To every first-day-of-school introduction: “What is your favorite food?”
Whether its beefsteak, heirloom, hydroponic, roma or even grape (those pesky little guys), I will happily gobble them up with some salt, pepper and olive oil.
As the tomato season draws to a saddening end, it is the perfect opportunity to stock your kitchen with tomatoes in one of its best forms: tomato sauce.
When my Italian-American roommate brought home five boxes of spaghetti in one shopping run I was not surprised. Truthfully, I was a little underwhelmed. Seeing a bottle of Prego sauce though, that was an utter shock. That sugary imposter of red sauce making a home in our pantry? I think not.
Making your own sauce renders richer flavors, presents a healthier alternative and can be made at even the lowest of price points. Red sauce is great to make in bulk, freeze and keep for lazy winter nights, topping over a quick pasta. I prefer to make smaller batches and experiment with proportions and different flavors. As a rule of thumb, I use half an onion per pound of tomatoes, and a can or tube of puree or paste per two pounds of the real veggies.
The must haves:
Tomatoes (Lots of them). Buy romas, San Marzanos or plums in bulk when on sale. It’s cheaper than the cans. If you must go for a can go for cento.
Onion. Yellow is best, but as my motto goes: Use what you got!
Tomato Paste. This is a paste of concentrated tomatoes, the more you use the thicker the sauce (duh).
Olive Oil. Always have olive oil in your pantry. I could talk for days about oil, but the basic you need to know is extra virgin is the best, but has the lowest smoke point. Always buy oil that is in a dark, glass bottle. The more heat and light it is exposed to the less flavor it has. I like to keep at least two bottles at all times — one fancy bottle for topping salads, pasta and pizza with and a lower grade for cooking.
Garlic. Always have garlic around. It keeps vampires and people who talk too close away.
Salt and Pepper. Like olive oil, all salt and pepper is not of the same quality. Himalayan salt is my favorite, and is currently the trendiest. Telecherry pepper packs the most punch.
The highly recommended:
Fennel Seeds. One $5 jar will last you a very long time. They pack a flavorful punch and are a great way to add an extra Italian touch to any dish.
Cayenne Pepper. Powdered is acceptable but if you’re at the Boulder Farmers Market do yourself a favor and pick up the real deal. They are extraordinarily cheep, last ages and a little goes a long way. There is no substitute for the warm, back-of-the-throat after-burn true cayenne gives a dish.
Parsley. As a habit I picked up from my mom, I always keep a fresh bundle in old plastic soup containers. Top anything with chopped parsley to upgrade it. But dried flakes will also work.
Carrots. If you like a sweeter sauce, add chopped carrots to your soffrito instead of sugar.
Eggplant. Hear me out of this one. Cubed eggplant will thicken and enrich your sauce.
Shallots. These are onions’ punchier younger brother. Smaller in size but richer in flavor and a favorite of french recipes. If there is a sale on shallots, pick up a few.
Celery. A typical staple of soffrito but not a necessity.
Anchovies. These salty little fish are not my favorite on their own. But minced and added to a sauce, they will enrich the flavor and quality without adding its own pungent taste. Add them to your sauce when it is off the heat.
How to cook:
You’ll want to block out at least four hours before you want to eat the sauce. Most of the time will be spent simmering the sauce to steep its flavor. Personally, I like to shack up in the kitchen and write while my sauces are cooking down.
In your largest pot, boil water and put a mixing bowl full of ice water in the freezer. Prep the veggies by scoring X’s on the tomato’s tops. Make a nice, even chop with the onion and other soffrito ingredients. Mince the garlic and cayenne.
Toss the tomatoes in the boiling water for about 45 seconds, and use that time to get the bowl of ice water out and place it next to the pot. Use a slotted spoon to remove tomatoes and plunge them into the ice water. This is blanching, a process used to remove the skin from tomatoes. Next, peel off the skin — if it doesn’t easily come off, they were not boiled long enough.
After dumping out the water and whipping down the pot, put it back on the heat and add olive oil once it has taken in some heat. Add the onions, fennel seeds and a few cracks of pepper. Turn heat to medium high and turn the onions until they are almost translucent (about five minutes, depending on the size of the chop). Add in the garlic, cayenne and any other veggies. Continue to shake and turn the pot’s contents until the onions are translucent throughout. This is very important, as it is the ground floor of flavor. If the foundation of the dish is not done properly, the rest of the building blocks will lack the taste a homemade sauce deserves.
When the soffrito is cooked to perfection and it is seasoned well with the cayenne, fennel and parsley flakes add in the skinless tomatoes. I prefer to simply chop them in half since they will reduce into a paste in the end, but some people like to make smaller chunks.
Roll the tomato pieces in the soffrito and add more olive oil. Stick you face over the pot and if the flavors do not lightly burn your eyes and make your nose dance, add more spice and fennel.
After a good five minutes, add in the tomato paste or puree. This is basically the last piece of the puzzle. Now just let it simmer (little bubbles) for at least three hours, stirring it every 20 minutes for about five minutes.
Finally, never cover your sauce with a lid. You would be forgiven to think that it will trap in flavors, but really it will only trap in evaporated water, making your sauce a watery mess — yuck.
Contact CU Independent Grapevine Contributor Jackson Barnett at Jackson.Barnett@colorado.edu