McMan's Winter Pasta Sauce
Here in San Diego everyone is talking about adjusting for winter. Winters can be brutal here. The temperature can plummet to as low as 70 degrees. Those stupid enough to venture out in just short sleeves risk severe goose bumps sipping their frozen mochas in outdoor cafes. I talked to a person who was forced to turn on his electric space heater for a whole minute in his trailer at a nudist camp. Now I know how Scott of the Antarctic felt.
Obviously, the chill winds of winter call for a different food strategy. “Out” is my light summer menu focusing on a few fresh ingredients. “In” is my hearty winter fare featuring complex flavors. Nowhere is this more evident than in my pasta sauce. Readers may recall that my summer sauce was built around fresh tomatoes and fresh basil, with some garlic and olive oil. Talk about simple.
My winter sauce, by contrast, is a major production, but make a huge batch and you won’t have to prepare another meal for several days.
We wind the clock back to medieval northern Italy, where it all began, according to tradition. Bruce Buford has written a marvelous book called “Heat.” Mr Buford quit his day job as an editor at the New Yorker to become a “slave” in the kitchen of Food Network star Mario Batali. After learning the ropes over the course of about two years, Mr Buford continued his education with Batali’s teachers in the isolated fringes of provincial Tuscany. According to local legend, the French would still be eating gruel three times a day were it not for the innovative Tuscans. If one goes with the Tuscan account, Italian ragu and French ragout came from the same source, but then branched off in different directions.
The French vigorously dispute this, of course, but Mr Buford explains that the principle behind both cuisines basically remains the same – you put meat in a pot with other ingredients and a lot of liquid and keep it bubbling away for hours until everything is rendered into a thick and indescribably tasty sauce. In the Italian version, the tomato is a late addition (only after the discovery of the New World) and is not strictly necessary or is employed sparingly.
My winter pasta sauce comes nowhere near anything prepared by a true Italian chef, but I like to think I keep to the spirit of the tradition – that of lovingly allowing a large pot of liquid and meats and other ingredients to work their magic.
McMan’s Winter Pasta Sauce
Pour three or four large (28 oz) cans of tomatoes into a large pot, with equal amounts of water and a half a cup of wine. The alcohol will boil off, but those who are uncomfortable with alcohol in the house can disregard this part of the recipe. Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce to a simmer (light bubbling). The tomatoes will become mush in the cooking process.
In the meantime, chop two onions and sauté in olive oil for about 15 minutes until they are sweet enough to hand out as Halloween treats. Toss into the sauce with the oil. Do the same (in less time) with a couple of red or green peppers.
Crush and chop about four cloves of garlic and sauté in olive oil very briefly. Too long and the garlic turns bitter. Toss into the sauce with the oil.
Many recipes call for chopped and sautéed celery, but I find the strong flavor overwhelms the sauce. Grated carrots are another option, as are sliced mushrooms (I favor using mushrooms sautéed with garlic in butter and olive oil as a topping rather than adding them to the pot).
Now come the meats. Here, literally anything goes. I like to have at least two meats going, and Mr Buford’s book recommends three. The other day, with limited choices, I cubed a pound of porterhouse steak and sliced the same amount of breakfast sausages and browned them all in a frying pan, being sure to drain off the fat. This was way fattier than I liked, but the total fat was divided over four to six portions. I’ve seen people consume the same amount of meat in one hungry man breakfast.
With meat, I tend to go “Bolognese.” This involves frying up about pound and a half of very lean ground beef (less than 7 percent total fat) or ground turkey meat and about four or six links of Italian sausage (sliced into small pieces with the casing removed. For extra flavor, any stray meat in your fridge or freezer is a candidate for the pot, whether a bone, some leftover takeaway, or a spare chop begging to go for a browning and a swim.
The same anything-goes attitude to meat also applies to flavorings. My one ironclad rule is basil. You have to have it. In winter, I tend to be stuck with the stuff you shake from a container. Whether fresh or not, you never risk over-seasoning with basil. Go crazy – it is a unique ingredient in this regard.
You need to be very careful with other ingredients. Mr Buford reports that contrary to most cooking traditions, the provincial Tuscans he worked with added the flavorings last. A smart approach is to add small amounts early on, then carefully and gradually raise the ante. If you have fresh basil, add it at the very end.
Until I read Mr Buford’s book, I thought I was the only one who added cinnamon to a pasta sauce. Now I know this is par for the course in Tuscany. Mario Batali likes acidic flavors, which means lemon zest and lemon juice. I also shake in Italian herb mix from a container and add salt and ground pepper.
Now you let the pot work its magic. With the lid off, a lightly bubbling liquid will gradually evaporate as the tomatoes and meats and onions and peppers and garlic and other ingredients cross-flavor one another. If you’re pressed for time, you can use a lot less liquid and have a pot of sauce ready to go in 30 minutes. But you will get much better results with a longer production, say three hours. You may have to add more water, depending on rate of evaporation.
Keep in mind that as the sauce reduces and thickens you will have to gradually lower the heat. Also, it is advisable to stir the pot at regular intervals. In the latter stages, the pot will require constant stirring.
I always have emergency tomato paste on hand in case I have mistimed my production. Tomato paste (not sauce) is a great last-minute thickener. A small amount (less than a 6 oz can) goes a long way. For a creamy sauce, add a bit of skim milk or no-fat cream at the last minute.
An occupational hazard is you may have no sauce left by the time you’ve kept tasting it from the pot. Just before the sauce is done, I will cook up some spaghetti and thoroughly drain it (the best way to ruin a perfect sauce is to serve it with wet pasta). Put the drained pasta back into the pan, stir in a bit of olive oil, then stir in some of the sauce. Allow time for the pasta to absorb the sauce, then add more sauce. Pour the pasta into a serving bowl and ladle more sauce over the top.
Serve with freshly-grated parmesan, salad, and Italian bread. Serves between six and eight.
Published On: December 11, 2006
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