Tag Archives: red sauce

Not your grandpa’s red sauce

19 Jun

It was a sucker bet that I couldn’t expect to win. My friend Peter had given me a taste of a tomato sauce that his grandfather used to be “famous for.” The two main ingredients in the sauce, my friend had informed me, are chicken thighs and mint, neither one a staple in your average red sauce. Peter had boasted about his grandfather’s creation on several occasions, speaking of how he both craves and prepares it many times a year for himself and his wife Claudia.

“Let me know what you think, Meathead,” he said as I backed away from his driveway, a covered plastic container filled with leftover penne alla grandpa occupying the seat next to me. “If you like it maybe I’ll even let you have the recipe.”

Peter and I have what you might call an adolescent relationship. He did, after all, deliberately bury a rather large chicken bone inside the container of (overcooked) pasta, presumably so that I might choke on it. And so it was no surprise to either of us when I scoffed at his offer.

“Recipe? I don’t need no stinkin’ recipe,” I grunted. “I’ll know how to make your precious little sauce just by tasting it. A hundred bucks says mine’ll be even better.”

My friend, as they say, is careful with his money. At Peter’s insistence the stakes were dropped to a tenth of what I had proposed. Claudia would judge my sauce against her husband’s. Not the firmest ground that I have ever stood on when making a wager, but it was the only ground that I could manage.

Below is the version of the sauce that I prepared. It might not be Peter’s grandfather’s sauce but it is well worth preparing.

As for the wager, it was decided that the transfer of capital was to go not from my friend’s pocket to mine but from mine to his. This decision was handed down—without explanation or debate, mind you—by the mother of Peter’s children and, presumably, co-owner of however many dollars he has amassed.

Like I said, a sucker bet.

Start with a generous amount of olive oil in your favorite saucepot and add a chopped onion, two chopped celery stalks, four or five garlic cloves and a good dose of hot pepper.

Don’t tell Peter but I also tossed in a few anchovy fillets. (He didn’t even notice but now that he knows I guarantee that I will never stop hearing about it.)

Once the onion and celery have softened add four large bone-in chicken thighs and simmer. (Both my friend and I are adamant about bone-in meats having greater flavor, but go ahead and use boneless if you insist.)

After two or three minutes turn the thighs over.

After another couple minutes add two 28-ounce cans of tomatoes, a big handful of fresh mint leaves (at least twice as many as shown here), and salt and pepper to taste. Set the flame to a low heat and simmer slowly for at least two hours, then remove the fully cooked chicken thighs and allow to cool just enough so that you can handle them with your fingers.

Once the thighs have cooled pull away all the meat and discard the bones and skin.

Add the meat back into the sauce.

Then—and this is something I insist makes the sauce much brighter and more flavorful than my friend’s version—add another good handful of fresh mint leaves and simmer for two or three more minutes.

Turn off the heat, stir in around three-quarters of a cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve over your favorite pasta.

You can bet on this one. Trust me.

Pork Bolognese sauce

8 Nov

When it comes to Red Sauce I am a very patient man. Nine times out of ten I don’t serve the sauce on the day that I make it; I serve it the next day, after the flavors have had time to knit together some. My friend Fred has on occasion given me grief over this practice, wonders if I am a tad overzealous.

I do not invite my friend Fred over for Red Sauce anymore.

I did invite my friends Marc and Beth over for some last Saturday, but it was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I’d planned on making a Bolognese sauce that afternoon, only it was supposed to be for Sunday dinner. I use veal in Bolognese, but since we’d be eating that same day I switched gears and decided to use pork instead. My reasoning was thus: pork has more flavor than veal, and so it’d make a much tastier same-day sauce.

As it happens, this reasoning turned out to be pretty sound. I’d not used pork in Bolognese sauce before, but I absolutely plan to again.

Finely chop two large carrots, two celery stalks, one small onion, three garlic cloves and some hot pepper (optional, though I used a whole fresh cayenne here) and saute in olive oil under medium heat until softened.

Add 1 1/2 pounds of ground pork, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, incorporate and cook until browned.

Add one cup of dry white wine, increase the heat to high and reduce until the wine has evaporated.

Add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and one cup of whole milk. Cook until the milk has evaporated.

Add one 35-ounce can of tomatoes, turn the heat down to low and allow the sauce to simmer very gently for around three hours. (If the heat is on too high and the sauce reduces too much you can always add some more milk.)

This sauce cooked for around four hours, actually.

And Marc and Beth and My Associate and myself ate the whole thing!

Sorry, Fred.

Eggs poached in Red Sauce

12 Mar
A storm passed through town a couple weeks back, and a lot of people scored themselves a snow day. On a late-morning drop in at my Facebook page I noticed a Friend trolling for comfort food ideas. It appeared she had made up her mind to lounge in pajamas all day while the rest of us shoveled snow and checked in on elderly neighbors and hunted and gathered to sustain humankind under desperate conditions.
Not that I’m judging.
Anyhow, I kept the attitude to myself and gave the woman what she was after.
“Since I know you keep red sauce around at all times (right?), well then you heat some of it up, crack a couple eggs on top, let ’em poach real nice, then throw ’em on top of some nice toasted bread from the baker of your choosing,” I advised. 
“‘Course, there’s always Cocoa Puffs,” I felt obliged to add. “Like, as a Plan B.”
Some time later the lazy lassie (I’m thinking those jammies with the feet attached, am I right?) managed to summon enough energy to respond. “Meatball, you’re a genius,” she wrote. “I have all of that stuffs.”
I have no idea whether she ever made use of “that stuffs,” but I did only yesterday. I am not a genius, by the way. People have been poaching eggs in tomato sauce and laying them over a nice crusty bread forever. I don’t think to do it myself very often, but whenever I do, well, it doesn’t get a lot more comfortable around here than that.
The only thing I did differently this time was to use these homemade biscuits, which to certain people might make the dish even more appealing.
I prefer bread, frankly. 
But then I also shovel snow. And help old people when they need it. Like in a snowstorm.
Just sayin’.

Pig skin braciole

22 Aug
Hey, wait a minute. Where do you think you’re going? Come back here!
Okay, so it’s a rolled up, tied down, funky-ass-looking piece of pig skin.
For eating, yes. In red sauce.
No, I’m not kidding.
Of course it tastes good. What do you think I’m running here?
I was at Frank & Sal over in Bensonhurst, and, well, there it was right in front of me. What was I supposed to do? NOT throw it inside the cooler with all the other stuff that I was transporting back to Maine?
You really do not know me at all, do you?
It had been a long time since I’d made these braciole (the singular is braciola, if you wondered) and so I was pretty hot to get going on them. These are the two pieces of skin that were in the package. They have been rinsed under cool water and patted dry with paper towels.
Recipes vary wildly for these braciole (technically the term for rolled thin slices of beef, but adopted to mean rolled just about anything in Italian-American culture). In addition to a variety of herbs and seasonings, my mother always included whole hard-boiled eggs in the filling. I saw someone recently use pine nuts and raisins even! Right here you have your freshly grated cheese (a mix of Romano and Reggiano), chopped garlic, fresh parsley, salt, ground black pepper and breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs are entirely optional; in fact, I rarely use them. If you are making the braciole for the first time (you are planning on making them, right?), you may want to skip the breadcrumbs.
Once you have mixed all that stuff thoroughly, lay down a light coating on the inner side of the pig skin.
Roll it up nice, like so.
And then commence to tying.
Once you’re finished tying, drop each braciola into a simmering pot of tomato sauce. 
What! You don’t have a sauce working? Here’s a recipe that works for me every time. (If you use this recipe, add the braciole at the same time you add the tomatoes.)
It takes a good couple hours for the pig skin to cook properly, but longer won’t hurt it either. (Oh, and unless you enjoy the texture of cooked string, allow me to suggest taking a scissor to these babies and removing the tie-downs before serving.)
Look, I know this sounds like one weird-ass thing to put into your mouth. Believe me, I get it. I wouldn’t even go near the stuff for years and years and years. And then more years after that.
But it really is a very, very tasty dish. Not only that, I’m pretty certain that the braciole enhance both the flavor (richer) and character (silkier) of the sauce they are cooked in.
Would it kill you to give it a try?

Leftovers: Tomato pesto sauce

27 Jul
I came across a quart of frozen tomato sauce in the freezer yesterday. (This shocks you, I know.) I had made the sauce (with sausage meat, said the masking tape label on its container) some time ago, and so it seemed a good idea to defrost the stuff and have at it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Spaghetti and Red Sauce dinner. I ran into a bit of leftover pesto in the fridge and, well…
Next time I shall have to plan this meal in advance. 
I strongly urge you to do same.

How to make Sunday Gravy

21 Jul
It’s not as easy as it looks, okay.
Trust me. I’ve had a lot of mediocre Sunday Gravy (that’s tomato sauce to you civilians). Hell, I’ve made a lot of it myself.
Not lately, though. It appears that I have gotten the Red Sauce thing down pretty well. It is not the sauce that my mother prepared each week of her adult life, no. But it is a good sauce. Worth sharing, I think.
This is how I start most every Sunday Gravy these days: an onion, a couple celery stalks, two or even three small carrots, maybe four large garlic cloves, a little hot pepper, three or four anchovy fillets, and about half a dozen each of pork ribs and sweet Italian sausage.
You have questions, yes? I thought so.
Okay, about the anchovies. If I hadn’t mentioned them you might never have known they were in there. To me the fillets are like using salt, except they also add a little depth to the flavor. I still use salt in my gravy, just not as much as I would if the anchovy wasn’t in there. Just try it. It ain’t gonna kill you.
Next. This is not a spicy sauce, not at all; the amount of hot pepper provides only the slightest hint of heat, and so it is easy enough to not use if you choose.
What else? Oh, the carrots. That’s just my way of adding a little sweetness to the sauce. Many people add sugar, but I started using carrots some years back and like this way a lot better.
I don’t mess around when starting a sauce. I use a lot of extra virgin olive oil to saute the vegetables, plus some butter. The anchovies are in there too, and I used some fresh oregano and even a little fresh rosemary this time. (Just so you know, I’ve been known to add some diced pancetta or guanciale at this stage, or even prosciutto. I even threw in some chopped fennel a couple times.)
Once things have sauteed awhile you add the ribs and the sausage and let them brown a bit. You’re not cooking the meat here, just rendering some of the fat. As soon as you’ve accomplished this remove the meat and set it aside in a bowl or on a plate.
After the meat is removed I add maybe a cup of red wine and allow it to reduce by at least half, if not more. I don’t do this step all the time, but do think it adds a little complexity.
Then it’s time for the tomatoes. I use peeled whole Italian tomatoes (108 ounces here, as company was coming over), then break them up, first with a potato masher and then with my fingers. (Right inside the pot, yeah.) Turn up the heat to medium high and bring to a boil.
Once the tomatoes start to boil, add the ribs and sausage, along with whatever juices have collected in the bowl, then lower the heat to a slow simmer.
You made meatballs for your Sunday Gravy, right? Of course you did. Well, toss them in too. (If you didn’t make them, here’s my meatball recipe. I’m told they’re not half bad.)
At this point I toss in three, maybe even four tablespoons of butter. I find that this mellows the sauce a bit, plus it adds richness. Then I add salt and pepper to taste and let things simmer (using a very low flame, so that you barely see a boil at all) for a couple hours.
This is what was left of last Sunday’s Gravy at Casa Polpette, after the imaginary couple from Illinois, The McTinderdonks of Holy Loch (don’t ask), helped to lay waste to an enormous pot of the red stuff.
I am happy that my guests enjoyed themselves so much, of course. But my own Monday night dinner did not, shall we say, quite go as I had imagined.

How to make a meatball

26 Apr
Promises and pie crusts are made to be broken.
—Jonathan Swift
Not around here they ain’t. I promised some people meatballs (you know who you are and why) and meatballs I am delivering.
To make a good meatball you must first prepare your sauce (aka gravy). Why? Because the sauce is what the meatballs are cooked in. At least mine are.
I never make a Red Sauce exactly the same way twice, but there are three ingredients that are always in there: plenty of extra virgin olive oil, garlic and pork. The pork (often a mixture of ribs and sausage, though here just the ribs) is browned so as to render some of its fat, then removed until the tomatoes go in. The dark spots you see here? Anchovies. I use them sometimes. Even if you wind up not tasting them, when they’re in there I find I need to use less salt.
I won’t go through the whole red sauce-making ritual, but just so’s you know what else went into this particular one before the tomatoes, pork and meatballs did: You’ve got your onions, your celery, some diced prosciutto, salt and pepper, and carrots for a little sweetness (some people use sugar, but this has always seemed a better method to me).
I always make my meatballs the same way—and always make them while the sauce is cooking. (I am not unique in this way, as generations of my people walked this same path.) The ground meat you see here is two-thirds veal, one third beef. I know. Where’s the pork? It’s in the gravy, not the meatballs.
A loaf of bread, an open faucet. More crucial elements to a good meatball you will not find.
I do not use breadcrumbs. Never have. I soak a loaf of bread in water, then gently squeeze a lot of the water out and start tearing it apart. As for bread, I usually grab one of those soft loaves that a lot of supermarket bakeries make. The reason I like this bread is because even the crust breaks down when you wet it, and I use the crust. But most any bread will do.
If you click on this pic you will get a better idea what’s going on. Look at the ring of meat and notice that the veal and beef has been mixed but only lightly. This is very important. A meatball mix must be handled gently (I only use my hands, by the way, never a utensil). Mix it only as much as it takes for the ingredients to come together, and that’s it. Never overwork it. One of the reasons why meatballs can be tough, heavy and way too dense, rather than tender and light, is because they have been worked too hard.
As for the ingredients, this batch is a fairly big one. There are about two pounds of veal, a pound of beef, two eggs, about three-quarters of a loaf of wet bread and a good dose of milk, which I keep adding as needed to keep things moist. The only seasoning I use is Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Here’s another pic worth enlarging. See how moist the mixture is? Just as important, notice that I do not try to get things completely smooth and uniform. If there are hunks of bread in the meatballs, fine, I like bread. It goes back to not overworking. Very important.
Next step is to fry up a small piece of meatball mix to make sure it’s seasoned to your liking. With meatballs that are mostly veal you may find it necessary to use a little more salt than if pork was an ingredient.
Time to make the balls. Again, don’t overwork them here either. Using only one hand, just pinch some mixture from the pile, roll it ever so softly using your fingertips for a couple seconds and that’s it; into the olive oil-soaked hot frying pan they go. Don’t compress the meat or roll it in your palms or anything like that. Remember, the idea is to keep things nice and loose.
Some people bake their meatballs; I only fry them. But I don’t cook them, I only brown them a little. These meatballs are coming out of the pan right now. I know. They’re raw. They’re supposed to be.
This is how my meatballs look just out of the frying pan.
Here is where they cook all the way through. This sauce is pretty much done already and so the idea now is to simply allow the meatballs to cook in it. But they should never cook at a hard boil. Just keep things at a very gentle simmer, for maybe half an hour. Cooking them this way, I find, keeps the meatballs moist and prevents them from getting stiff.
Moist and juicy. Like so.
Oh, and before I forget. Always make sure to fry at least a few meatballs until they are fully cooked, then set them aside for snacking. You will be happy that you did this, I assure you. Sunday mornings when I was growing up, I woke to the aroma of two things: my mother’s gravy and her fried meatballs. To get to the bathroom you had to walk through the kitchen, and so before I’d get to do my business I’d get to taste my mother’s meatballs. Two of them, actually. The first was always right out of the plate of cooked meatballs on the stovetop, the second I dipped in the gravy. By the time day was done I’d have put away at least a dozen more.
Some years ago an associate attempted a numerical calculation of the meatballs I had consumed to that date. Unable to cope with the magnitude of digits in her charge, the project was abandoned, but not before the weight of it took its toll. I have a memory of the poor woman running down Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, half naked and screaming, incoherently as best I can determine, about how the giant meatballs and the flying monkeys were conspiring to take over New Jersey, or, at the least, Hudson County. It was a sorrowful ending to an otherwise promising endeavor.
As for my associate, she is still with us. Only, please, do your old pal Meatball a favor and do not under any circumstances show her this post.
There will be more meatballs in it for you.
I promise.
MISTER MEATBALL has been voted Best Food Blog of 2011 by the readers of the Portland Phoenix. I’m really grateful to everybody who voted for the blog. It means a lot, and I thank you all very, very much. Grazie mille! —MM
Reprinted from the Phoenix
Best Food Blog: Mister Meatball
Warning: Do not read the Mister Meatball blog on an empty stomach. You will get more hungry and your stomach may start to growl. The recipes Mister Meatball writes about — many of them Italian or Italian-influenced — are drool-worthy: polenta lasagne with meat sauce, farinata (a breadish thing made with chickpea flour), sesame seed cookies, and octopus salad, just to name a few. Easy-to-use recipes are interspersed with memories of growing up in New York City (he’s a Mainer now) and other anecdotes. This is a guy you’d want to invite over for dinner (as long as he cooks).

Luigi’s polenta

1 Apr

First, a thousand thank yous to dear Aunt Laura. That’s about how many times I’ve called her over the years, asking if she can please please please repeat to me the recipe that I love so much. Not once have I been scolded for failing to write it down the time before. My aunt surely knows that I have dozens of scraps of paper, basically filled with the same scribbles, some stained with red sauce, others pristine as the day I last called her.

But rituals are important. And so I call.

Luigi is long gone. He was Laura’s stepfather and, like my own family, he’d emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. What distinguished him from the others in our corner of Brooklyn is that he was from “the north,” from Trieste, in fact, while everybody else had come from around Naples.

If not for Luigi’s growing up as a Triestin, on the border of Slovenia, I would definitely not have imagined — no way, no how — dropping a bag of sauerkraut into a pot of red sauce.

To wit, Luigi’s extraordinarily tasty and ridiculously simple recipe for pork and sauerkraut red gravy over polenta:

1. Saute olive oil and garlic in your favorite pot for making sauce. (After making this once, go ahead and play. You could add some hot pepper or pancetta, or whatever you want. I’ve certainly fooled around with the recipe enough myself.)

2. Get some pork butt (maybe a pound or so) and cut it into one-inch cubes. Then add them to the oil and garlic to brown.

3. Once the pork is lightly browned add a couple 28-oz. cans of tomatoes (your choice if they’re whole or crushed, whatever you have around).

4. Turn up the heat and cook for about 10 minutes.

5. Drain the juice off of 2 lbs. of sauerkraut (we use the bags you get at the supermarket in refrigerated section) and add the kraut to the sauce.

6. Lower the heat to low to medium and let simmer for 45 minutes (longer if you want; again, up to you).

7. Serve over polenta.

Grazie, Luigi.

Grazie, Laura.