Saturday, January 13, 2018

#367 Make Spaghetti Sauce From Scratch

As my grandfather Bill would always say, "A Sunday without spaghetti is like a day without sunshine." How I miss hearing him speak those words. As first generation Italians, my grandfather and his siblings were raised on authentic Italian cooking. I am extremely grateful they passed down their amazing cooking skills too. My grandmother Rita was not a speck of Italian but you could never tell that from her cooking. She learned from both my great grandfather and my grandfather.

Honestly though, she was an amazing talent in the kitchen altogether. She could make any cuisine taste like heaven because that's how much love she put into her cooking. My great grandmother was also an amazing cook from what I have heard. She was also not a speck Italian. You see, my great grandfather Charlie enjoyed American dishes as well as Italian dishes so he would frequent a local diner in Hazleton.

My Grandparents, Bill and Rita DeCosmo.
Charlie wanted to learn more about American cuisine, a cuisine in which a huge part of it's composition is based on the fusion of many, many cultures that had migrated to the New World. I know now that I have inherited my curiosity for new cuisines from my great grandfather. Currently I am fostering a fascination with learning how to make more Caribbean and Latin American food. It is such a beautiful and delicious cuisine. I want to implement more of it into my menu.

I am digressing though. Back to my story. It was during these many visits to this diner that my great grandfather struck up a friendship with one of the diner's cooks. Her name was Jenny Smothers and she would eventually become my great grandmother. Yes, Charlie and Jenny fell in love. They taught each other how to prepare and cook different cuisines. He taught her all about Italian food and she taught him all about American dishes. They romanced and fell in love over food. I found the story of their romance so endearing and sweet.

I have always believed that food is part nourishment and food is part love. Love found through food, in my opinion, is the best, most nourishing love of all. And I don't think my theory is wrong either. Charlie and Jenny proceeded to have 8 children together. And their love for their children and for the meals they prepared was definitely passed down to that generation. I know this because I have another endearing story to tell where food and love is concerned. This love however, is centered around the love between siblings.

My Great Uncle Michael DeCosmo WWI
My grandfather was a 3 time purple heart recipient in WWII. The third heart he earned was also the most severe. It left him partially paralyzed and dying in an Italian hospital. He would not eat. He was not responding to treatment. His outlook for survival was grim. His older brother Mike was stationed in another part of Italy. When news of my grandfather's injury reached his brother's company, they allowed him leave to go visit his little brother Bill.

Mike traveled to my grandfather's hospital bedside. Mike fed him. Mike took care of him. Eventually, my grandfather started eating and responding to treatments. It was through love and nourishment between these two brothers that my grandfather was able to heal and go on to live 87 years on this planet. My Great Uncle Mike saved my grandfather's life during WWII. Not only did the brothers look so much alike, they both loved their family with all of their heart.

I cried the first time I heard this story. I am sobbing right now. Learning this family history lesson with such an endearing outcome is something I will always treasure. I do not think I met my Great Uncle Mike before he passed, if I did I was too young to remember, but if he was here right now, I would give him the biggest hug ever and thank him profusely for taking care of my grandfather. You can most certainly hold a deep love and admiration for family you have never met. That is why sharing stories and traditions through the generations is so important.

So, as you can see, food is such a special part of my family. So many stories center around food and love throughout our generations. Food brought love and life to the each generation of this family in the most beautiful ways. When I cook Italian food, I truly feel a strong connection to my ancestors. I can feel the love of my grandparents when I am cooking. I can feel the presence of family members whom I have never met but whose blood runs through my veins.

Charlie and Jenny and their 8 children: Aunt Helen, Uncle Mike, Uncle John, Aunt Peggy, Uncle Tony aka Teeker, my grandfather Billy, Aunt Betty and Uncle Bobby. 

Fresh Basil
Fresh Basil growing in my garden! 
Sometimes I try to picture them cooking. Would their tools and methods be considered archaic compared to today's modern kitchens? Did they love wooden spoons as much as I do? I only use wooden spoons when making all my sauces. Did I inherit that quirk from them?

I also wondered how they preferred their garlic. Garlic is serious business. Did they like it chopped? Sliced? Crushed? Pureed? Roasted? All of the above? I like all of the above. Garlic is life to me.

I pondered what their favorite herbs might be. Did they swoon over the beauty and flavor of fresh basil like I do? Did they love the smell of fresh oregano on their fingertips?

What was their favorite tomato? Did they adore Romas as much as I do? Did they make a huge mess when they cooked? I laugh when gazing upon the Italian mess I create during one of my cooking marathons. I am so much my father's daughter when I cook. We literally trash the kitchen. It's part of the fun. It's part of the experience. It's my childhood. It's my present. It's my future. It is so much more to me than just making a meal when I delve into my Italian magic. It's just so much more.

Using one of my very beat but very loved wooden spoons to make the sauce.

I am so pleased that my own children like learning how to cook as well. How blessed am I? My son misses my cooking. My daughter is always excited to see an Italian meal being prepared. I have taught them how to make quite a few dishes and am currently working on making a cookbook for each of them containing our family favorites. This will take time as I am still learning and expanding on my Italian cuisine collection as well. But, it is in the works.

Comfort food in my home is not meatloaf and mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, pot roast or chicken noodle soup. It's Chicken Parm and Chicken Francaise. It's Penne Alfredo and Angel Hair w/ Marinara. It's Meatballs al Florno and Hot Sausage and Scamutz Sandwiches. It's Pizza Margherita and my very own garlic bread recipe. These are my go to recipes. These are the recipes that helped raise my children.

My cheater Chicken Parm. It's great for a quick meal when I am craving some comfort. 

So, after all I have just written above, you may wonder why I actually had to put making spaghetti sauce from scratch on my bucket list. Here is why.

My silly dad making the sauce! I get it from him. 
Growing up, Sundays were special days. Sundays were all about macaronis and gravy in mi famiglia. The entire clan usually gathered at my grandparents house for Sunday dinners. After my dearest grandmother passed, my grandfather would visit my dad for Sunday dinners.

Upon entering their house, the aroma of fried meatballs and garlic would send your stomach into instant hunger mode. Usually, it was accompanied by a pan of sauteed onions, mushrooms and peppers, fried sausage and garlic bread. Pots of simmering tomato sauce bubbled on the stovetop and if you looked in the sink, there was always a huge strainer filled with some type of cooked pasta.

I believe if heaven had a kitchen, it would smell like Italian food.

Bucatini. I love using more unique pastas. 
But heaven would not taste like my red sauce. Nope. My red sauce was not very good. I have mastered many Italian sauces and I have done so relatively quickly. But, my red sauce was always a struggle. The fact that I am so particular about red sauce did not help matters. My grandmother's was amazing. My dad's, amazing. The Italian restaurants I worked at, their sauce was amazing. Mine was just eh.

Sure I could have actually have asked for their recipes but, I also wanted to have my own personal customized red sauce to claim as a Chirssy original. I wanted a sauce true to my preferences. For instance, I tend to like my red sauce a little sweeter, with chunks of tomato. I also do not care for extremely thick tomato sauces. I don't want them watery by any means, but I prefer a little less tomato paste. I am also not a fan of adding salt and pepper to tomato sauce.

I figured, you can still have a very tasty red sauce as long as you focus on a few flavorful key ingredients such as garlic and basil rather than throw every seasoning known to man in the sauce. That it okay for chili. It is not okay for tomato sauce. A ton of garlic, a heavy handed dose of sugar and your basic Italian seasonings is all you really need in my opinion. It took me 19 years to figure this out but eventually I did.

Prepping my red sauce. 
Yes. I said 19 years. 19 years and a lot of painful failures, frustrations, sauce splattered walls and Italian swear words occurred in my kitchen. At year 10 or 11 red sauce finally became a Bucket List quest because it was like a freakin' unicorn to me. I just could not perfect it.

I decided to upgrade this Bucket List goal to Holy Grail status because the quest was exhausting me to the point where I wanted to hand in my Italian ethnicity card since I was a terrible disappointment to the culture. Okay. Maybe that is a slight exaggeration but that is also part of the Italian culture.

Nine years later, I finally held the grail in my hand. Actually it was a wooden spoon dripping with red sauce which was running down my arm but no effs were given that day because the Italian gods were finally smiling down on me. It had arrived. The perfect red sauce recipe was born. My Holy Grail quest had reached it's end. And what a long, strange trip it had been, mostly because I was a fussy pain in the ass. I am not lying when I say I have made at least 50 different red sauce recipes from scratch on this journey.

This is how you taste the sauce. A nice piece of Italian bread for dipping. 
In the end, my red sauce was a fusion of many different recipes I have tried over the years with a few personal touches of my own. Red sauce recipes from Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Tyler Florence, Giada DeLaurentis, Rachel Ray, and a host of many other celebrated chefs and restaurants have all graced my table. A lot of them were quite good but none of them were 100% what I wanted as my signature sauce. Through much experimentation though, I was able to formulate the perfect sauce just for me.

Meatballs Marinara
My Meatballs Marinara.
(I will say Emeril's Roasted Garlic Sauce is to die for and Mario Batali's Sunday ragout is out of this world. These two sauces are amazing and I do make them from time to time.)

However, just like my grandmother, I am not going to give away my recipe completely because as my grandmother would say, " If I gave you my recipe then you not would come see me and eat my food." Yea, that is so far from the truth where my grandmother was concerned. We all loved just being in her presence but, I got what she was putting down.  She loved to feed her family and friends. It was something she loved doing very much. It was one of the many beautiful things about her that I will never forget.

I promise though, I will give you a glimpse into my sauce and what I prefer to use. Here is a peak.

Marinara Ingredients
Getting ready to make a batch of sauce for freezing. Great ingredients!

Fresh Garlic: I have no problem using the minced garlic in jars from time to time. Garlic paste is also fabulous. However, there is something about the flavor of freshly chopped garlic that makes a dish go from "Wow" to "Oh My God!". For my sauce I chop "at least" one full bulb of garlic. Depending on the potency of the garlic, there are occasions where I use less but it is not often.

Grapeseed Oil: Olive oil is amazing. I still use it quite often but I am totally in love with Grapeseed oil. It's a little more money than olive oil but not too much more. Grapeseed oil is light, flavorful and clean. It also has many health benefits. I highly recommend you try it. It is great for things like sauteing and homemade salad dressings. It can be used as a drizzle over foods like bread, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. It pairs up beautifully with Balsamic. I like to saute my garlic and basil in grapeseed oil.

Fresh Basil: Fresh Basil, to me, is the most heavenly herb in this world. It's crazy because I am not really a huge fan of dried basil but fresh basil I can eat for days. I tend to use a lot of fresh basil in my sauce. I don't really measure so I couldn't tell you how much but it is certainly a lot. I like to cut it into strips with my herb shears and add it to the pan with the garlic halfway through the sauteing process to sweat out the flavor and oils in the basil leaves.

Chopped Garlic and Basil

Roma Tomatoes: I like to puree my own tomatoes from time to time. I usually add some grapeseed oil, minced garlic and shredded basil to the blender while pureeing the tomatoes. I tend to use about 8-10 tomatoes when making pureed tomatoes for my sauce. I do not remove the skin from the Roma tomatoes. I never minded tomato skins in my sauce. Plus, I think it adds extra flavor and vitamins to the sauce. Sometimes I am not able to use homemade pureed tomatoes so instead, I will dice 2-3 Romas and add them straight to the sauce.

Canned Tomatoes: I like to use a combo of tomato products for my sauce. 28 oz. cans each of tomato sauce, pureed or crushed tomatoes, and diced tomatoes are usually always in my sauce. 1 small can of tomato paste is usually all I use paste wise unless the sauce is really runny. Usually when using more fresh ingredients, the sauce can get a little runny depending on the water content of your fresh tomatoes or the quality of you canned tomatoes.

I am not super picky about my canned tomato products to be honest. Cento is a great brand and I use it often but Furmanos is a little cheaper and just as good. A lot of restaurants use Furmanos. Dei Fratelli is another brand that is pretty good. I also like Red Pack. Sometimes I treat myself to a can of San Marzano tomatoes for my sauce. I love squishing them in my hands to break up into my sauce.

Homemade Tomato Puree and more fav ingredients. 
Sugar: Yes, I add granulated sugar to my sauce. Superfine is best but regular granulated sugar is perfectly fine. I usually start off with a 1/3 cup of sugar, but depending on my mood and the acidity of the sauce, I can add up to a cup of sugar. ( It is very rare I add that much.)  I like my sauce a little sweeter. Don't get me wrong, my sauce is not sugary sweet nor does it taste like the sweet sauce on some pizzas. I'm just not a fan of super acidity sauce. I like the balance granulated sugar gives to my sauce.

Italian Seasoning: Honestly, I do not go crazy with a bunch of seasoning. 1 Tablespoon of Cento's Italian Seasoning or Tastefully Simple's Mama Mia Seasoning is all I really use. I don't want to complicate my sauce too much. I want to taste the flavors of the tomatoes, garlic and basil. It's my preference. I have tasted some delicious, heavily seasoned sauces but for me personally, I want my sauce to be more simple in flavor.

And that is all she wrote folks. I am not much for measuring anything so my sauce does vary in flavor from time to time. All I know is, it was well worth the experimenting and trial and error over the span of 19 years. There is a true happiness and genuine joy in my soul when I make a batch of Chrissy's red sauce. It may not be the best sauce everyone has ever tasted but that is okay. The goal was to create something to my preference. And I hope cooks all over the world perfect a sauce to their preference. I hope their sauce brings as much pleasure to them as mine does to me. That's good stuff!

Here are some Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.
(Actually it is my house but I love that song and it sounds way cooler! Good one Mr. Billy Joel!)

One pot Caprese Pasta
Chicken Piccata And Spinach Au Gratin
Chicken Piccata And Spinach Au Gratin
Sausage, Cannellini and Kale
Sausage, Cannellini and Kale
Stuffed Meatballs Al Forno
Stuffed Meatballs Al Forno
Viscoot Batter

Viscoot Batter
Sausage and Peppers
Sausage and Peppers
Penne Alfredo
Penne Alfredo
Lazy Chicken Scampi and Italian Spinach
Lazy Chicken Scampi and Italian Spinach
Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Glaze
Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Glaze
My Homemade Zesty Garlic Bread

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