Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Winter Pasta Sauce

For most of us, even here in sunny Los Angeles, the beautiful bounty of summer tomatoes is over. But that doesn't mean the end of tasty, home-made tomato sauces. No way!

When there are no fresh, local tomatoes to make a bright, summery tomato sauce, you want to go in the opposite direction. You want a rich, dark sauce, nuanced with layers of flavor. The kind that fills your home with warm, homey smells. That simmers for hours on the stove.

And if you can make the sauce out of things you probably already have in your fridge and pantry--so much the better!

That's why I love this sauce. It's easy to make, it doesn't require any fancy-pants ingredients, and it only needs one pot to make it, start to finish. (The entire recipe is written out below. I'll just walk you through its highlights.)

This sauce uses a few surprise ingredients: nutmeg, a little sugar, and dill weed. The nutmeg and sugar bring out the natural sweetness in the tomatoes, and the dill weed adds an unexpected note, another layer of depth.

At the base of the sauce is my version of the Trinity--equal amounts of onions, carrots, and celery (other cooks prefer green peppers over celery, but not moi).

(Toss the trimmed bits of onion base, celery heart, and such into your freezer to make soup stock another day. Read how I do it, here.)

Sautee the diced veggies in a large sauce pot with some olive oil until the onions are translucent:

You'll need cans of tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce. All three products, used together, boost the "tomato-y-ness" of the sauce.

Dump the canned ingredients, and everything else, into the pot. Bring it up to a fast boil, and then turn the pot down to simmer, covered, for hours on a low flame. If the sauce looks too thick, you can add some water, stock, red wine, olive oil--even beer!--to thin it out. (Or a little splash of several of those things.)

After a couple of hours, the sauce will look something like this (below). It will be thick, rich, and aromatic. You can use it right away for a delicious pasta dinner. But if you refrigerate the sauce and let it sit for a day or so, then warm it up later, the flavors will "marry" and mellow, and it will taste even better.

Make it today, then have it tomorrow or next month. Delicioso!

Winter Pasta Sauce
makes approximately 4 cups

2-4 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 C. diced carrots
1/2 C. diced celery, including some leaves
1-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 15-oz. can tomatoes--whole, diced, crushed--it doesn't matter--just break them up if they are in big chunks
1-2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated is best, but the kind in a jar or tin is fine)
2-3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. chili powder (or more, to taste)
1/4 - 1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. dill weed
salt, freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large sauce pot, sautee onion, carrots, and celery in the olive oil. When the onions are not quite translucent, add the garlic and give the pot a stir or two. When the onions are translucent, add all the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then drop flame down and simmer, covered, for several hours. Check the sauce every half hour or so and give it a stir. If it is too thick, add some water, stock, red wine, olive oil, or beer to thin it down.

Remove bay leaves and serve over hot, cooked pasta and top with shaved Parmesan or Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese. Can be stored in the fridge for a few days. Chilled sauce can be transferred to a zip-style plastic bag and frozen.

Four Variations:
Olive/Mushroom Sauce: 20 minutes or so before serving, stir into the hot sauce a small can of sliced black olives and a double handful of chopped fresh mushrooms. Simmer until mushrooms are cooked. 
Pink Sauce: Right before serving, remove simmering sauce from the stove and swirl in about 1/2 C. or so of sour cream, Greek yogurt, creme fraiche, or lowfat plain yogurt.
Florentine Sauce: Right before serving, stir several cups of fresh baby spinach into the hot sauce. Cook for a few minutes until the spinach "wilts" but retains its fresh, green color.
"Preppy" Sauce: Make the Florentine Sauce variation, above, and right before serving, dump in the sour cream, yogurt, etc. from the Pink Sauce variation, above. Green and Pink = Preppy!

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