It is safer to talk politics and religion than to refer to your tomato-based pasta topping by the wrong name in New Jersey. There is no Mason-Dixon Line of gravy/sauce demarcation. The terminology is family/tradition based, transcending geography and even ethnicity. The best explanation I have received states that when it is made with meat it is gravy, without meat it is marinara sauce. This definition does not often satisfy the wooden spoon wielding legions on either side of this fracas. For the record, I am in the “sauce” camp. That is what it was called where I grew up in Central Jersey, even by most of the Italian families. More important and contentious than the name debate, is the debate over the proper ingredients and technique that should be used when make sauce/gravy. The following are my views on sauce making Dos and Don’ts.
“Only fresh tomatoes should be used.” This restrictive dogma would only permit us to enjoy sauce for about six weeks of the year. You can, of course, buy bushels of Roma or plum tomatoes during the peak of the growing season and blanch, skin, and can them yourself for use throughout the rest of the year. Those of us who aren’t masochistic overachievers just buy good quality canned tomatoes. I look for the Jersey Fresh label because everyone knows the Garden State is blessed with the best tomato growing soil on earth. Whole peeled canned tomatoes will yield the best textured sauce without having to reach for the can of tomato paste.
“If your tomato sauce is too acidic, add some sugar.” Save the white sugar for your breakfast cereal or cappuccino. There are better ways to balance your sauce than using the evil sweetener of the industrialized world. Grate a carrot into your onions and garlic while sweating them. This will add natural sugars and depth of flavor to your sauce. Add a splash or three of red wine. If you cook like I do, there will be an open bottle close by.
“Tomato sauce has to cook for half a day to be any good.” Types of tomato sauce in Italy are as abundant as beautiful women there. The infamous putanesca sauce is not the oldest in Italy but was created by the oldest profession. Commerce cannot be slowed by long simmering sauces. Pomodoro is a quick fresh sauce that exploits the virtues of fresh tomatoes when they are at their peak.
Every cook and family has their own rules and traditions for the perfect sauce. Some use basil or oregano, some both, others neither. With herbs dried are fine for long simmering sauces. If using fresh, add just before serving so their bouquet and aroma can be appreciated. Watch the video this month for a quick easy pomodoro style sauce that takes advantage of the now abundant local tomatoes which will disappear too soon. I look forward to hearing your feedback on your sauce tips and why I am wrong to call it sauce. Until next month, Buono Appetito.
- 10-12 large Roma tomatoes cored and chopped
- 5-7 cloves garlic chopped
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Pinch salt
- 1 bottle red wine — splash for the sauce the rest to drink while cooking
- Salt to taste
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 12-14 large basil leaves cut chiffonade.
- 1 loaf crusty bread to dip in sauce to check flavor and consistency
- Heat stainless steel or non aluminum pan over medium heat.
- Add half the oil. When you can smell the olive oil aroma, add garlic.
- Sweat stirring often. You want to soften the garlic. Brown garlic is bitter garlic.
- Add pepper flakes, wine and tomatoes. Simmer on low heat 10-15 minutes.
Jon Davies is a graduate of Johnson and Wales University of Culinary Arts. His work as a chef has taken him to Aspen, Colorado; Cape May, NJ; and the odd private jet for culinary gigs for the rich and famous.