And by that, I don’t mean “how to clean your plate.” I mean how to finish off the cooking process so the pasta and the sauce meld into one unified dish, as opposed to being a naked plate of pasta with some sauce spooned on top. I get Very Sad when I see pasta Disrespected in such a manner. I think I’ve probably mentioned this technique before, but this time I took pictures for you. You’re welcome.
The whole dish began when Steve, landlord and Realtor extraordinnaire told me that the “bush” by the corner of the deck was bay. Well, heck, had I known that, I would’ve been making tomato sauce almost every day. Alas. So, I had a lot of catching up to do.
Anyway, please enjoy the following Pictorial Essay. But first, the players in my sauce. Feel free to improvise to your heart’s content. Remember, this is a template, not Culinary Law:
Well, I’ll Be Damned; That’s Bay! Pasta Sauce
- 2 fresh bay leaves (dried is fine)
- 1 1/2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic. minced
- olive oil
- red pepper flake, to taste
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Italian seasoning (fresh or dried and smushed in your palm), to taste
- 1 TBSP tomato paste
- 1/3 bottle red wine (I used some less-than-stellar Sangiovese)
- 1 pound hot Italian sausage (I had some organic, local stuff that we’d gotten at the Farmer’s Market. You’ll see)
- 2 large cans plum tomatoes
- 2 tsp sugar (mine needed it; yours might not)
- red wine vinegar to brighten flavors, to taste
- About 1/2 cup pasta cooking water
- about 3 TBSP heavy cream (you can also use butter or olive oil–or any tasty fat, really)
- some freshly grated (or green can if that’s all you have) hard Italian cheese, such as Pecorino or Parmesan
So, what do you always do first when making some sort of Italian-inspired pasta sauce? That’s right–you make your soffrito. Sweat/sauté your aromatics. In this case, I threw the onion, garlic, oil, salt, pepper, pepper flake and bay in the heated pan.
After things start getting nicely softened and start to color, spoon in your tomato paste and stir it around a bit. All this is done over medium-ish heat, by the way. (Before you laugh at the next picture, remember that I am not a planner. It was all I could do to stop after each step and take a picture. Did you really expect me to remember to thaw the sausage, too)?
Next up, once the meat (if you decide to use meat) is all browned and lovely, skim off as much of the fat as you think prudent and then add the wine.
Next up, toss in the tomatoes. If using fresh, less than amazing tomatoes, you might want to roast them for about 30 minutes first, to concentrate the flavor. I like my sauce chunky, so I just mash up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. If you like a smoother sauce, hit it with a stick blender, or don’t start with whole tomatoes.
Simmer for as long as it takes to get to the consistency you want. Do this over low heat so you don’t end up burning the sauce. Oh, here’s where I also added the sugar and vinegar. I also corrected the rest of the seasonings.
Here’s the point where many of you will just cook some noodles and then ladle the sauce on top. I would’ve done the same had it not been my Good Fortune to see Frank Pellegrino from Rao’s in NYC on a cooking show about ten years ago or so. He showed me (and everyone else watching, I guess) how to finish a sauce. I listened and Followed Directions. Dude was right, so pay attention to the next steps.
The idea is to create a starch-bound emulsion right in the pan. It sounds like Crazy Magic, but it’s really quite easy. For your emulsion, you need fat–in the form of olive oil, heavy cream, butter, duck fat, bacon grease or any other tasty fat. You don’t need much–maybe just a tablespoon or so for an entire Vat of pasta and sauce, so don’t freak out. Next, you need the water part of the emulsion. You’ll get this from the water that is already in your sauce, plus some extra pasta water that you’ve dipped out of the pasta pot before draining. The starch you need is in the cooking water, plus, you’ll get even more from the pasta in the pot. You make the emulsion by stirring. Easy.
I don’t have a picture of the next part because I only have two hands. Over high heat, stir everything together really well. Things will be boiling and sputtering, but keep stirring–I use tongs–until the sauce has reduced to its original consistency (before you thinned it out with the pasta water). The color will lighten somewhat, and your now-emulsified sauce will coat all the noodles. This should only take a minute or two on high heat. Make sure you start with al dente pasta, or it will be mushy when you’ve finished this part. And that’s no fun.
At the end, stir in some grated cheese. Then, it’s your choice to serve with more cheese sprinkled on top or not.
See how thick the sauce is? That’s because of the emulsion–just like how mayonnaise is thicker than either oil or egg yolk. You know how sometimes water leaks out of your pasta and then you’ve got really runny, watery sauce under all the noodles? Yeah, well those days are over.
- This works with whole wheat and regular semolina pasta. It works really well with pasta made from brown rice, since there’s a lot of starch in rice.
- I used green can cheese ’cause that’s all I had. Give me a break, we’re moving soon.
- You can add mushrooms to this and almost any kind of vegetable–your ingredient list doesn’t have to look like mine.
- Here’s your template:
–sweat/sauté aromatics with flavorings/spices/dried herbs
–add tomato paste (or not)
–brown meat (and/or mushrooms) with the soffrito (if you’re using meat); skim fat
–add wine/stock to deglaze pan
–add tomatoes (and other veggies) and simmer to reduce/thicken
–add fresh herbs and correct all seasonings.
–finish over high heat by adding fat and pasta water to pasta and sauce
–gild the lily with some grated cheese
And there you have it.