19 June 2006

A sauce for all seasons

Pasta sauces range from the time consuming bolognese to the excruciatingly simple sage and butter sauce, whose only ingredients are sage and butter. Opinions on the proper sauce to use and the way to cook it differ to a degree that would make a veteran of the Usenet OS Wars shudder and cower. Seriously, people have died over such seemingly minor differences as when to add cheese, what kind of wine to use and whether the tomatoes should be chopped or mashed by hand.

Here's what you don't hear very often though; they're dead simple to make. You can make a killer tomato based pasta sauce yourself, with very little preparation, training, or skill, and you don't even need access to a farmer's market. All of those things help, but just about anything you make will come out better than Ragu. Notice the capital R. It makes a difference. I'm talking about the Ragu brand sauces in the grocery store, not the lovingly prepared sauces crafted by hand.

The following is a recipe for a simple sauce that I made last night. i welcome you to try it and modify it as required by your available ingredients and taste. You'll note that I left out onions and carrots. I don't particularly care for onions, they give me heartburn, so I omit them. Besides, I didn't have any. Feel free to do the same thing.
  • Add about a tablespoon of olive oil to a hot stock pot. Expect some smoke, turn on a fan.
  • Add a hand full of diced prosciutto to the hot oil and stir around. It will cook very fast.
  • When the prosciutto starts to brown, and it will do so quickly, toss in 4 or 5 chopped cloves of garlic.
  • Pay close attention, the garlic will cook very fast. Once it's become brown, and just before it starts to burn, pour in about 1/3 bottle of wine. If you've never done this before, expect a very violent reaction from the pan. Smoke, steam, noise, it's like a magic show in the pan.
  • You can use any wine, although for my money, reds work best. A lot of people will tell you to never cook with wine you would drink, that you tend to lose all the important flavor components in the cooking process. This is horse shit. I wouldn't ever cooking with a wine you wouldn't drink. If it tastes like cat poop in the glass, it won't be doing your food any favors.
  • For the record I use a 2003 merlot.
  • Let this heady mixture of wine, pork and garlic boil for a good bit. You want it to reduce by about 2/3s.
  • Once the wine has reduced sufficiently, toss in two cans of diced Del Monte tomatoes, I prefer the basil, garlic, and oregano variety.
  • Yes, canned tomatoes. You know why? Because I can't be bothered to cut, scoop, blanch and peel 6-10 tomatoes. Be my guest if you want. Sometimes it's worth it.
  • Bring the sauce to a boil, adding salt and sugar to taste. The sugar will help cut down on the acidity. I also add in about a tablespoon of Italian seasoning and a few dashes of oregano and basil. At this point you want to pour in another 2 cups or so of wine.
  • I also like to toss in some sharp cheese. You can't go wrong with a nice parmesan. I also like Asiago and even Dubliner. Go nuts, make it a few big handfuls.
  • Cover the pot, and reduce the heat to a simmer.
  • Walk away. Do something else for an hour or two, and let this happily percolate.
  • After simmering, I like to go at the sauce with an immersion blender for a smoother sauce. Don't feel you have to. A chunky sauce is just as good as a smooth one.
  • Just before serving, add in a ladle or two of the water from your cooking pasta. This starchy fluid will help even out the consistency of the sauce and aid it in adhering to the pasta.
  • You can serve the sauce immediately and it will be delicious. Be sure to set some of the wine at the table with glasses. If you have the time though, I recommend letting it cool in the fridge over night and serving it the next day. Given time to rest, it will be even better.

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