Here it is – the recipe for my “kick-ass pasta sauce”. I didn’t realize that post would generate actual demand for this recipe, but I should know better by now. As Isis recently reminded all of us: if you post it, you might as well write it on a billboard. So it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.
First, a warning – this “recipe” is more of a non-controlled, highly-variable experiment, and I’ve never made the exact same pasta sauce twice. Also, the outcome is only as good as the ingredients used and the time invested. However, with some very simple ingredients and an hour and a half total cooking time, you can generate a pretty solid product. The most important thing is to let each new ingredient develop in the pan before moving onto the next addition. Since it’s been a long and busy weekend filled with painting, church, and a research retreat, I opted for a more simplified version tonight, which I’ve used as the basis for instruction…
1. I started off by sweating one medium chopped onion in a large sauce pan. Make sure to add salt at this point, or the onions will just burn. I used olive oil, but feel free to use whatever if you have a strong preference. Saute the onions on medium-high heat until they are soft and translucent at least; I almost always choose to go a step further and get a bit of carmelization on the onions. This is not the same as burning the onions, so stay close to the stove!!
Figure 1. Carmelized Onions
2. Next, I added 5 cloves of chopped garlic and sauteed for about 30 seconds. Then it’s time to add the protein, if you so desire. Some spicy Italian sausage is a nice way to go, but tonight I used lean ground beef for two reasons: I wasn’t sure how spicy sausage would affect my stomach, and it’s what we had thawed in the fridge. (Like I said, this was the pregnancy version!) Break up and brown the beef, about 3-4 minutes.
3. At this point, things began to vary quite a bit from my normal recipe. I generally would add some nice red wine that Hubby and I were already enjoying. But, alas, there’s no wine in this pregnant woman’s home. 😦 Instead, I opted for a nice aged balsamic vinegar that we both love. I didn’t add as much as I would the wine…probably only 2 tablespoons (compared to about half a cup of wine). The tang of the vinegar is actually a really nice addition; I’ve used a splash several times before, even when I’ve had wine to cook with.
4. After the balsamic was incorporated into the meat, about 30 seconds or so, I added a small (6-oz) can of tomato paste (this is a must for getting a thick, rich sauce, but skip if you want a lighter sauce for summertime). After incorporating the tomato paste, I continued to let this cook for a minute or so. This allows for a little more carmelization and, IMO, a bit better layering of flavor:
Figure 2. Onions, Meat and Tomato Paste Mixture
5. Alright, now it’s time to add the tomatoes. Tonight, going for simple and quick, I added four 15-oz cans of chopped tomatoes. If you have some wonderful tomatoes straight from your garden or your favorite farmer’s market, by all means, use them. Just be sure to remove the skin and seeds prior to chopping. You’ll want about 6-8 cups of chopped tomatoes, and you might find you prefer squishing them up with your hands before adding to the sauce. This process is well worth it if you have top-notch tomatoes, but I don’t waste my time otherwise. A canned tomato tastes just as good as a lot of the stuff you’ll get in your grocer’s produce department. After adding the tomatoes, stir and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to keep the sauce simmering.
6. Now for seasoning. Tonight’s was very straightforward, with just your run-of-the-mill Italian seasoning blend (thyme, basil, oregano, sage, savory, rosemary) and three bay leaves (some wonderful ones we got from Penzey’s). I’ve gone with marjoram before, which is wonderful when you use Marsala or Sherry as your wine. I’ve also stuck with just basil, especially when it’s fresh from the garden…I usually skip the tomato paste if I go this route. Hubby always goes with some red pepper flakes, cuz he likes the spice. Have fun experimenting at this step, and change it up often to find out what your favorites are. This is where you make it your own!
Figure 3. The Sauce, with Seasoning
7. Don’t fret about the perfect seasoning for now – you’ll have plenty of opportunity to play with the seasoning as the sauce simmers. Just make sure you allow for 5-10 minutes of simmering between adjusting and tasting again. I usually simmer covered for about an hour, then uncovered, about 10-30 minutes:
Figure 4. The Sauce after an Hour
8. After uncovering the sauce and checking the flavor, I started the water boiling for my pasta. Tonight I went with a whole-wheat blend rotini (squeezing vitamins in however I can right now). Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain and put back into your pan. This next, and final, step is the most crucial: add your sauce, however much you prefer, to the pasta, and allow the pasta to finish cooking, another 3-4 minutes, in the sauce:
Figure 5. The Pasta Finishing Up
9. Now that your pasta is done, don’t go and ruin all that time you’ve put into it. Add some freshly-grated Parmesan or Pecorino, or whatever hard, salty cheese you fancy. But, please, for God’s sake, stay away from the pre-grated Kraft crap!
Figure 6. The Finished Product!
Bon appetit! Serve up with some nice crusty bread if you have it around. I chose to aliquot the remaining sauce into Tupperware dishes, and froze it away for my next pasta emergency. Now I should be set for pasta, at least until the end of my first trimester!