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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"It's In There..."

(Was it Prego or Ragu, that had the commercial for pasta sauce that said "...It's in there!")

There are few things in this world that I love to cook more than sauce. It is one of the most calming, comforting, relaxing experiences for me. Though I came to cooking later in my life, I do have memories of watching my mom make sauce. She didn't make it from scratch, but I remember LOVING watching her make meat sauce for spaghetti. It was one of the first things I remember cooking, and remember aching to perfect it.

I'm not an Italian girl, as we all know. I'm a Jewish girl, who makes a ridiculously mean pot of sauce. I can't call it gravy, but I can call it awesome. It was one of the first things I cooked for my husband's family. It was the first Sunday dinner I made in our house after our stove was installed. It is the first thing I gravitate toward when I don't care at all about eating but just NEED to cook. It's methodical for me, and all seems right with the world while I'm making it.  I swear, wars have been fought over how to make the perfect sauce. When I feel lost in my day, or lost in whatever stress is affecting me most in the moment, I long to stand at the stove, mixing, grating, chopping, and watching. Tasting and stirring, adjusting. It's catharsis personified.

*Please excuse the not-so-flattering picture. But there is no better picture of me cooking than this*

There are no amazing secrets to my sauce, except time and love. I LOVE my sauce. J loves my sauce. I change it up here and there, depending on the actual dish I'm making, but it all basically contains the same things. I almost never open a jar of sauce. Not because they're not tasty (they are) and not because I'm too cool for jarred marinara--I'm not. There are days when that's all J craves, and if I'm not in the mood/don't have the time/don't have anything else in the house, I'm all for it. But honestly, making sauce is ridiculously easy and the sense of satisfaction is on par with very little else in the world.

I'll give you the basic recipe below, mainly because so many of the recipes I want to share with you contain sauce, and I can't even begin to describe those dishes without discussing the most important component.

The most important thing I can teach you about making sauce is to know what you love in a good sauce. I use the same idea for meat sauce and marinara alike, but I have a strong sense of exactly HOW I like sauce. I like it a little on the thick side (most often) with a good balance of spicy and sweet. I tend to like it "rustic-looking"--not like I just opened a jar of Newman's. I like a long-cooked taste, even if I haven't had time to cook it all day. Most of all, I like a sauce (especially a meat sauce) that I don't mind eating WITHOUT anything else. Give me a crusty piece of whole grain bread, a small bowl of my sauce, and a giant salad, and I'm in heaven.

Do me a favor and share your favorite sauce memories or recipes below.



1 TBSP olive oil, or enough to very lightly coat the bottom of the pot
2 medium spanish or yellow onions, chopped (any onions you have will do, I promise)
6 cloves garlic, minced (or grated) (I use a coarse grate microplane hand-grater)
1 large carrot, grated (also use a large hand grater)
1-1/2 C good, dry red wine (I will use whatever is around, but if I can use something big and bold, and Italian, all the better!)
1/2 C chicken (or vegetable, if you're going vegetarian with it) stock
2 TBSP crushed red pepper (we like it spicy--you can adjust to your likes!)
1/4 C chopped parsley
1 TBSP dried oregano (or fresh, if you have)
salt and pepper
2 TBSP honey (or 1 TBSP agave)--balances the acidity of the tomatoes
2 28oz cans of crushed tomatoes (or diced, or whole and crush them in the pan)
fresh basil (if you have it)

In preferably a large, heavy bottom pot (or deep skillet) heat the olive oil on medium-high heat.
Add the onions, a small pinch of salt, and saute for about 6-7 minutes, until they are slightly browned and smell wonderful
Add the carrot, cook another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally
Add the garlic, and stir. Cook for another minute.

Turn the heat down to medium.
Add in tomato paste, stir. Cook for about 2 minutes.

Add crushed red pepper, oregano, parsley, another hefty pinch of salt, and a great amount of fresh cracked black pepper. Stir, and cook another minute or so.

Turn the heat up to medium-high, and add the red wine. (This is called deglazing, fyi.) Stir the mixture, scraping up any bits of deliciousness that have stuck to the pan. That is flavor-magic.

Let the wine cook out a bit, about 2-3 minutes. (FYI, this will cook all the alcohol off, so this is safe for pregnant people, kids, etc.) Add the chicken stock, and cook another 2 minutes.

Add in the canned tomatoes and the honey/agave and stir. Bring the mixture up to a boil, and then lower the heat as low as it will go. (This is when I move the pot to a smaller burner, if need be.) 

Place a cover on the pot, almost all the way covered. Leave it a bit askew. Every 30 minutes or so, give the sauce a BIG stir! Scrape up anything that is sticking to the bottom. Let cook as long as you want. If you need to eat it immediately, let it simmer about 15-20 minutes, then serve. If you can let it cook for hours, GO FOR IT! 

After it has been cooking a few hours, check the consistency. IF you want it thinner, leave the lid on completely. IF you think it needs to be a bit thicker, take the lid off, and let it reduce down a bit. Check the seasonings. IF you think it needs more salt or pepper, go crazy and add it in! If you want it spicier, add in some more crushed red pepper.

When you're ready to serve, turn off the heat, and toss in some torn (or sliced) basil.

Serve however you like.

Some info to remember:
If you're making a meat sauce, I brown off the ground meat FIRST, then add in the onions and start from there. If you're using a "fatty" ground meat, drain off some of the fat before beginning the sauce portion--unless you don't worry about the amount of fat you've got going on. :)

Don't be worried if you think it's sticking to the bottom. It probably is. It's not burned, it's just sticky. Give it a good hefty stir and work it all up. There are Italian sauce recipes where they let it cook ALL DAY on the stove without stirring once, and then just scrape that all up before they serve.

Adjust the flavors as you like. The carrot gives a bit of sweetness, so does the honey/agave. If it seems like it will be too much for you, try using a bit less. You can always adjust.

Sauce is insanely forgiving, so just go for it!

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