmer, but not a roiling one either.  There should be plopping without popping, at least at first.  Indeed, once your plopping turns to popping, by reason of thickening, with pools of oil for the same reason rising to the surface here and there, then your sauce is either ready, or if not, then needs water added to give it more time to cook.  How do I know when it’s ready?  It’s ready when it’s ready.  You taste and see.  It goes from raw tasting to mellow; from tart to tangy; from vegetal to fruity.  It sweetens.  It tastes good.  It’s a matter too precise for scientific precision.  The causal particulars are too particular to admit of abstraction and universalization.  It’s about the present moment.  It’s about what’s before you here and now.  How about you keep your eye and nose on the sauce rather than the clock, and keep watch for the grace of the present moment?

But if you insist on being lied to, I’ll say 23.7 minutes (assuming you didn’t add in your can juices).  If it seems cooked down to pulpy by then, but doesn’t taste tasty, then you likely need more salt, more oil (at this point, let it be extra virgin olive oil), or both.  Salt is crucial.  Better a little too much than not enough.  There’s a tipping point:  a sauce that seems insipid will, with the catalyzation of the due amount of salt, undergo crystallization—tomatoeyness pops!—an event as marvelous to taste as to contemplate.  Salis sapientiae!

On the other hand, if the problem is that you didn’t use whole pelati imported from Italy—as much a pleasure to behold as to nose—then there’s nothing to be done about it, let alone talk about.  However, if the sauce seems unpleasantly acidic rather than pleasantly tart, that’s not your fault; that’s just misfortune.  The problem is excess acidity.  There are remedies, but they’re risky.  One remedy is to try to mask the acidity with a little sugar; but if you put too much sugar and the sauce tastes of it, the sauce is ruined, no matter who may like it that way.  The other remedy is to try to neutralize the acidity with a little bit of baking soda; but if you put too much baking soda, you might neutralize too much acid and render the sauce bland (and if you can actually taste the baking soda, you’ve really ruined your sauce, and no one will like it that way).  Go slow with adding the sugar or soda—use an espresso spoon.

Alla Sicliana

My parents picked this recipe up from a guy named Carlo, so they call it Carlo’s sauce.  But that’s a silly name.  The guy was Sicilian, so I’ll call it Sicilian style:  alla Sciliana.  I was tempted to call it a marinara alla siciliana, but even were we to indulge the pleonastic syntax, the idea of a Sicilian sailor having time enough dockside to slice lots of onion thinly and cook it down slowly strains credulity beyond indulgence.  For all that, it may yet taste to you like an onion marinara

For a quart-sized can of pelati (35 oz.) you want a good sized onion.  A plain yellow onion was all my mother ever thought to use; a Spanish onion might be nice, and a Vidalia nicer yet.  I halve the onion vertically, cut away the root and top of each half so that they won’t annoying hold my slices together later, and pull the skin off easily.  I lay each onion-half flat-side down on the cutting board, secure it with fingers curled inward, and rock my big chef’s knife in sliding motions forward, slicing vertical slices as thin as is safe.

Pour out a pool of regular oil, shy of a quarter-cup, into the bottom of the sauce pot, scrape in the onion slices, shower them with a shower of salt, and put the pot over medium heat.  Cover and heat to sizzling, for a pre-sweating of the onions, with a toss or two in between.  Then remove the cover, and keep sautéing at a gentle but cheerful simmer, with continual tossing and flipping, for even cooking, as the onion dries off, and cooks down, and transitions from whitish to yellowy to golden.  If the heat is not too high, the onions won’t gild before they’re golden; and if the heat is right, they’ll already be golden at the very first sign of gilding.  No browning!

Oh, I forgot to mention hot red pepper, to be tossed into the sautéing onions.  Carlo put in crushed pepperonici, the hot red pepper of the peoples of South Italy.  My mother’s people typically put in a couple of whole pepperoncini, to be fished out at the end before serving (especially before serving Gentiles, who don’t handle it well, should they get a fugitive fragment in their bowl).  My father insists both on growing and drying his own pepperoncini—super-hot—but also on chopping them for a more evenly distributed hot. 

The hot keeps the sweet from cloying.  You could omit it, or else in the spirit of democratic liberty, offer hot red pepper flakes at table for each eater to add according to their taste, but that’s a culinary concession to a compromising egalitarianism of taste, for hot cooked-in is not the same as hot on-top.  I think you know what I mean, whether you like hot or not, for we all taste the difference; we just differ over whether we like it or not.  That much agreed upon, for the rest, on matters of taste let us not dispute.

On another matter of taste, Sicilian sensibility does not tolerate grated cheese with this hot oniony sauce.  For that matter, purist cognoscenti don’t tolerate it with marinara either.  But if you’re going to add cheese anyway, there’s no tolerating Reggiano Parmigiano.  It must be a Pecorino, such as Locatelli, a tangy and salty sheep’s milk cheese to riff with the tanginess of tomato and olive oil.  Save that bovine parmigiano for sauces laced with bovine fat or bovine butter, and save yourself some money while you’re at it.  The grating cheese of my people is Pecorino Romano and that’s what tastes right with our food.

Once your sautéing pile of onion has cooked down soft, golden, and unctuous, then add in your pelati (perhaps seeded and chopped), salt, and cook them down, as alla marinara, until thick and slick.  As with marinara, if thick and slick but not delicious, add extra virgin olive oil, salt (all the more important with sweet food!), or both.  If you’re tempted to toss in a wad of butter, I can only say it’s not done, unless of course you do it.

Sauce Pureed Smooth

Ah, the sauce of my infancy, mother’s milk to my culinary consciousness!  To distill tomato essence into its quintessence, you must concentrate its substance, which means at least two cans of pelati, and four would be worth the trouble, since this sauce reheats well for at least two weeks.  For every two 35 oz. cans of pelati (without their can juices!) I’d use two carrots, one onion, and half a celery stalk.  In the old way, I’d chop these roughly and simmer them with the pelati for 30-40 minutes, stirring and scraping frequently to prevent sticking and burning, and then mill the soupy stew.  In the new way, I mill the canned pelati first and bring the puree to a simmer along with the root vegetables whole or halved, to be fished out at the end.

We call our food mill a passapomodoro, it being its primary if not exclusive use (we also use it to cream ricotta for use in cream puffs or ricotta pie at Christmas time).  An Italian-style passapomodoro comes with three inserts, and we use the one with the smallest holes for tomatoes, to hold back as many seeds as possible.  We never ever use a blender, since we believe that chopping up the embittering seeds makes them all the more embittering (notwithstanding one dissenting aunt and her family branch).  My mother used to keep churning the mill until the collected mash of seeds and skin were altogether depleted of any tomatoe juice, but I’ll confess to giving up short of that.  However, whenever you call it quits, don’t ever forget to the turn the mill over and scrape away the clinging pulp, which is choice stuff.

I find it easiest to puree my pelati right into the cooking pot and put it to heat up, while in a separate little saucepan I gild my garlic cloves in olive oil.  My mother likes to spare herself the washing of an extra pot by gilding her cloves in the cooking pot first and adding the passata to that.  Either way, I use several cloves of garlic, big fresh white plump ones, because they will be fished out at the end, so it takes a few to get the desired aroma, which we want mellow, not assertive; there’s such a thing as too much garlic as well as too little, although the difference is one that only nose and tongue, not words, can tell. 

In any case, I very lightly crush each garlic clove with my knife handle and/or palm just until I hear a crack, to release the skin and aroma.  Then I cut away each end, pull away the skin, and put the fresh clove in a saucepan with a scant ¼-cup of regular olive oil.  I heat the oil to a sizzle, then tip the pan to float the garlic cloves in the oil, and let them golden; at the first sign of gilding, I pour all into the passata, along with a teaspoon of salt.

You want a sauce pot with a thick bottom, at least a quarter-inch, but a half is better.  Sunday mornings when I was growing up were fraught with fear of the sauce’s sticking and burning in those thin aluminum pots we used.  Nowadays, in these new bottom-heavy stainless steel pots, it’s almost hard to burn your sauce—although not impossible.  If you should, it’s dire, the burnt taste being as subversive as it is diffusive.  If it happens, which you’ll know if when stirring your sauce and scraping the bottom of the pot, as you should, you feel a roughness on the bottom resisting your baletta.  If that happens, cease and desist; remove the pot from the heat pronto; and pour out the sauce into a new pot, leaving behind whatever clings to the old pot.  Then say a Hail Mary, reheat to a simmer, and pay better mind to stirring your sauce regularly.   

The passata needs to simmer lively, but not frenetically, energetic with hopefulness rather than agitated with hurry.  At first it will simmer as does water, bubbling with many small translucent bubbles, and the oil will sink to the bottom of the pot.  As the passata thickens, so too will its bubbles, reducing in number and increasing in girth, and gathering rising oil slicks around them.  When they start plopping and squirting, your sauce is ready or nearly so.  Turn down the heat to reduce the squirts, and taste for pulpiness and mellowness.  If it still feels a bit thin on the tongue, or raw to the taste, more stewy than saucy, it ain’t sauce yet.  It’ll be sauce when it tastes like sauce.  I appreciate that’s more apodictic than helpful, but there’s no substitute for being able to taste it for yourself.  You may well have to get it wrong a few times, undercooking it this time, and overcooking it that time, but once you get it right, it will get into your soul, and then you’ll know as only a soul can. 

Once you’ve got the substance concentrated aright, then correct for salt and oil.  Better a little too much of these than a little too little.  Keep in mind that the flavor of sauce spread out over pasta is attenuated, so the flavors of the sauce and its seasonings need to be  assertive enough on their own to stand up to the relatively bland bulk of the pasta.

We’ll perfume the sauce with two or three fresh basil leaves, if we have them to add in the last five to ten minutes of simmering, only to be fished out along with garlic cloves before saucing the pasta.  Once you get simple sauce into your soul, you become inimical to any threats to its simplicity.  Dried spices are out of the question, but even the delicacy of fresh sweet basil can distract and detract.  Sauce plain and simple must be smooth in every way, as much in flavor as in feel, to the nose as to the tongue, rich and delicious in a single dimension, like pure water or fresh milk.

But think sheep’s milk, because this sauce likes Pecorino, and lots of it.  In fact, in the old days, my mother would mix a handful of grated Pecorino Romano into the pot of pasta when saucing and before serving, but my sister, a corrupter of our food even from her youth, before she got her tonsils out and could smell aright, wouldn’t touch pasta touched by cheese, so my mother desisted from the ancestral practice.  But it’s a good idea to sneak in grated cheese when serving Gentiles, who can’t be trusted to know how much cheese to add, nor even counted upon to keep the cheese moving around the table so that the rest of us can do it right.  In my family, servings of pasta are big enough that many among us will sprinkle cheese on top, consume a first layer, and re-cheese the second.  We talk a great deal at table, but we have our priorities straight, so it’s never rude to ask for more cheese when someone else is talking about something less pressing.  But Gentiles really just don’t get it.  They think it rude to interrupt—as  though we were at a colloquium rather than dinner.  Well, you do what you can do for them, and leave it at that, No?

Boiling and Draining Pasta

Once you’ve boiled as much pasta as I have, it becomes so second nature that it seems like it would be evident to any rational being, with a little attention and reflection, what needs doing.  But when I watch a Gentile doing it, I’m often overcome with anxiety as for a toddler who has just grabbed hold of a chef’s knife, and I offer suggestions gingerly, as one would approach such a toddler to take the knife from him without alarming him with his peril.  But I’ll confess that I harbor a childhood recollection of thinking it an ancestral ritual governed by long fixed rubrics to be diligently learned and scrupulously performed, with peril for for your pasta, if not your soul, should you transgress them. 

But when I became a man, I set childish things aside.  So for a pound of pasta, you want at least a 4-quart pot.  The pasta needs room to roll around freely in water at a rolling boil.  You also need salt enough to salt the water (not the pasta, the pasta taking its saltiness from the water), so we’re talking a palmful of salt, which amounts to a well rounded, even overflowing, tablespoon of coarse kosher salt, or a well stinted tablespoon of table salt (i.e., half as much).   Enough salt is, as ever, all important.  If you get the salt right, a piece of pasta fished from the boiling water will taste good the way good bread tastes good.  If it tastes bland, that’s bad; add more salt, even at the last minute.  If it tastes salty, fear not, you can run the faucet and dilute the oversalted cooking water right before draining the pasta in the colander. 

What you must believe and have ever in mind is that a well salted sauce cannot make up for under-salted pasta—on the contrary, the latter will drag the former down with it into the oblivion of banality.  Moreover, if you under-salt your pasta, you will have to face an ancestral anathema against adding salt at table in the dish.  My people say, “No, never,” with the definitive intonations of not merely moral but metaphysical certitude, reinforced by an ensuing silence heavy with the hush of a “Hush, Glaucon” forfending inadvertent impiety.  But should you press inquiry, a yet sterner, “No, you don’t do that,” is all you’ll get.  I will confess that at the table of the Gentile I have deemed it the lesser evil to salt my under-salted pasta, but I advise you, gentle Gentile, at your own table, forfend any such temptation to impiety, for why else put up with rhetoric of a blog such as this if not to know that?    

Bring your water to a rolling boil, pour in your salt, and bring it back to a rolling boil.  Then with your box of pasta in one hand and your baletta in the other, pour out your pasta over your baletta into the boiling water, to break its fall and minimize splashing.  Then stir and stir, until the water returns to a rolling boil, to prevent the pasta’s sticking either to the pot or to itself.  If you are unwilling to stir continuously, then at least do so frequently; once the water returns to a rolling boil, infrequently will do. 

These days most pasta packages have cooking times on them for the particular cut of pasta, but most of those cooking times are too short, as if to punish you Gentiles for centuries of over-cooking your pasta.  It’s perhaps hard to understand how deep is the contempt for over-cooked pasta in the Italian soul.  It’s one of those Hush, Glaucon things where you’ll only get a simple statement of fact—it’s sfatta, “misdone” (as in English “misdeed”—a crime)—and then a face of stone, eyes averted from both pasta and malefactor, and wordlessness.  It’s a downer. 

But I for one don’t see how the opposite evil is the preferable evil.  Granted one wants one’s pasta firm in feel to the tooth—al dente—one doesn’t want it stuck in one’s molar, does one?  I really, really hate trying to dislodge undercooked fragments of pasta from my molars with my tongue.   Nor do I want my pasta dense enough to give my musculi mastitatorii a work-out—I’m here to eat, not exercise.  No, no, I want my pasta springy.  Tooth and pasta should bounce off one another playfully.  Chewing pasta should be fun.

So set the timer for the time on the package, and when it rings, fish out a piece and taste.  Chances are it will be dense, which may well not be apparent at first, but only after fully chewing and swallowing; if so, chances are it will need another minute of boiling.  Also, if the pasta doesn’t taste like good bread, add more salt now to the boiling water and stir it in. 

When the pasta is al dente, time to drain it.  On one hand, it’s all important to drain your pasta well, lest residual water dilute your sauce.  If you end up with a little puddle of tomato broth at the bottom of your pasta dish, that is bad.   On the other hand, pasta sticks quick when it dries off, so you mustn’t leave it lying around unsauced for any amount of time.  I’m amazed at how Gentiles can’t seem to figure this out for themselves; they leave the pasta sitting there in the colander while they at their ease heat up sauce or fetch plates or tell jokes.  Come on, people, chop! chop! timing is of the essence here—we don’t want a mound of stuck together pasta! 

So, pour out the pot of boiling pasta into a large colander with large holes, then grab that colander and give it good vigorous shakes, with brief rests in between, like intensive crossfit, to allow water to drip off, and when the dripping has reduced to a bare minimum, toss all back into the still hot pot.  My practice here differs from my mother’s—she has ladled sauce into the bottom of the pot, to keep the pasta from sticking to it.  But I find that a couple of vigorous shakes in the hot pot definitively finishes off the drying off of the pasta, so that as long as I ladle sauce on top and mix it in without delay, my pasta never either sticks in the pot or puddles in the dish.  

Any way you do it, you need to mix in some sauce well, to lubricate all the pasta evenly and colorfully.  This is also the time to mix in a fistful of grated Pecorino Romano, if you’re going to do that.  Then you either dump your pasta into a large serving bowl, or make individual servings in pasta bowls, topping with dollops of sauce.  Italians most often serve individual servings, but the range of portion sizes and proportions are less broad and more predictable than for Gentiles.  Gentiles I find a pain in the neck.  Even a division like “girlie portion—middling—big boy’s” isn’t always a fine enough gradation, and there’s much talking about it needed, and even with all that accommodating of individuality, some Gentile still won’t mind leaving some in the dish and wasting food.  I find wasting food consterning.  It’s not so much the starving children in Africa I have in mind, but my dinner after a long day at work later that week.  Also, wasting food makes God cry; my mother told me so. 

So, best thing to do with Gentiles is to pass a big serving bowl around; they’re much more likely to serve themselves too little pasta than too much, and they can go back for seconds.  They’re pretty good at self-regulating, although you do need to remind them that there’s a second dish coming, and salad, fruit, and dessert after that, so that they pace themselves accordingly.  They also need to be enjoined to keep the cheese moving around the table, with a supplementary enjoinder to keep passing it along even if they don’t want any, and often they need scolding on this point only minutes after you’ve enjoined them.  Some will sometimes complain about being scolded, but I remind them of what the Good Book says, “If the just man strikes or reproves me, it is a kindness.” 

So there they are, the three sauces of my people, delicious simply, as a staple should be, and not to be fooled with:  approach and handle the ancestral forms trembling, that you not stumble into impiety.  I once by way of innovation plopped a wad of butter into my mother’s sauce pot.  At table my parents sensed the alien at once, almost with alarm, and when I confessed it, their condemnation of the contamination was categorical.  But I’ve done the same with Gentiles when I had a little too little sauce for the amount of pasta I needed to cook, and thought by the aid of buttering to better distribute it, and they liked it, needless to say.  But once, in a farmhouse in the hills of Tuscany, an Italianized Gentile added heavy cream to my tomato sauce, having learned this from her gourmet lover, and my consternation at the contamination was categorical:  it became a “sauce” in the French sense of the term, no longer a natural form of food but the artifact of a mannerist art, a miscegeny paving the way, if not to culinary hell, then to culinary promiscuity.  Don’t you do that to my sauce, gentle Reader!  No, never! [Hush, Glaucon!]


Marinara Garlicky 
Chunky, alla Napolitana

* For a large quart-sized can of pelati (whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy--never not whole! never not imported!), pour out a scant quarter-cup of regular olive oil into a sauce pot. Add several whole cloves of garlic, cracked or scored. Turn the heat on to medium, and as soon as you hear any incipient sizzling, tip the pot to create a pond of oil for the cloves to float and sizzle in, until golden.
* Optionally, seed the pelati by first fishing them out of the can with a fork and laying them on a plate; then halve each crosswise with a knife, and squeeze the seeds out of each half into the plate along with tomato juice, piling the seeded halves on a cutting board to be roughly chopped before adding to the sauce pot, followed by their plate juices, strained. Alternatively, just dump the whole can of pelati into the pot.
* At the very first sign of any gilding of the garlic cloves, remove the sauce pot from the heat and add in the pelati with a rounded teaspoon of coarse salt or a scanted teaspoon of table salt. Return to a lively but not angry simmer.
* Cook at a lively simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, with the pot cover much ajar, until from soupy it thickens to saucy, so that its bubbles start popping, and olive oil slicks rise to the surface. The aroma will change from herbaceous to fruitty, and the savor from tart and vegetal to tangy and sweet.
* In the last 5 to 15 minutes, you can mix in a few fresh basil leaves, if you have them, for the aroma.
* In sum, it's sauce when it's delicious. If it isn't, chances are it needs more salt, a fresh dollop of extra virgin olive oil, or both.


Marinara Oniony 
Chunky 'n Hot, alla Siciliana

* For a large quart-sized can of pelati (whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy--never not whole! never not imported!), cut a nice big onion into halves, then halving each half horizontally, slice it vertically into very thin slices.
* Pour out a scant quarter-cup of regular olive oil into a sauce pot. Add the sliced onion with a shower of salt and. Turn the heat on to medium and cover the pot for a pre-steaming. Once you hear sizzling, toss the onions in the oil a time or two, until they are well sweated, at which point remove the cover and add pepperoncini (hot red pepper, be it flakes or whole). Flip the onions frequently as they dry off and sizzle to golden, dulcid, redolent.
* Optionally, ahead of time seed the pelati by first fishing them out of the can with a fork and laying them on a plate; then halve each crosswise with a knife, and squeeze the seeds out of each half into the plate along with tomato juice, piling the seeded halves on a cutting board to be roughly chopped before adding to the sauce pot, and followed by their plate juices, strained. Alternatively, just dump the whole can of 'em into that pot (but be careful not to splash yourself).
* At the very first sign of any gilding of any onion, remove the sauce pot from the heat and add in the pelati with a rounded teaspoon of coarse salt or a scanted teaspoon of table salt. Return to a lively but not angry simmer.
* Cook at a lively simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, with the pot cover much ajar, until from soupy it thickens to saucy, so that bubbles start popping, and olive oil slicks rise to the surface. The aroma will change from herbaceous to fruity ,and the savor from tart and vegetal to tangy and sweet.
* In the last 5 to 15 minutes, you can mix in a few fresh basil leaves, if you have them, for the aroma.
* In sum, it's sauce when it's delicious. If it isn't, chances are it needs more salt, a fresh dollop of extra virgin olive oil, or both.


Smooth Sauce (Passata)

* In a food mill, puree three large quart-sized can of pelati (whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy--never not whole! never not imported!), without their can juices.
* Pour the puree into a sauce pot with a rounded tablespoon of coarse salt or a scanted tablespoon of table salt. Add in a whole onion with its ends lopped off; a whole celery stalk cut in half; and 2 or 3 whole carrots peeled. Bring the puree to a lively simmer.

*  Meanwhile, in a little sauce pot over moderate heat, saute 3 or 4 nice sized garlic cloves, cracked or scored, in a brimming 1/4-cupe of regular olive oil, tipping the pan to float the cloves in the oil until they sweeten to golden.  Pour all into the simmering puree and stir it in.
* Cook the puree at a lively simmer uncovered, for 30 or 40 minutes, until it thickens to pulpy, so that its bubbles grow large and pop, and its olive oil rises to the surface, and its aroma and savor sweeten.
* In the last 5 to 15 minutes, you can mix in a few fresh basil leaves, if you have them, for the aroma.
* Taste, and If it wants it, add more salt or a fresh dollop of extra virgin olive oil. When all is well, turn the heat off and let the sauce cool down before fishing out the root vegetables to discard. Be sure to serve this sauce with much grated Pecorino Romano at table, and you could even toss a palmful in when mixing the sauce into the pasta for serving.


Sunday Gravy (Sugo)
from Blog the Tenth

* Gather sundry fatty meats: pork ribs; beef ribs; chunks of chuck or bottom round; chicken quarters; Italian sausage; coarsely ground beef (and pork) for meatballs; or whatever the moment graces. Also, soup bones with tender-looking marrow will be transfigurative. If you have the time for it, soak such marrow bones along with the ribs in a brine salty as the sea (1/4-cup salt to 1-quart water) for a few hours.
* Put the soup bones in the oven at 400 degrees to roast aromatic, while with a food mill you puree into a big sauce pot 4 or 5 large quart-sized can of pelati (whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy--never not whole! never not imported!). Crush 2 or 3 garlic cloves hard, and toss them into the tomato puree, along with half a peeled potato and a half dozen whole black peppercorns. For aromatics, add in a bay leaf or two, if you have them, and a stem or two or three of fresh parsley. Add in a rounded tablespoon of coarse salt or a scanted tablespoon of table salt, and bring the puree to a simmer. Add the roasted soup bones whenever they smell stirring, and simmer them in the sauce, covered, for 20 or 30 minutes, before adding the ribs.
* Meanwhile, dry off and salt and pepper the ribs on both sides for sautéing. Heat a quarter-inch of regular olive oil, to sauté the ribs in at a steady simmer, until golden and spotted brown. Sauté the ribs in batches, vouchsafing them space to breathe and brown, and pile them up in a dish, to drip fat. When they're all ready for it, add them into the simmering puree and simmer them uncovered for 90 minutes, before adding the chicken and sausage for an additional 30-40 minutes of cooking.
* If you're using chunks of chuck or top round, or shank, then salt and pepper them on both sides, and brown them in the same oil as the ribs, and add them after the ribs, and at least 60 minutes before the chicken and sausage. * Before browning the chicken and sausage, strain your oil clean and wipe out your frying pan with paper towels, before returning the oil into it and to a simmer. Sauté the chicken, like the other meats, until speckled brown; after a rest, add it to the simmering sauce for 40 minutes of simmering. Then lightly brown the sausage, and add them for 30 minutes of simmering.
* For meatballs, lightly mix together: a pound of coarsely ground fatty beef (and maybe pork too); 4 heaping tablespoons of grated Pecorino Romano; 4 temperate tablespoons of seasoned bread crumbs; a small onion, sliced very thin and sautéd golden in butter and olive oil; a good sized clove of garlic chopped very fine; a plamful of chopped fresh parsley; a shower of of slat and grindings of black pepper; and enough milk to soften the mix to malleable. Roll handfuls of meats lightly between your palms to form large airy meatballs. Chill them until you're ready to brown them very lightly at a very gentle simmer over very mild heat on four sides, handling them ever so gently with a spoon and fork. Add them into the simmer gravy for the last 15 or 20 minutes of cooking.
* When rib meat begins to fall off a rib or two, and chuck to strand, then the gravy is gravy. Turn off the heat and let the meats cool down in the gravy, to keep them moist. When tepid, the meats can be removed to another pan and topped with gravy, for reheating later in the oven; or else they can be reheated in the gravy pot together with the gravy, when time comes to sauce the pasta.