The Secret’s in the Sauce


The “Sunday Sauce,” usually a recipe handed down for generations, is as heavily guarded as the most priceless of possessions. There are as many different versions of a sauce recipe as there are Italian families; but one thing’s for sure, if you get hold of a good one, you’ve got the foundation for many a memorable meal.

Christina Shaw agreed to share her family’s recipe: “My Aunt Lil, the oldest daughter of 10 children, taught me this recipe in her own kitchen when I first got married. Nothing compares to it. No doubt she got it from her mother, my Great Grandmother, born in Italy, never spoke a word of English, and raised 10 children alone by running a fruit store down on Canal Street in New York City. Needless to say, this is a recipe that old movies are made of.”

Here are the steps to this treasured recipe in Christina’s own words:

“You have to start with good tomatoes, good pork, and good, fresh basil from the garden. I grow my own basil now for this reason. My aunt would even use the tomatoes from her garden. Large plum tomatoes as ripe as you can get them before they fall off the vine. Blanch them, pulverize them, and strain out the skins and seeds through a sieve. I admit I use canned, chopped tomatoes because it takes a lot of fresh tomatoes to make a lobster pot size of sauce. But I only use the best. If you can get them for less than $3.00 a can, they’re no good. I buy Sclafani tomato cutlets. They’re actually made in California and they have the best taste, consistency, and bite.

“So the first thing you do is brown a large piece of pork. I use boneless pork loin because my family likes to eat the pork as part of the meal. Now, if you want to really trump this, add a piece of beef and/or even veal. Depends on how much sauce you’re making. You brown each piece. Then take that out and brown your chopped onion and fresh garlic. We don’t use “vegetables” in our sauce. I know a lot of people who put in celery, bell pepper, and carrots and the like. Yuck. This is what gives it that “gardeny” taste. Real Italian sauce has a rustic flavor. Hearty — almost stew like.

“So, after you brown your onions and garlic, and add pepper and salt to taste, you add back your meat, and then add your tomatoes. Turn it down to a simmer and cook for a long, long time. You know when it’s done when your meat is falling apart. The heat needs to be low enough that you do not burn the bottom; not even a little bit. If you do, the taste will never leave the pot. Stir. Stir. Stir.”

If you haven’t been to the manor born, as they say, you can still be a closet tomato sauce lover. Sara Thacker, author of Smooth Lies (The Wild Rose Press, 2008), is one of those: “After growing up in a strictly meat and potatoes family, I find that I can’t pass up a good tomato. I even base entire meals off of being able to sneak a tomato in. I learned my sauce making technique from a friend who took pity on a southern girl who once thought good sauce came from a jar.”

Sara learned some important lessons cooking tomato sauce in her friend Megan’s kitchen:

“Above and beyond 8 to 10 fresh tomatoes, your sauce needs garlic. I usually use one entire bulb of garlic. That would be 8 to 10 cloves mashed with a garlic masher. An entire yellow onion is a must. The onion should be sautéed with a few tablespoons of olive oil before you add anything else to the mix, then add in the garlic. Yellow and orange bell peppers are also a must. Their flavor adds sweetness to the sauce that no other vegetable comes close to. You must add a small can of tomato paste. If you are cooking for more than 8 to 10 people, double everything but triple the tomato paste. You also need fresh basil, about one to two leaves minced; Marjoram, about 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon; Oregano, if you can find fresh use a few leaves, minced. If you like meat, add a mixture of cooked ground Italian sausage and ground beef. Really any ground meat is fine, and no meat is okay too.

“To prepare your tomatoes, cut into chunks and put the tomatoes into a strainer. The more you drain out of your tomatoes the less watery your sauce will be. You need to cut your tomatoes before you even start cutting your onion so your tomatoes will have plenty of time to drain.

“You should cook the entire pot with all of the ingredients for at least four hours on low heat; six hours would be better. So if you forget to pick up your peppers, done that before, and you have to run to the store to get a few, after you add the peppers then you still need four hours for the pot to sit and stew.

“Many things go into how thick your sauce is. The tomatoes you use and the meat you use will make a difference. But in general, if you cook with the lid off your sauce will start to thicken up. Do not add any water to your sauce, even if it looks way too chunky in the beginning. As your sauce sits on low heat all day long the veggies will lose their water. Elevation, humidity, and overall temperatures will make a difference, but as a rule of thumb, drain your tomatoes, don’t add water, use tomato paste to thicken the sauce. If you find that your sauce comes out too thin, add another small can of tomato paste to your recipe next time. If your sauce starts to look too thick, put the lid on and capture all of the moisture. If your sauce is way, way too thick, take a tablespoon of the tomato juice you drained off and add to the sauce.

“If you have an emergency and your sauce is way too watery, then add one teaspoon of flour to your sauce to thicken it. Start early in this process, like at least 1 hour before you are going to serve the sauce. If after 30 minutes it is still too thin, then add another teaspoon of flour.

“Fresh herbs will always taste better. Dried herbs are okay, I’ve used them and most people will never notice the difference. I can’t for the life of me keep a plant alive in my house and the winters are too cold for basil to live outside, so I do use dried herbs in the winter. It still taste great. When adding herbs, start with a small amount, like 1 teaspoon of each dried herb you like and then let the herb sit in the mixture cooking for at least an hour. Then taste the mixture and see if you like the way it tastes. Herbs and seasonings need at least 1 hour of sit time in your sauce for you to notice if you’ve added enough.”

Two different versions to make a basic sauce; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As long as there are mothers teaching daughters (and sons) to cook the recipe their mothers taught them, there will be disagreement on how to make the perfect sauce. Long live these sauce wars, because in the end, it means lots of great eating.

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