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Sauce

Cimg2401Typical Monday water-cooler conversation:

Coworker: "What did you do this weekend?"

Me: "Oh, you know, typical. Dinner with friends on Saturday, and a day in the kitchen on Sunday. Made some chicken stock and a big pot of sauce."

Coworker: "Oh yeah? What kind of sauce?"

Me: "Um, sauce."

Sauce. If I use the word preceded by "a big pot of" then it means one thing and one thing only: A bubbling cauldron of slow-cooked pasta sauce. I’m told some Eye-talian families call it gravy, but that’s just crazy talk. It’s sauce.

This is mother’s milk, the most basic staple of my family’s culinary heritage. The idea of buying pasta sauce in a jar is inconceivable, unimaginable, even offensive. Once in a great while I may cave in and purchase some housemade sauce from someplace like PastaGina, which is serviceable, but in the end I’m always left craving the real deal.

I always make the same sauce, and I never make the same sauce twice. The basics are always the same, yet the specifics change each time. I am not alone in this regard. My grandmother used to make her sauce with meatballs, Italian sausage and sometimes bresaola (that’s bruh-ZHAWL), but if there was leftover chicken or pork, in it went. For a number of years I modified the sauce to accommodate my vegetarianism. Nowadays I throw in whatever captures my fancy, starting with whatever’s in the fridge.

Too often, I cheat, I skimp on one step or another in the interest of saving time or avoiding the inevitable burden of prepping ingredients. While the sauce will not suffer unduly by the occasional indiscretion, it invariably benefits from its fully deserved attention. Sauce takes time. And love. And a lot of chopping.

The anchor of our Christmas baskets was a home-canned jar of porcini mushroom pasta sauce. This was no time to cut corners. Each step, each detail must be followed through completely, lest we be gifting a subpar product. And that would never do.

And so we made a quadruple batch, painstakingly chopping, sautéeing, stewing until we reached a final product, shuttled quickly into jars and sealed away for posterity. Though we of course tasted the sauce in the moment, it wasn’t until Christmas Day proper that we opened a jar for ourselves and made a quick lasagna from it. I couldn’t have been happier with the result — intensely perfumed with porcini, rich and unctuous.

The pictures are from our massive project, but I’ll offer proportions for a standard batch, which fits handily in a Dutch oven. Basically, anything above and beyond the tomatoes, onion, garlic and seasonings falls into "optional." Add or subtract things at your whim. Play with it. Make a mess. Have fun.

1/2 lb button mushrooms, finely diced
1 onion, finely minced
several cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 good fistful of dried porcini
Sausage, sweet and/or hot
1 26-oz box Pomi strained tomatoes, or one 29-oz can tomato puree (I prefer Contadina)
1 6-oz box tomato paste (again, Contadina, please)
Olive oil
Splash of wine (red or white, whatever you prefer)
Stock or water
salt, pepper, oregano

Porcini

Put your dried mushrooms in a jar or other lidded container and cover with almost-boiling water to cover; steep for 15-20 minutes. Drain, reserving the brown stock, squeezing out as much excess liquid from the mushrooms as possible. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and set aside.

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In a large Dutch oven, brown the sausage in a small amount of olive oil on all sides, and set aside. Add the onion and garlic — just enough to cover the bottom of the pan — adding oil as necessary to keep from sticking or burning. Cook until translucent, and scoop out and set aside. Repeat with the remaining onion and garlic, if necessary, until done. Add the mushrooms in the same fashion, cooking only enough at a time to cover the bottom of the pan, until dark brown and highly aromatic. (Always salt as you go, but you knew that, right?)

Once the last of the mushrooms are cooked, reintroduce all the previously cooked mushrooms, onion and garlic. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, splash of wine, chopped porcini and the mushroom stock. Mind the stock — it may have some grit from the mushrooms, so pour carefully, leaving a trace behind. (You could of course strain that off first.) Bring to a low boil, cover most of the way and reduce the heat to low. Keep at a low simmer, adding stock or water as necessary and stirring every 15-20 minutes. Be sure to scrape down the sides!

So when is adding more liquid necessary? Well, if instead of dainty little bubbles percolating to the surface of your sauce you get hoary, gloppy, volcanic GLOOPS, you might want to thin it out. Conversely, if the top of the sauce looks watery or transparent, it needs to cook down more. But stirring is of the essence, or you will end up with a layer of water over a layer of tomato mud. And that’s no good.

Anyway, go on like this for, oh, three hours. Maybe more, maybe less. How do you know when it’s done? I hate to be vague, but you will know. As if by some kind of pazzo alchemy, the sauce will magically begin to change. The color will turn more ruddy and brownish, and the aroma will become deeper and more savory. And the sauce — if you’ve been stirring it! — will take on a consistent, gravy-like texture. I mean, sauce-like.

Season to taste, reintroduce the meat if you used it, and cook another 20-30 minutes to meld the flavors. It’s pretty good the day you make it, but it’s always better at least a day later.

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Now, if you’re going to can the stuff, and I’m not saying you have to, for the love of Pete do not keep the meat in it. No point poisoning your loved ones with botulism, unless that’s been your nefarious plan all along.

Reheat your sauce (cuz you made it at least a day ahead, remember?), and pour hot into freshly sterilized jars, canning according to the standard instructions. You’ll have to read up on those somewhere else — like here or here.

Now that’s sauce from a jar I can deal with.

Knowing now as much as I do about safe canning practices, I can say that this recipe is not suitable for water-bath canning. Please consume within two weeks of making, or freeze for longer storage.

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Related: Gluten-free by the Bay includes this sauce in her weekly roundup of gluten-free recipes. Elise gives my sauce props as being "tongue-tantalizing" in her basic tomato sauce recipe.

  • I love this for so many reasons:
    1) My family’s “gravy” (being butter-eaters from the North) is much different, but the idea’s the same.
    2) I really can’t wait to eat that jar of sauce we’ve been hoarding. It’s so fun to see pix of it being made!
    3) I didn’t know that adulterated tomato sauce was acidic enough to safely preserve without a pressure canner — I think I have something new to try next summer!
    ps: Love the new header. 🙂

  • Here in Rhode Island it’s called gravy, but I’m originally from NYC, where it is most definitely “sauce.” Everyone has their secret recipe (mine has a dollop of dijon mustard — don’t laugh — it’s fabulous) but long-cooking is the key. And there is something immensely satisfying about letting your house will with the aroma of simmering sauce, for hours and hours.

  • Anita: Indeed — I looked into it. In fact, tomatoes are pretty high on the acidity scale, so they’re prime for canning. Hope you enjoy it!
    Lydia: You’re so right about the aroma; that’s the best part. The dollop of dijon mustard is a new one on me, but it makes a bit of sense. You wouldn’t think the sauce would need additional acidity (see above) in the form of vinegar, but I can see how it would brighten the flavor.

  • Yum….I have some pre-made lamb-butternut squash ravioli in the freezer that would go great with this sauce.
    I, too, like a spot of vinegar in the sauce for a bright, clean finish. Oh, and pass the bread to sop up the balance off my plate. (Wouldn’t want to see me “lift and lick”. Not a dainty sight.)
    Happy New Year, my friend. Warm hugs to you and DPaul.
    Tootles,
    Anni 🙂

  • Anni, you’re welcome to lift and lick chez nous anytime you like. But bread is nice, too.

  • Yum! I’ll trade you a pound of ravioli for a jar of sauce?
    Happy New Year to both of you.

  • Dolores, I am always good for a barter — just ask Tea!

  • My family adds bacon and worchester to our sauce. I will have to add the dried mushrooms to it next time, that is new for me. Thanks

  • Oops…here is my post
    My family adds bacon and worshire sauce to our ‘sauce’. I will have to try the dried mushrooms next time, that is new to me. Thanks

  • Bacon and worcester — that’s a new one on me. Of course, I think everything is better with bacon, so I’m not turning up my nose. I can see how the worcester would be good, especially since it is a derivative of the ancient Roman garum.

  • Holy moly; I’ve had this recipe bookmarked to make, and it was only this week – after our first snow of the year! – that I felt compelled to put on a sweater from my “winter wear” pile and make this sauce. Delicious: I ate a fair portion of it with a spoon and some bread it was so good!
    This sauce is the versatile recipe that keeps on giving: it’s currently playing starring role in a lasagna that’s currently in the oven. Thank you!

  • I am so glad you enjoyed it! Versatile is the keyword here — I tweak it a little every time, depending on whatever ingredients I have in the house or just feel like. But it is the ultimate comfort food for me!

  • Stickboy

    I was looking for a slow cooked pasta sauce recipe the other day, one like my grandmother used to make, and I came across this one. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the porcinis and also discovered that I only had about 4oz of regular mushrooms. Since I was sick of shopping for the day I went ahead and proceeded without the porcinis and added a 4oz can of mushrooms. It still came out fantastic. Next time I try this, and it will be very soon, I’ll make sure I have all the ingredients because this is killer!
    Oh, and it’s inspired me to start canning. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to pull out a jar of this when feeling lazy?
    Thank you very much!

  • Oh the porcinis are definitely gilding the lily. I often just use regular old button mushrooms. My grandmother used to throw whatever was in the fridge in. Leftover porkchops? Chicken? Sausage? In it goes.
    Re: the canning, take note: With anything using onions and garlic in oil, I have since learned, you will need to pressure can to make sure it’s not full of botulism. However, you can also just break it up into smaller batches and freeze it in containers. That’s what my mother does.

  • Cliff

    Question, if you use meat to flavor the sauce and you can it take the meat out right it is save for canning, but can you freeze it with the meat in it, or it would be a better idea to just keep it out?

  • You could can with the meat in so long as you use a pressure canner. As for freezing, you can absolutely leave the meat in — in fact, the meat will freeze and reheat better if it is in sauce.

  • Jennifer

    I simmer meatballs and sausage links in my sauce for about 3 hours. I have always wanted to make a large batch of the sauce to can, but I am unsure how to preserve the meatballs and sausage link after they have been simmered in the sauce. Advice? Thank you!

  • Jennifer, you'll need a pressure canner if you want to can meat-based sauces. Otherwise, freezing is best.

  • ramieStreng@gmail.com

    There is a concern I read with some tomatoes not being as acid as others. I do not know which varieties, but it was written as a word to the wise on some site with canning tips I happened to read. It makes sense as I imagine some tomato breeders have been developing tomatoes for the consumers which do not want acidic tasting tomatoes. I don’t know whether tomato sauce would be a problem , but thought I would mention it as that way it can be checked out. Apologies if it was a urban legend.

  • Sylvia Fraser

    Hi, we have a late batch of tomatoes this year (I’m drowing in them). We had no normal Summer (Scottish Summer hmmm) this year and no tomatoes, but now omg, we’re having tomatoes with everything. I have open-froze some and then bagged, we’ll see how they are in the depths of Winter. I currently have a slo-cooker full of the most delicious, hopefully, tomato pizza type sauce. Your recipe was really helpful. Thank you.