I’ve seen some of the best palates of my generation dimmed by bottle after bottle of tasteless and vastly overpriced supermarket spaghetti sauce. This produces a soul-deadening pasta experience which is never a good thing. These folks eat out at good Italian-American restaurants and wonder how to make their home sauce taste as good.
The secret isn’t pricey, and it isn’t time-consuming. It just requires a little character building of the sauce. Italian food experts like the great Marcella Hazan would object strongly to my free-form sauce augmentation, but she was always kind of snooty about Italian-American fare anyway. Here are some of the ways I think about tomato sauce and how bottled spaghetti sauce can be fundamentally upgraded.
1. First, except for a few times during the peak summer garden tomato season, canned tomatoes are always better than fresh, but even they need to be tweaked a little. Start with a large or small can of diced tomatoes — plain, with basil or with green chilies, and spread the contents, juice and all, in a brownie pan, pie plate or cookie sheet with sides. You want a thin layer of tomatoes. Add some chopped fresh garlic and put the pan in a 290 degree oven and leave it there for at least an hour. The purpose is to roast, dry and concentrate the tomatoes’ flavor and sweetness.
2. Since the oven is on anyway, I roast a whole red or yellow bell pepper at the same time on a pie plate. When it’s wilted and browned a bit, I remove it, let it cool and chop it in small pieces. It will add depth but not heat to the sauce.
3. I also almost always roast an onion: peel a yellow or sweet onion, cut it in halves, drizzle generously with olive oil plus salt and pepper and wrap tightly in aluminum foil. Put it on the pie plate with the pepper and roast at least an hour, until onions are translucent and lightly browned. I chop the onions finely or put them in the blender with broth and add to the sauce.
4. To make sauce, add bottled marinara sauce or store-brand crushed tomatoes into a saucepan and simmer. Add the roasted onions and pepper. Stir in the oven roasted tomato and if it needs to be thinned, add flavor by thinning with broth or tomato juice. Add a measure of merlot or red zinfandel, and if it needs thickening add a little tomato paste. Simmer on low for about 45 minutes. Season to taste with oregano, basil, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, salt, garlic and other herbs. At the last second, add half a stick of unsalted butter and stir — trust me on this. But good olive oil works, too.
5. At this point you have a sauce suitable for spaghetti, over eggplant parmesan or in lasagna. In lieu of simmering chicken parts in sauce for hours, I add meatiness with some chopped roasted boneless skinless chicken thighs. A little bacon or other smoked meat adds another flavor layer. To give the sauce deep oomph and extra umami, add powdered dried exotic mushrooms found at the Hazel Dell mushroom booth at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market. It’s quite amazing stuff and a case where dried is better than fresh.
I put this batch of cacciatore over al dente penne macaroni with a grating of Parmesan in a baking dish and put it in the oven until bubbly. The dish has been a favorite since I was a young poet and short order cook in Boulder. I catered a party and got to serve my chicken cacciatore to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and a host of Beat generation luminaries attending On the Road: The Jack Kerouac Conference in 1982. They liked the sauce.
(If you have a great sauce secret you would like to share, send it to: Nibbles@boulderweekly.com.)
Summer camp with cheese, beer
Remember when going to camp meant making lanyards, hiking and singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”? My nominee for this summer’s best-sounding summer experience is the Curds & Brew Bootcamp, May 15-17 at the Art of Cheese in Longmont’s Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy. Campers study cheeses from Brie to blue in the morning and do tours and tastings at different breweries in the evening. Best of all: They go home with the cheeses they learned how to make. Details: theartofcheese.com.
A rotten Boulder cookbook flashback
When I eventually donate my excessive Colorado cookbook collection to a willing historical society, Really Rotten Recipes will be among them. The thin paperback volume was published in Longmont in 1986 by the remarkable Norma Ewalt whose passions included strange, old cookbooks. It features Monty Python-esque illustrations for such favorite recipes as peanut butter and macaroni salad, buttermilk prune float and festive hot dog souffle, plus the questionable “Recipe for Domestic Bliss” (circa 1880). The chocolate gravy actually looked tasty.
Taste of the week
Tamales by La Casita, 3561 Tejon St., is one of my go-to spots in Denver to meet for an affordable dinner. I’m partial to the comfy Christmas-style cheese tamales with a chile relleno and warm corn tortillas. For extra crunch in the burritos, add some chicharrons. Tamales by Las Casita also has a restaurant on Concourse C at DIA offering hot green chile to tired travelers.
Words to chew on
“Heh, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh? And a little bit o’ wine. An’ a little bit o’ sugar, and that’s my trick.”
— Clemenza giving a sauce-making lesson in The Godfather. (Skip the sugar.)
You’ll find John Lehndorff’s Facebook page at facebook.com/USpie. Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, streaming at kgnu.org).