My Pandemic Diary, Entry #22

My Pandemic Diary, Entry #22

Hello Fellow City Cooks,

It’s Tuesday and a rather gray morning.  Aside from a walk and my other daily tasks, I have no big plans today, although I have a couple of cooking projects and the apartment needs to be cleaned. Certainly vacuumed. And there is always laundry to do.

But I also have a book I want to start, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.  I’ve long been a Roth fan, especially of his later works, and I think American Pastoral (just my opinion here at my diary) might be the great American novel which is tricky to even say given that Roth actually wrote a novel with that title. Somehow I never read The Plot Against America and after finishing The Goldfinch this past weekend, which I enjoyed a lot and it was gratifying to get to the end of Tartt's long tale, much of which was about identity and wealth, I feel ready to again enter Roth’s view of America. Maybe particularly now, in this moment of disturbed isolation, I’m ready. An alternative is to start re-reading my paperback collection of Chief Inspector Maigret mysteries by Georges Simenon but that might be just as disturbing as Roth. Then again, there’s always Middlemarch….

Cooking and Groceries

Today I need to boil some eggs to have on hand for breakfast, make croutons before my half-used loaf of bread gets moldy, and I’m defrosting a duck breast for our dinner. Also on the schedule: this week I’m going to make tomato sauce and meatballs, enough for one immediate dinner plus leftovers to freeze. I will freeze the sauce and meatballs separately so to have more options.

For all its simplicity, tomato sauce is a matter of much debate. Plus it’s Italian, and in Italy food is always culturally geographic, and thus political. There is ragù, sugo, gravy, marinara, puttanesca, all’amatriciana, Bolognese, or countless others, with onions, without onions, with fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes. Many of us settle on a recipe for tomato sauce and then we stick with it. But if you haven’t done this yet, just a few things to think about.

First, how are you going to use the sauce?  With meatballs, on pizza, in lasagna, as a simple topping for pasta, in a chicken cacciatore recipe?  Are you a vegetarian or vegan? Are you using canned tomatoes or fresh? The answers will narrow your sauce options. 

To my best knowledge, the term “gravy” generally refers to a tomato sauce that has been long-cooked along with meat of some kind. Ragù is a term, co-opted by a company that makes rather awful jarred sauce, that originally came from a French word but leaving etymology aside, it seems to describe a thicker tomato sauce that may, or may not, have meat in it; some also say it’s Neapolitan but I don’t know anything about that.  

Clearly this is an imprecise art.

What may be more useful are these points:

Only make sauce with fresh tomatoes if you have really wonderful fresh tomatoes. Your sauce will only taste as good as your tomatoes and so if they taste like they’ve been in a warehouse for five months, that's what your sauce will taste like. Otherwise use canned tomatoes.

Find a brand of canned tomatoes that you like. They don’t have to be DOP San Marzano – the Italian government’s designation denominazione di origine protetta. Although they are excellent, they’re also pricey and can be hard to find. There are some also excellent non-DOP Italian and U.S. brands and the best way to know what’s good is to try different ones and taste the tomatoes right out of the can before cooking them. Find one you like and then stick with it. Many people like Muir Glen, and Pomi, which comes in a box, is also very good. I have long liked the La Valle brand, both their San Marzanos and plain imported Italian plum tomatoes.

When making a sauce, it’s generally better to work with whole tomatoes rather than diced or puréed. Diced tomatoes often have calcium chloride added to them (read the label) to help keep the diced pieces from getting mushy but don’t we want A) only tomatoes and no chemicals? And B) to have a smooth sauce and not one with lots of diced pieces?  Also, the best tomatoes will be canned whole; any that are in bits and pieces will be puréed. So buy whole ones and mash them yourself.

Here’s a useful article on the subject from Food52. 

Sauce does not have to be cooked for hours unless you’re braising a whole piece of meat in it. In fact, it’s often better to cook a sauce quickly because that will ensure that all the ingredients taste fresher. Sometimes you will want a more intense, deep flavor; for example, for topping pizza. If so, then yes, cook the sauce longer and also make it with mostly tomatoes and not many other ingredients. But it’s good to know you can come home from work (and aren’t we looking forward to doing that again!), open a can of tomatoes and place a skillet on the stove with some olive oil and a crushed garlic clove and within 15 minutes you will have a delicious sauce to put on a piece of leftover chicken or pasta or quick-sautéed shrimp.

Some tomato sauces are iconic. Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking, is famous not only for her Bolognese, but also another called her tomato/onion/butter sauce

This recipe initially appeared in Marcella’s first book, The Classic Italian Cookbook (published in 1976; no longer in print but available used in the secondary market), under the name “Tomato Sauce III.” Sauces I and II both had a mirepoix-like base but differed in how they were cooked so that Sauce II had a “fresher, more delicate flavor.”  Sauce III, made only with tomatoes, butter, and one onion left whole, is intensely tomato-flavored and has a velvety texture that develops over the 45 minutes or so that it takes to cook. It’s perfectly wonderful on pasta.

Marcella had countless other tomato sauces in her first book and added more to every other she subsequently published, including the iconic Bolognese sauce made with beef, or beef and pork. I once made it with ground duck and it was splendid.

For other great tomato sauces you can turn to any number of trusted authorities. Like Mary Ann Esposito or Lidia Bastianich or if you’re lucky, your Italian grandmother. My favorite tomato sauce, the one I use with meatballs or with a beef pinwheel is from an unlikely expert, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn named Arthur Schwartz. His truly great book – which I would grab if my kitchen were on fire – The Southern Italian Table, is as authentic a source as any nonna’s cucina and his recipe for Sugo di Pomodoro (tomato sauce) is Neapolitan perfection. He offers a version using a minced onion but I like his other way, with a lightly crushed large garlic clove.  It cooks in less than 20 minutes.

Here’s the recipe for the garlic version:

1 large garlic clove, lightly crushed or cut in half, or minced or sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 28-ounce can Italian peeled tomatoes with their juice; if the canned tomatoes include a basil leaf, discard it
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
Pinch of red pepper flakes or a few turns of freshly ground black peppercorns
2 or 3 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn, or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (I always choose the oregano)

Put the garlic and oil into a sauté pan or large saucepan. Place over low heat and cook until the garlic is tender and at most, lightly colored. At this point in his book, Schwartz writes, “If using a slightly crushed or halved clove, you can remove it. A Neapolitan cook would; a Calabrian cook probably would not.” When making this sauce, I am Calabrian.

Add the tomatoes. Purée them directly into the pan through a food mill, or use your hand to crush them into the pan. Increase the heat so the tomatoes come to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper or red pepper flakes.

Simmer briskly for about 12 minutes until the sauce is thick, stirring frequently. Add the basil for the last minute or the oregano for the last 5 minutes. 

Schwartz finishes the recipe with the admonition that while the sauce reheats beautifully, be careful you don’t re-cook it. 

I’ll make my meatballs from a mix of ground beef and pork and I’m going to make two pounds of rather small-ish ones so that I can freeze half. My meatball recipe, which I perfected by making another Arthur Schwartz recipe, is a Calabrian classic:  half ground beef, half ground pork, minced garlic, salt, pepper, two eggs, finely minced parsley, fine bread crumbs, and a little grated Parmesan or pecorino. I fry them in a little vegetable oil until they're browned and cooked through, although sometimes I will add them, after they've been browned, to a pan of simmering tomato sauce for their last fifteen minutes or so of cooking.  It’s not my recipe so I can call this simple genius.

Stay safe and have a nice dinner.

Kate McDonough

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