Every home cook needs to know how to make a killer, knock-out, flavorful, make-your-mama-proud Red Sauce. And every cook needs to understand that it is a medly of components. Not just excellent ingredients, but love, and passion, and music, and attitude.
Have you ever seen the movie "Big Night?" If you love food and cooking and Stanley Tucci, then it's a must-see. It's been around for several years but I'm sure Netflix has it. It is a movie that helped form my love for cooking with passion. Plus, the soundtrack is AWESOME. If you're more about restraint, check out "Babette's Feast."
Speaking of music, when you make a good Red Sauce, it helps to have something behind it to get the cook in the mood. It might be Frank Sinatra, it might be Dean Martin. Maybe a little Mel Torme, or Bobby Darin. Anything with some swing or sass. And if you're one of those people who can manage internet music, find the song "Buona Sera" by Louis Prima. It is a quintessential Red Sauce Song. Interestingly, it's also featured in the movie "Big Night." You see, Louis Prima is supposed to come to the restaurant owned by these two Italian brothers for a big dinner, that might save their restaurant from going under. But I digress . . .
Another great movie food scene is in "Goodfellas." Now, I am NOT recommending this as a family movie. Uh-uh, no way sir-ee! But do you remember when the wiseguys are in prison, and the one guy is in charge of the garlic for the sauce? He shaves it paper-thin with a razor blade. Now that's passion. Did you know that Italian-Americans call Red Sauce "Gravy?"
I never watched the TV series "The Sopranos" but obviously was aware of it. We're too cheap for cable at our house. Anyway, some years ago the cast was featured on a morning talk show and they were promoting the cookbook that went with the show. Oh my, they were a hoot. Wavering in and out of character, shouting over each other, all seated around a big table covered with a red-checked tablecloth and tons of Italian-American food. Needless to say, I got the cookbook. I use their meatball recipe.
So I guess I'm more about Italian-American food. Never have been to Italy (or Europe for that matter, sigh). Sigh again. There's something about the culture of Italian-Americans that draws me. Maybe that's why I like mobster movies so much. Not the violence or the language, but the families and the strong bonds of unity. Unless, of course, someone's cousin needs whacking. It seems like food is ever-present in these movies, even as a backdrop to the real story.
If you want a lucious and interesting look at real, gourmet Italian cooking, all within the confines of a luxury yacht during the height of the summer season, then check out "Mediterranean Summer" by David Shalleck. It's a true story about a chef hired to cook fresh, seasonal, local foods for a very elegant, uber-wealthy couple and their many guests aboard the yacht. No repeats. Tiny galley kitchen. It's mezmerizing. Plus I got a really good tip for Red Sauce from the book. There's even recipes at the back!
Time to get cooking! Put on your apron because you SHOULD get messy making Red Sauce. When you take a taste and it's way too hot, some will likely dribble down your chin and onto your shirt. Trust me on this one. Any time you're working with tomatoes and oil, an apron is in order. I wear one no matter what I'm cooking, actually.
Get out a nice, big pot. I use my dutch-oven for this sauce, the heavy cast-iron kind with enamel inside. But any stock pot or sauce pot will suffice. As long as you're making this, you might as well make a LOT, right? Because it freezes well. And when I tell you that a heavenly breakfast is a couple of eggs fried in a skillet and surrounded by Red Sauce and a piece of bread on the side for dipping, you'll be glad you have some extra tomorrow.
Extra virgin olive oil
Canned tomatoes, preferrably Italian "plum-style" or roma
Salt and pepper
Red chile pepper flakes
Yes, no quantities. But I'll talk you through the process and tell you how I'm making mine this afternoon. My parents are coming for dinner and I'm serving their favorite Spaghetti and Meatballs.
Turn on your music, and pour yourself a splash of the red wine you'll be using in the sauce. If you don't drink wine, fine by me. But use the real deal in the sauce, please. A red table wine is fine, or a Chianti, Zinfandel or Pinot Noir.
If Frank or Louis are going, you're ready. Get your big pot and put it on low heat. Add a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil. When it gets warm and shimmery, add some chopped garlic. I always chop my garlic by hand with a knife. Crushed with a press releases way too much of the garlic oil and can overpower the sauce. Just peel a few cloves (probably 3-4) and then smash them on your cutting board with the side of your biggest knife - a strong thrust with the heel of your hand. Don't worry, you won't get cut. Once the cloves are sort of broken, chop them up and add them to the oil.
PLEASE do not let the garlic get brown. Soft and fragrant is the goal here, which is why I use the lowest heat possible. After a few minutes of that, open up two, 28 ounce cans of tomatoes. Did I mention San Marzano is a great kind? Mmmmmm. Now this is the fun part, if you like to get tactile (and you should): hold the can over the pot and pull the tomatoes out with your hand and crush them by hand! It feels really nice and squishy. Make sure you dump the liquid in from the cans, too. If you don't like the hand-crushing deal, just dump them into the pot and they will break down as you cook the sauce. I saw someone on TV use a potato masher to accomplish the task. Whatever.
Give the pot a good stir to get that oil mixed into the tomatoes. Bring it to a simmer, and add the red wine - about a half-cup or so. This is also the time to add the salt and pepper and please don't skimp here. One day soon I'm going to blog about salt to help you get over your 'salt is bad' mind-set if you have one. TASTE the sauce now. Did Louis Prima get to the part in the song yet where they are lingering by a little jewelry shop?
While that is humming and cooking the alcohol out of the wine, chop your herbs. If you don't have fresh, you can use dried. Fresh is so much better, but I live in the North and buying fresh herbs in winter makes me croak at the price. So dried is often what I use in the cold months. Dried from my garden, if all is right in the world. Take a handful of Italian parsley (the flat kind), a smaller handful of oregano, and about a dozen basil leaves. Dried would be a tablespoon of parsley, 2 teaspoons each of oregano and basil. Put all your fresh herbs on your cutting board and chop away. If you like bigger pieces, great. If you want them minced fine, go for it. No rules here. I like a medium chop. Add them to the pot and give it a stir again.
Keep your heat at low or medium low. You want a gentle simmer. Your stovetop and counter also want a gentle simmer. After 10-15 minutes, taste again (glad you're wearing an apron yet?) and see if you need salt or pepper. This is also the time to add sugar if you like a sweeter sauce, maybe a couple teaspoons. And a nice pinch of red chile pepper flakes always makes for some interest, but only if you like spicy sauce. You choose the amount, it's your kitchen and your family. I won't use any for my parents tonight. But have the shaker on the table, it's a nice idea for individual tastes.
Your sauce is done. Really, it is. None of this all day cooking business. Your Italian grandmother might have had her pot on the back of the stove all afternoon, but I find that 30 minutes of total cooking time is plenty. I want to taste the individual flavors and textures.
A word about the anchovies:
This is a new deal for me. I learned it from "Mediterranean Summer" and it is THE BOMB for flavor. And I promise your sauce will NOT taste like fish. Don't be squeamish - you eat anchovies in caesar salad dressing all the time, silly. Mashed up. Just like you'll do here.
Buy a tiny jar or can of anchovy fillets. Take about 4 of them out, drop them into the oil-garlic part of the sauce at the beginning, and mash them around to make a paste. Proceed with the rest of the sauce as directed. It adds incredible depth of flavor and something complex that I can't explain but you'll know when you cook it. Try it just once. Trust me. It's very sassy.
But, alas, there'll be no anchovies in today's sauce at my house. If, and I mean a really big if, anyone in the world could detect them in the sauce, it would be my mother. And then we'd all be in big trouble. Sigh.
ENJOY. Mama Mia!