Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day 2: What goes (and doesn’t go) into (Alton Brown's) basic tomato sauce

So on the Sunday two days before Christmas I was at my mother’s planning on running around with my partner getting some last minute things for meals and gifts. Of course, me being me, and with the breakfast dishes not yet cleared from the table no less, before I went out for the day I asked my mother if she’d thought about what to make for dinner. She being she, Mom had not actually given any thought to lunch let alone the following meal. Me being me, I had of course decided that a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs would be fairly quick and easy and would in no way compete with any of the roast beast dinners to follow over the next three days.

So when I got home, admittedly feeling a bit tired and cranky, Mom said to me, “They [the ones that rarely cook and don’t offer to clean up] don’t want meatballs. How about a meat sauce instead?” Remembering all I’d heard and read about making the holidays a pleasant family experience, I said smiling, “That's fine with me” and started to make my sauce. Then my mother asked me what I would put in it. “Onion, garlic, carrots, and celery,” I replied. “Celery? And no pepper?” she asked, eyebrows furrowing. “Yes that’s always the base for my sauce.” Then my older brother walked into the kitchen telling me, “There’s no carrots and no celery in sauce!” And then my mother who loves pepper, realized she couldn’t put her ingredient in either because my brother HATES cooked pepper and has since he was a child. So, backing away from the cutting board I told my brother, “Well if one doesn’t like how someone else is going to prepare the sauce, maybe one should just make the sauce himself!” And, shockingly, he agreed without protest. The man knows what he likes and how to make it!

I was actually glad to not have to make the sauce because I wasn’t in such a good mood after having to defend my recipe for sauce and instead proceeded to make sautéed tatsoi and mustard greens and garlic bread with mozzarella. Plus, my brother is actually a good cook, especially when he’s preparing some of his favorite foods. We couldn’t be more different in our tastes, habits, likes and dislikes, but I have to admit that I probably got into cooking because of him. (Isn't it amazing how the first born affects the ones that follow?) Even though I had a cheap imitation of an Easy Bake Oven that actually required no “baking” (if one can call cooking by a light bulb baking) and the results of which tasted like chemical cleaner and couldn’t even be dressed up by the frosting packet included, my brother received an actual cookbook for his birthday or Christmas one year. He was the first aspiring chef in the family and because of him all three of us kids were introduced to the wonders of cinnamon toast and sugar cookies that we could prepare ourselves at last!

His meat sauce was a bit watery and could have stood another couple of hours of simmering or more tomato paste, but was actually quite delicious and reminded me of my mother’s. (Incidentally, when I make sauce nowadays, I finish it in a 325 degree oven so that it can cook down without fear of scorching on the stovetop.) But I explain all this preamble to get to the discussion that occurred on Christmas Day. We had my younger sister’s best friend as a dinner guest who I learned for the first time had an Italian-American grandmother. So we got to talking about what goes into sauce and I posited that I always start my sauce with a sofrito (what the French call mire poix) so the base always includes onions, carrots, and celery! She laughed and said that her grandmother would never put celery into her sauce (or as she called it, gravy), and sorry, Mom, no pepper either. Just onions, garlic, and perhaps carrot. I countered that I was following marinara recipes from the Food Network’s Giada De Laurentiis and Mario Batali and no one is more Italian-American than they. But inwardly, I doubted my recipe. Was I, the inveterate food purist, using an inauthentic recipe for making basic tomato sauce? A quick search of the Food Network’s website showed that yes I had adulterated the recipe for sauce by using the celery which Mario and Giada did not use. Further perusal showed that the celery idea came from Alton Brown’s pantry tomato sauce which is pretty much the method that I follow and Alton ain’t got the I-talian bona fides.

But! The base for meat sauce (Bolognese) is in fact different from the base for basic tomato sauce (marinara), at least if one uses the Food Network or Epicurious as a source. The two recipes that I follow for ragu Bolognese, Mario's and one from Epicurious, both use onion, carrot, and celery as the base and milk in the sauce. Even Giada has two versions of Bolognese--one using leftover turkey and the other using ground meat--that use the onion, carrot and celery (but no milk). And frankly, when I've made sauce, whether with meat or without, I've just used the same base. So sue me!

While I’m not sure if the base for meat sauce should be the same as the base for marinara sauce, I suspect what I'm finding is the usual variation on a familiar recipe which is so typical of Italian cooking. I must admit that I’ve even adulterated Alton’s recipe with parsnips (HERESY!) when I’ve been in a situation where I have no carrots. I also spice it up with a good amount of red pepper flakes OR even jalapeno. And Alton’s method of separating the canned tomatoes from their juice and boiling the juice down separately is a great way to thicken the sauce. You can of course reduce that liquid in the same pan with the rest of the sauce as it cooks, but following Alton’s method you’ll start off with a nicely thickened tomato base that is started at the same time as you're sweating the veggies. Once reduced, the liquid will not give you a watery sauce at all and you won’t need any tomato paste. I also skip the oven roasting of the tomatoes. This certainly would add flavor, but if that’s what you like, save a step and another dirty pan and just buy fire roasted canned tomatoes. So here's Alton's recipe with my embellishments.

Pantry Friendly Tomato Sauce
by Alton Brown and adapted by me

2 (28-ounce) cans whole, peeled tomatoes
1/4 cup sherry vinegar [or balsamic]
1/4 cup sugar [optional and certainly to taste]
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 onion
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
2 ounces olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained [optional, IMHO]
1/2 cup white wine
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

  1. In a sieve over a medium non-reactive saucepot, strain the tomatoes of their juice into the sauce pot. Add the vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, oregano, and basil to the tomato juice. Stir and cook over high heat. Once bubbles begin to form on the surface, reduce to a simmer. Allow liquid to reduce by 1/2 or until liquid has thickened to a loose syrup consistency.
  2. Squeeze each tomato thoroughly to ensure most seeds are removed. Set the tomatoes aside.
  3. Cut carrot, onion, and celery into uniform sizes and combine with olive oil and garlic in a large turkey size roasting pan [or a 6 quart Dutch oven] over medium low heat. Sweat the mirepoix until the carrots are tender and the onion becomes translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and capers to the roasting pan. [Or deglaze the Dutch oven with the veggies with the white wine; add the tomatoes and the tomato juice reduction to the vegetables and skip paragraph 4.]
  4. Place roasting pan on the middle rack of the oven and broil for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Tomatoes should start to brown slightly on edges with light caramelization. Remove the pan from the broiler. Place the pan over 2 burners on the stove. Add the white wine to the tomatoes and cook for 2 to 3 more minutes over medium heat. Put the tomatoes into a deep pot or bowl and add the reduced tomato liquid to the tomatoes.
  5. [Cook the sauce on low covered with the lid slightly ajar. Stir occasionally to avoid scorching the bottom. Alternatively, cover your Dutch oven tightly and cook in the middle of a 325 degree oven for at least half an hour, until thickened somewhat.] Blend to desired consistency using an immersion blender, food processor, or blender and adjust seasoning.

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