I used to be a big believer in already-ready-already spaghetti sauces. Ragu, Prego, Classico: if it ended in a vowel, it was in my possession and on my pasta. They were convenient, quick, tasty, and a godsend after a hectic day of expanding young minds. They’re also loaded down with a good deal of sodium, which I was trying to avoid for a number of reasons. Many processed foods, alas, were banned from my pantry forthwith. I surrendered convenience for a lower blood pressure and cholesterol count, traded quickness for more time in my kitchen and a smaller jean size. I regretted nothing. But in my darker moments, I missed the sauce.
Then I got my ceramic-coated Dutch oven.
The sauce was resurrected.
It wasn’t quick. It wasn’t (overly) convenient. But it was infinitely adaptable and much lower-impact than I thought it would be, not to mention extraordinarily inexpensive. Just check out the dramatis personae:
Four 14.5 oz. cans of no-salt-added diced tomatoes (I’ve also used fresh tomatoes with great success, but as Count Rugen says, let’s just start with what we have), one six-ounce can of tomato paste, one bottle (more or less) of red wine, one medium onion, and one sweet bell pepper (or four small peppers, in my case). If you like, you can dice some carrots and throw them into the initial saute as well.
The seasonings can be adjusted (as can most of the ingredients in the recipe), but I use four cloves of fresh garlic (six if I’m feeling extra funky), fresh herbs (whatever you have on hand – we grow some basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano in our little box garden on the porch), some dried herbs to round things out, red pepper flakes for some zing (I’d use something with more punch, but Pip and Pop would never eat it), a couple of bay leaves, salt, pepper, sugar, and some olive oil. I also keep some balsamic vinegar on hand, just to finish the sauce off near the end.
The musical selection is a Paul Simon playlist: easygoing and mellow, the perfect mood for the sauce prep, which isn’t too bad on this one. Dice your onion and peppers, mince the garlic, clean and chop your herbs (except for the bay leaves – those stay whole), and grab your favorite blender or food processor.
Put your glorious, fire-engine-red Dutch oven (colors may vary) over low heat, and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Toss in the chopped garlic, onions, and peppers along with a pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper. Sweat this mixture until the onions are, as they say, translucent (I keep trying for totally transparent, but I guess science just doesn’t work that way). Scootch the temperature up a notch or two and throw in a couple tablespoons of tomato paste, the red pepper flakes and your herbs. Stir everything together and let it sit for a few. Then turn, as menacingly as you dare, to your tomatoes.
These tomatoes are gentle beings, I know. Nothing they’ve done in life justifies the treatment they are about to receive, but we must keep the greater good in the forefront of our minds. Dinner, after all, is coming. Two cans are emptied into a strainer (which should be placed in a sink, hopefully), and the other into your blender, liquid and all. The ones in the blender have it easy – their liquefaction will be quick and merciful. Thirty seconds or so should be enough. The ones in the colander, now, their fate is somewhat…messier and definitely not for the squeamish.
Reach into the colander with both hands and crush the tomatoes. Get in there and pulp them. Channel your inner Hulk. They’ll lose some liquid, but that’s collateral damage. Take a breath. Good, good. Now pour the remnants from the colander to the Dutch oven, stir them into the mixture that’s already in there and let them cook down and caramelize a bit. Give them a stir every minute or two for, oh, ten minutes or so. Once they’re at the desired softness, pour the liquefied tomatoes from the blender into the mix, along with a healthy dollop of wine and a splash of olive oil.
Sugar is a somewhat odd ingredient to consider adding to an otherwise savory dish. I use it to cut down on the tomatoes’ inherent acid content, but it’s tricky to say how much to throw into your proto-sauce. It depends on your tomatoes, your wine, and your personal taste. Start small – a tablespoon or so – and add more as needed while the sauce cooks; as they say, it’s easier to add an ingredient than take it out. Add salt and pepper as necessary as well, plus anything you have a taste for: onion powder, garlic powder, extra herbs, additional red pepper flakes, whatever floats your meatball. Make sure the heat is on low to medium-low (it should be at a low bubble) and cover the pot.
Now sit down. Go ahead, take a break. Really. In fact, the longer this cooks, the better it’ll taste. Check it every half-hour or so for a quick stir and the occasional flavoring adjustment. You might need to add extra wine (or water, or even beer if you have a mind) as the sauce cooks down. Today, it’s going to sit and simmer for four hours. About half an hour before I serve it, though, I have a couple of choices to make.
First, I need to consider my consistency. I usually like a chunky sauce, so I sometimes just serve it as is. I could get a smooth texture if I hit it with an immersion blender for five minutes or so, or I could grab a potato masher and work it over for something in between. If you use the masher in the kind of Dutch oven I have, though, be careful – the metal can damage the ceramic surface of your pot, so tread lightly. And get those bay leaves out of there before you hit it with the blender or otherwise serve the sauce.
Second, what else needs to be added? A fair question, and endless in variety. Consider the possibilities…
- Balsamic vinegar? A tablespoon or so adds a nice tang.
- Sliced mushrooms? You bet! I usually have some, already sautéed, in my fridge at all times.
- A pat of butter? Added right before you serve the sauce, this can add some great flavor and creaminess.
- Some cheese? No doubt. I like to add some grated or shredded parmesan right at the end myself. Maybe a bit of mozzarella as well.
- Hot sauce? Go to town, especially if your sauce isn’t spicy enough for your palate.
- Sausage? Chicken? Ground beef? Make sure they’re precooked and have at it. Remember, this is your sauce, dammit!
There you have it! Enjoy, and remember to clean as you cook; it makes for less trouble after dinner and…
Wait, what? Whaddya mean, serving options? Well, that’s your call, isn’t it? Pizza sauce, chicken parmesan, beef-a-roni, whatever you got. Okay, fine. I’ll use it in…oh, a pasta bake. I have some nice, deep ramekins I use pretty frequently for this application. Cook your favorite pasta to an al dente consistency, strain, and mix with some sauce in a ramekin. Add as much sauce as you like (I usually add more than it seems like I’ll need, as the pasta will absorb the sauce as it bakes, especially if it’s an especially hearty pasta like ziti or penne), and stir in some of your favorite cheese – mozzarella, asiago, parmesan, ricotta, whatever. Heck, I’ve even been known to mix in a tablespoon of cream cheese at this stage. Put an additional layer of cheese on top of the full ramekin and place it into a 400 degree oven for ten to fifteen minutes. If the cheese isn’t browned to your satisfaction, let it sit under your broiler for a minute or so.
You now have a meal. I like to wrap up a loaf of ciabatta bread in aluminum foil and warm it up in the oven for a bit before dinner, and then carve thick chunks off of it and serve it immediately with an herb-and-oil dipping sauce. You can whip one of those up by mixing some olive oil with whatever herbs you have left (dried or fresh), some pepper, red pepper flakes, and grated parmesan. Remember, get in there and experiment with this. Nothing is absolute and everything can be negotiated. Any clever additions? Questions? Suggestions? Don’t hesitate to post them up.
In closing, bear in mind what Adlai Stevenson said: that a hungry man is not a free man. Get in the kitchen and feed somebody: a spouse, a child, a parent, a stranger. Feed them and free them.