tomato sauce

When I was a kid in Italy, the end of August was the time to can tomatoes which would last us through the winter. It was family and friends affair and took us all day from 6am through the evening.

We used to make 2 types: diced tomatoes (pomodori a pezzetti) and crushed tomatoes (pomodori passati).

This past weekend we re-engaged in the tradition. We had few friend over, got together in the morning – a more casual 10.30am – had lunch and dinner together. Yes, we also managed to can the tomatoes!

Being the first time we learned a bit and we’ll be more prepared next time. Nevertheless we had a ton of fun.


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I was at the Metropolitan Market looking for a dinner inspiration and saw that they had lobster tails.  H likes pasta really spicy, so I decided to make a pasta alla “Fra’ Diavola”.  There are different ways to make this pasta and some require way too much work for my taste.   I like a specific variation that is simpler to make and less prone to mistakes.   I had a package of pasta called “bucatini”.  This is a very common type in Italy, but a bit more difficult to find here.  Think of it as a bit larger spaghetti.  No worries though, if you don’t find bucatini you can use spaghetti or penne.

Here’re the ingredients for two people (about 1/2 poung of pasta):

  • two small lobster tails (or two big ones – nobody will complain about too much lobster!)
  • couple of fresh tomatoes
  • one can of crushed tomatoes
  • shallots (although onion and garlic would work as well)
  • half glass of white wine (the same that you’d be serving)
  • parsley, pepper, salt. extra virgin olive oil
  • spicy peppers (i like the thai ones…fresh is way better than the dried ones).

It’s not super quick, but it should take about 25mins for the sauce to be ready.

Step zero:  cut the lobster tails in chunks of about one inch each.  In a different pot start boiling water.

Step one:  in a pan over medium heat add three tablespoon olive oil and the shallots.  When the shallots turn translucent add the lobster chunks.  Let the lobster cook (changing sides every couple of minutes) until the shell turns red.  At this point add the white wine, let reduce for a minute and add  fresh tomatoes (chopped).

Step two: as the tomatoes start breaking down add  the the crushed tomatoes.  I used a small can for two people.  This dish is not supposed to be overly saucy.  This is also the time to spice up the sauce – add the spicy peppers, salt, black pepper and if you want a bit of other spices.  This is also a good time of start cooking the pasta in the boiling water (don’t forget to add salt).  This is how my sauce was looking at this point:

Step 3: as the sauce starts boiling again lower the heat to medium/low and let it cook until the pasta is ready (about 10-15mins).   Drain the pasta (it should be al dente) and mix it with the sauce.  Cook together for about a minute.

Step 4:  you’re done!  Plate the pasta and serve it.


I made this dish this past mother’s day.

It’s a classic “mom’s” recipe and I thought the occasion was perfect.  I had over Hellai and her family.  There were about 12 of us.  Good size party.

Lasagna is another of those dishes that have probably 200 variations and interpretations. I favor the basic approach.  This means that I stay away from any bechamel or cream, keep the sauce to the basic flavors and don’t overload the lasagne with too much stuff.  Fundamentally I focus on having a great sauce with good ingredient and cooked with lots of love.

Now, back in the days my granma (and my mom) would have woken up at 6am to cook the all thing…but that does not work for me.  So, I took the two-day approach.  I made the sauce on Saturday (took about 5 hours cooking) and the lasagna Sunday morning.   It made for a much nicer Sunday.

Here’re the ingredients for the ragu’ sauce (sauce for about 2 1/2 pounds of lasagna):

  • 3 12 big cans of crushed tomatoes (the ones you buy a QFC, Safeway, etc…)
  • about 2 pounds of good ground beef (i got the angus one)
  • about 1 pound of beef chunks, the same one often used for beef stew (stick to the good stuff)
  • 6 chicken drumsticks (get the organic stuff)
  • 2-3 pork chops
  • 8 fresh tomatoes
  • 4 sticks of celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 onion well chopped
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • Salt, pepper, oregano, basic
  • olive oil (at leave half cup…I think I used 3/4 of a cup)
  • fresh spice pepper

The immediate question would be: what’re you doing with all that meat?  The meat serves two purposes (1) gives lot of good flavor to the sauce (2) makes the sauce richer (3) i find beef only too strong, the port and chicken help to smooth it (4) it makes for a great “second dish” which goes really well with the lasagne.  Anyway a win-win-win-win type of situation.

Phase I – The sauce

The sauce is made using a fairly standard process. Here’re the basic steps:

  1. Start the “soffritto” (the basic of every italian dish).  This means in a (very) large sauce pan put the olive oil, onion, garlic, celery and carrots.  Let it cook for a few mins.  Keep the heat at medium at most…you don’t want to fry the ingredients, just simmer them.  You can tell that it’s being cooked because the onion gets translucent. 
  2. At this point add the chicken, port and beed chunks.  You will add the ground beef later (less cooking time).  As the meat is cooking and the water starts to dry up a bit add a little white wine (about half cup).  This is about the time when I add the ground beef.  Overall you’ll want to cook the meat for about 30mins or better yet “until it’s done” (I usually just take a piece of chicken and beef, cut it and see if it’s cooked).   Once the meat is cooked.  Take it out, cover it and keep it warm.  Leave the ground beef, since it will cook with the sauce the entire time.
  3. At this point we move to the tomato sauce part.  First step is to add the chopped freshed tomatoes.  Leave them cook for a few mins (probably 5 or so).  
  4. Add the crushed tomatoes and the spices (salt, pepper, oregano, a few pieces of spicy pepper and a few leaves of basil).  At this point I am not overly concerned about the amount of spices…we do have lots of time to calibrate the flavor.
  5. You’re on your way to be done.  At this point you just want to simmer the sauce for at least couple of hours.  Make sure you stir it every few minutes (it would not taste too good if the bottom burns).
  6. After couple of hours add back the meat and leave it simmer it for another hour or so.
  7. You are done with the sauce.  The question is…when is the sauce done?  The timeframe I specified here is a reference, but it really depends on many factors.  Here’re some of the things I looked at: (1) density (or viscosity): you don’t want it to liquid or dense.  You should be able to feel a good texture.  (2) oil factor:  when I see a little oil condensing on top of the soap it usually mean that we are almost there (3) bread test: take a bite of bread with some sauce and taste it…how does it taste?  To get an idea of how this could look like: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/149140778/in/set-72057594117429374/

OK. The sauce is done.  If you are making the lasagna the day after, just rest the sauce in the fridge.

Phase II – Lasagna day

It’s the day to make the lasagna.  Ingredients:

  • 2-3 packages of lasagna (I used the Barilla brand.  I like the “flat” type)
  • a cup of grated parmiggiano reggiano (get the good stuff…go to PCC/Wholefood)
  • a log of Mozzarella, chopped (get the good stuff!)
  • the sauce we made (warm it up a bit, but don’t cook it again!)

Here’re the steps:

  1. Boil the lasagna for 2-3 minutes.  I know the box says that you don’t need to, but my mom said it’s better doing it, so we just do it.
  2. Take the boiled lasagna and lay it out on paper towel or cloth.  This will dry it, keeping it moist.  Make sure that you put the cooked lasagna under cold water so that it stops cooking.  Check this out to get an idea of what the lasagna should look like after this step: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/149140748/in/set-72057594117429374/
  3. It’s about time to start putting this thing together.  I used a big foil pan. Add a little oil and sauce at the bottom…just to keep it moist. 
  4. Lay out your first layer of lasagna.  Now add the sauce, make sure that you cover the entire area.  Don’t be to shy with the sauce, but don’t put too much either.  You want a good balance.  I really never liked a lasagna that is too saucy.  Also…in the layer don’t put the big chuncks of meat (or chicken or pork) stick with the sauce with ground beef.
  5. After the sauce add some the parmiggiano and mozzarella. For the mozzarella I usually follow the “handful” rule…in other words I take an handfull of the chopped mozzarella and equally spread it around (of course you could add more).
  6. Repeat the step above for 5 times (I usually do about 5 main layers).
  7. The last layer is the lasagna, with just a bit of sauce on top and a good chunk of parmiggiano.  This is the layer that will get slightly burned.  Good stuff.
  8. Ok…you are done.  Pre-heat the over to 400F and stick it in there for about 40mins.  After the forty means I do the “fork test”…if the fork can go through without much resistance, than it’s done!  I turn on the broiler to high, put the lasagna back for couple of mins and it’s done!  http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/149140847/in/set-72057594117429374/

NOTE:  Don’t serve the lasagna right away.  Let it rest for about 5 minutes.  It will be much better.

Don’t forget that you also have that great meat that has been cooking in the sauce. That’s good stuff.  Serve it on the side and all the guest will be super-happy!

Let me know how it goes…

Couple of weeks ago I had a few friends over for a small get together (about 10-12 people).  Aside from drinks, appetizers, and munchies we wanted to have a good pasta.  After a small debate we went for "pasta all'amatriciana".  I hadn't had it for sometime and it was cold outsite, great timing!

Amatriciana is what I define a "ubiquitous" dish in Italy.  You can find it pretty much in every restaurant, in fact in many restaurant it may not even be in the menu.  You just ask for it.  Afterall, which chef/cook wouldn't know how to make it?

The history of this dish is very interesting.  You can check it out on wikipedia.  Of course the Amatrice site (allegedly the town where the sauce was first invented) reports that the dish was indeed invented there.  Originally it was a dish prepared by the the mountain shepards and later introduced to the Romans (which renamed it "Matriciana").

Given such rich history you could also understand why there are so many different variations of the basic recipe.  Onions? Garlic? Guanciale? Bacon? Tomatos? Pecorino? Lots of questions. 

I did find lots of recipes, just to name a few: Il Babbo, Barilla (Italian), DeLaurenti, Gennarino (Italian).

Here're the ingredients I bought at QFC to make the pasta for 12 people (50/50 malefemale). 

  • 3 packages of "penne rigate" (Barilla
  • 3 big cans of "crushed tomatoes" (S&W brand)
  • 6 fresh tomatoes
  • 2 sticks of celery
  • 1 onion 
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 pound of pork steaks (the ones with a little more fat)
  • 1 pound of thick fresh bacon
  • Parmiggiano
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Salt, Pepper, olive oil

My tought process on the selection of the ingredients:

  • It would have great to have guanciale,  but it's not that easy to find and I decided on the dish two hours before dinner.  Get some good chunks of pork that have a mix of lean and fatty parts…it's not that far (butcher' son speaking here!)
  • Yes, pancetta is better than bacon…but it costs four times as much and it does make a difference when you are cooking for lots of people.  Go for the thick fresh bacon.
  • I had parmiggiano already…so I did not go off and buy the pecorino.  This ingredient is quite important…invest a few extra $$$ and get it from a higher-end market (I got mine at PCC)
  • Celery, tomatoes, crushed tomators, etc… I use these for the tomato "base" sauce .  I will probably cover this in a different posting another day.
  • I chose penne for a couple of reason: (1) Bucatini where not available and penne are actually a great alternative from a flavor perspective (they absorb lots of flavor and that's great with a rich sauce) (2) penne are much easier to eat standing or sitting who knows where.  "ease" of eating is always an important factor when cooking for lots of people…bucatini don't really fall in this category.

Now the steps for the sauce.

  1. Get a nice and thik sauce pan and add olive oil.  I probably used a little more than half cup, my grandma would reccomend leaning toward the "more" olive oil rather than being short.
  2. Warm up the olive oil and add the chunks of pork (I took the steaks and cut them in bite-size chuncks).
  3. After a minute add the bacon (need to cut it in small chunks as well)
  4. Have everything cook until "lightly golden".  Don't burn it, don't worry too much about being perfectly cooked, it will get cooked more later.
  5. Remove the pork and bacon from the pan and place it in a platter.  You'll need this later.
  6. Now add the diced onion, the diced celery and the diced carrot.  Let is cooked until "lightly golden".  Don't burn it!
  7. Add the diced tomatoes (I usually discard all the "tomato interiors" before dicing it)
  8. Have the tomatoes cook for a few mins…you'll see the tomato starting melting
  9. Add the pork stuff back and give it a good stir.  
  10. After 30-60 seconds add the crushed tomatoes from the cans
  11. Spice it up!  Add the chilli pepper flakes (a teaspoon), pepper and salt.  Don't be shy!
  12. Now, get it to the simmering point and leave it cooking for at least an hour. Keep stearing the sauce as necessary.  You don't want it to burn at the bottom.
  13. The sauce is pretty much done (I usually leave it on a the very low heat)

The pasta part is relatively straightforward:

  1. Bring a big pot of water to boil
  2. Drop the pasta and add salt (a good handful is a good start)
  3. Let is cook for about 12-15mins.  NOTE: the cooking time indicated on the package is based on the time the water is boiling.  This means that to properly cook it you need to add a few extra mins
  4. Taste the pasta…so you know if it's cooked right
  5. When you are done just drain it

Bringing the dish together

  1. Take the drained pasta and pour it in the sauce (with the heat on)
  2. Stir them together over medium heat for a minute or so
  3. optional: add some cheese as you are steering. This is optional since you could do it later directly in the plate, think of people that don't like cheese!
  4. You are good to go!!!

To close on the story.  Everyone seemed to have loved the pasta.  The real proof is that there was no pasta left and everyone got a second serving.

You can find a few reference pix here.

Would love to hear any suggestions or comments!