A Wedding Recipe
The beautiful wife and I have driven to the picturesque town of Midway, located high in the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. We’re the caretakers of a century-old Victorian farmhouse that was the home of her Swiss ancestors. This trip has a special purpose, the marriage of our last child, a daughter.
Because she had spent 18 months in Italy as a young woman, this seemed a good time for a recipe with a traditional tomato sauce. And because the exercise of the week is stretching, I somehow thought of spaghetti. (When you were a kid, didn't you stretch your spaghetti by sucking it into your mouth while your mom or dad frowned at your manners?) So the recipe this week is for tomato basil spaghetti sauce. (Because we’re away from home, we’ll have to add the picture later—sorry.)
To Make or To Buy?
We made a make-or-buy decision to buy pasta and make the sauce—here's our logic: Following the Healthy Changes, we wanted spaghetti that was whole grain—now available in most stores. The sauce should include vegetables in addition to tomatoes, with more natural fiber than added sugar. Ideally, it should be cheaper, tastier, and healthier than the stuff sold in the store.
I got a surprise at the store—you could buy a 24 oz, 6-serving jar of the generic brand, on sale, for just $1.69. In fact there was a price dichotomy—value brands sold at $2-$4 dollars while premium brands sold for $9-$11. Basically, the cheaper sauce uses tomato puree and soybean oil, sweetened with sugar. The premium brand used whole tomatoes, onions and carrots, EVOO, and no added sugar. That’s the basic rule of Food Inc: The cheapest flavor is usually sugar.
So the first conclusion was my sauce wouldn’t be cheaper. If I were at a point in my life where money was desperately short, I would buy the generic brand of spaghetti sauce. If there were more money than I knew what to do with, I’d buy the premium brand. But if I wanted the best taste and healthiness with sensible use of money, I should make my own sauce, time permitting.
This is what I learned about spaghetti sauce recipes:
- Good sauce takes time—allow several hours for cooking. In fact, a crock-pot or slow cooker is as good as a Dutch oven or cast iron pot. Some recipes call for as little as 30 minutes cooking time, but it's not the same.
- Because it takes time, make more than you need. Save some in the refrigerator for another day and put the rest in the freezer. There are lots of uses for homemade tomato sauce.
- Spaghetti with sauce is an example of slow food made fast: Make the sauce ahead of time, cook the pasta in 15 minutes (5 to boil the water, 10 to cook the pasta), toss a salad while the pasta cooks, and you've got a 20-minute dinner.
- I didn't understand this before, but tomato sauce is a way to get vegetables into the family diet. Besides tomatoes and onions, traditional recipes include carrots, celery, bell pepper, eggplant, and, of course, garlic. You can even hide squash, or whatever's going bad, in the sauce.
- Be careful of those old containers of dried basil or oregano—they develop a bitter taste with time and ruined my first batch. I’m cautious to buy fresh herbs as they go bad before you use them up, but this time I bought fresh basil and put the extra in the freezer (sealed bag) for later.
- Invest in some hard Parmesan cheese so you can grate it fresh. If you're feeling flush buy Parmesan Reggiano, which is only made in certain regions of Italy and must be cured for a year. ($22/lb at the local grocery, ouch.)
A Better Sauce
To focus on the sauce, we did our sampling without pasta, Parmesan cheese, or meat. My first batch didn’t please the beautiful wife—she preferred the store brand. It got crazier: I bought a value brand and a premium brand and she liked the cheap stuff (with 2-3 tsp added sugar per ½ cup serving) best. Did I mention she has a sweet tooth?
Our homemade sauce also had an off taste that we traced to the aged oregano plus some metallic taste from the tomato cans. That’s a benefit the factory sauces have—they use glass bottles so there’s no “can” taste.
I went back to work, trying to come up with a sauce so good it masked the “can” taste, didn't need a lot of sugar, and avoided spices so old they’ve turned bitter. One aid was to build on the taste of eggplant. Here’s what we came up with—the beautiful wife judged it delicious. I didn’t put my name on this sauce as it follows traditional practices. This recipe makes enough for 6-8 servings with 1 lb. of spaghetti. Double the recipe if you want to freeze some.
Real Spaghetti Sauce (Serves 6-8)
- 2 T olive oil, plus 1 T butter
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, grated
- 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
- ½ bell pepper (orange or red is best), chopped
- 3 slices eggplant (or zucchini squash), peeled and chopped
- 4 med. garlic cloves (or 2 tsp garlic puree)
- 1-28 oz can diced tomatoes (or whole tomatoes, mashed)
- 2-6 oz can tomato paste
- 2 tomatoes, chopped (best if from your garden)
- 1 C chicken stock (2 C if fresh tomatoes are not used)
- 1 T fresh basil, chopped, or 1 tsp dried (but not old) basil
- Optional: ½ tsp dried oregano (but not old, taste it for bitterness)
- 1 bay leaf
- ¼-½ tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
- ½ tsp pepper, or to taste
- 2 tsp sugar (just enough to offset acidic tartness of tomatoes)
- 1 lb. whole-wheat spaghetti
- Wash and prepare vegetables.
- To a hot cooking pot, or frying pan, add olive oil, butter, onions and carrots. After 5 min. add bell pepper, eggplant and garlic.
- If using frying pan, transfer vegetables to cooking pot when onions are translucent. To the pot, add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, fresh tomatoes, and stock. Also add basil, optional oregano, lay leaf, red pepper flakes, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then turn heat down and simmer two hours or more; a shorter cooking time will work if you’re in a squeeze, but time brings out the flavor and blends the vegetables. Add liquid if the sauce gets too thick; if too thin, remove lid from pot to hasten evaporation.
- Cook the spaghetti al dente, grate some Parmesan cheese, and serve with tossed salad and bread.
Often the guys prefer meat with their spaghetti, either sausage or meatballs. I’ll look for a good source for a follow-up post. Anybody have a good meatball recipe?