There’s a scene in Homicide: Life on the Street where Detective Bayliss, discussing the mood of a recently deceased colleague, relates an anecdote about red sauce. In the story, he runs into Detective Crosetti at the supermarket and asks about the correct method for preparing a red sauce for a date he’s trying to impress. Detective Crosetti states that a red sauce is “only garlic, a little diced onion, tomato and maybe a splash of wine.” Detective Bayliss asks, “well, what about all these other recipes – how come they all ask for mushrooms, peppers, this, that and… Steve says, it’s because red sauce has been taken over by the Protestants.”
Religion aside, Detective Crosetti is right – when it comes to red sauce for pasta, as with many things, less is more. This sauce showcases the flavor of the tomato. The sweetness of the olive oil, the savoriness of the garlic, and the herbal and slightly bitter qualities of the oregano and basil, and a little heat from crushed pepper complement the tomato’s qualities perfectly.
Basic Tomato Pasta Sauce
This is the simplest tomato sauce you can make. You can choose from smooth or chunky, but the key is simplicity. If you like, you can vary the sauce to use up diced leftover meats, other vegetables, etc.
4 garlic cloves
1 28 ounce can peeled, crushed, or diced tomatoes, or 1 bottle tomato puree (make sure it’s purely tomato puree)
about 1/4 tsp crushed red chile pepper
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp dried oregano
small handful basil leaves
Peel the garlic cloves and slice the clove as thinly as possible.
In a sauce pot, over medium heat, add about 3 tbsp olive oil. When hot, add the garlic and sauté briefly; do not allow it to brown. When you can smell the garlic, lower the heat and stir, cooking for a minute more. Add the tomatoes. Reduce the heat add some crushed red pepper, and simmer, breaking up the whole tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Taste after 15 minutes. If it is too tart, add a little sugar. Add the oregano, and the basil leaves. Season with salt to taste.
This is good as is on cooked spaghetti or short pasta, like penne or rigatoni, with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or pecorino romano cheese.
To accompany your pasta, you might like to make some Italian sausage. Fennel seed and garlic are quintessentially Italian flavors that offset the richness of the pork. Don’t be put off by the multiple steps. Once you have made sausage a few times, you will see how quickly the process goes. While the meat freezes before grinding, you can soak and rinse the casings.
Don’t be tempted to overfill the casings. They will burst – either if you stuff overenthusiastically, or when you cook the sausages as the juices in the meat simmer and produce steam. If they do, the sausages will not be juicy.
Basic Italian Sausage
If you have access to an heirloom pork, like Duroc, Tamworth, or Berkshire, use it. That’s the best, porkiest sausage you’ll taste. Otherwise, be sure to use a porky cut like the picnic, butt, leg, and belly. Avoid the loin and tenderloin when making sausage.
2 lbs pork shoulder WITH the fat cap, or 1 1/2 lb pork shoulder and 1/2 lb pork fat, preferably from the belly. If you are in a position to be frugal, use meaty and fatty pork scraps to sub for any portion of the above
1 tbsp fennel seed
2 tsp Morton’s kosher salt
leaves from 8-10 sprigs thyme
1 tsp fresh oregano leaves
1 tsp black pepper, ground
14 cloves garlic confit, halved
Natural (hog) casings
Toast the fennel seed in a dry pan until just aromatic and grind, not too finely. Combine with the salt, pepper, thyme, and oregano.
Cut the pork shoulder into 1-inch cubes and spread in a single layer on a half sheet pan or a baking tray. You may need more than one tray. Season evenly with the herb and spice blend. Sprinkle the the garlic cloves evenly about.
Freeze the shoulder pieces solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus. Meanwhile, soak the casings in warm water, and change the water several times. Then rinse the insides of the casings, untangling as you go. Discard or cut the broken parts of casings that burst. Place the casings in a small bowl.
Ready a pan filled with ice cubes and rest a bowl to receive the ground meat over the ice cubes. When frozen, assemble the grinding apparatus and grind the meat quickly, receiving it in the cold bowl. Make sure the product remains as cold as possible. and refrigerate during the next step.
Assemble the stuffing feed tube. Lubricate with water or oil and load the casing onto the tube, pushing as you go. Tie off the end with cotton thread or clip it using a food-safe, clean clip. Begin to load the stuffer and stuff the sausage, easing the casing off the tube as the stuffing comes out. Do not overstuff (as in stuffing the casing too tightly). You may tie it off by twisting the casing as you go (tie it with thread later), or wait until the entire sausage is stuffed and then pinch it off at intervals, twist the casing, and then tie with thread.