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)
Splash of wine (red or white, whatever you prefer)
Stock or water
salt, pepper, oregano
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.
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.
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.