Becoming a Saucy Wench

31 Aug

Yesterday I made pasta from scratch with William — and then I tried to blog about it.  Frankly, the post was boring to read.  I shelved it.  What can I say about making pasta from scratch?

1) Everyone seems to get a pasta maker for their wedding, yet nobody else I know uses theirs.  That’s a shame.

2) Fresh pasta is one of those things that is cheap to make and so superior to the dried kind that you hardly need any sauce at all.  The pasta is delectable and tender.

3) It’s a mess.  Even messier if you decide your preschooler is the next Lidia Bastianich and let him help.  

William rolls strangozzi

I don’t know how crazy you all think I am for bothering, so I’ll ask you to comment and let me know if you’d like tips on starting out with your own fresh pasta.  Until that time, I’ll go to something that addresses wishes my friends have expressed for both ease of preparation (with no shopping required) and healthful (even vegetarian) options.

Back in 1999, when I really hit Weight Watchers hard and lost 14 lbs., I discovered I could save a few points by ditching the jar pasta sauce and switching to a simple can of stewed tomatoes.  Since that time, a proliferation of flavored, prepared tomatoes have appeared in cans.  Italian spices, garlic and oil, even fire-roasted tomatoes have made these supermarket regulars a cheap and often low-fat/low-cal alternative to jar sauces.  One word of caution – read the label.  Adding flavor usually means adding sugar, so check.

Anyway, I ate the stewed tomatoes for years and then Dan and I started to add little things.  Slices of fresh garlic, mushrooms, peppers, fresh basil, meat, and even red peppers or green olives appeared in our sauces as time went on.  Nowadays, the use of a jar is limited to Dear-God-keep-me-from-ordering-pizza nights when we can hardly manage to lift the phone.

If you have a half a pepper, some garlic, and some tomatoes or any of these other random ingredients, you can easily upgrade your Prego nights with just a handful of odds and ends and a few minutes.

Stock Sauce Ingredients

Diced tomatoes (or crushed if you like it smoother).  Watch for sales on these – sometimes you can get them really cheaply and stock up.   My favorites are Contadina, Furmano’s, and Hunts Fire-Roasted.

Concentrated tomato paste – I have switched to the easily-preserved kind in the tube and will never go back.

Onions – either regular or sweet  Shallots are also a fun substitute for delicate flavor.

Garlic – we like it fresh and sliced, but you can dice it or resort to jar garlic.

Mushrooms, if you have ’em.  Just regular ones are great, or you can experiment with different kinds.


Green or black olives

Green or even red or yellow pepper, diced.

Pepperoncini peppers for heat, which can be either from a jar and diced or dried out of a shaker.

Any kind of browned meat or sausage, if you want a meat sauce.

I’m sure there are other things people like in their sauce – this is just a list of the things we use regularly.

So this is how it goes down.  I heat some olive oil in a pot with a heavy bottom (you need a pot that is deep and wide to accommodate both the sauteing and the simmering that comes later.) Contrary to what I thought after years of cooking from seventies recipes, it’s not really a good idea to put onion, mushrooms, and garlic all in at the same time.  I find it should be onions (until partially translucent) then mushrooms and peppers (if you have them), then garlic at the last minute.  Not too hot!  Garlic burns very quickly. Once you’ve got that stuff ready, you throw in the tomatoes.  I usually drain the liquid out of the diced tomatoes to avoid a watery sauce.  But never fear – I replace it with red wine!  Just a splash.  You can thicken this sauce with a healthy squeeze of tomato paste if you wish, or add crushed tomatoes.  This is very flexible.

The last stuff you add is capers, olives, any browned meat you may be using (make sure it’s pretty completely cooked), and any kind of fresh herbs.  They don’t really need to cook – just warm up.  If your sauce looks like it’s cooking down too much, you can always add more wine or crushed tomatoes.  I let it simmer for awhile.  There’s no timer needed for this.   Just to be safe, I do simmer longer if I’m using meat, just to ensure it’s cooked through.  As you near the end, season as you wish with dried or fresh basil and oregano – even a tiny bit of sugar if it’s not sweet enough.  In general, I use a lot fewer herbs and other ingredients if it’s a meat sauce.  It just doesn’t need it.  But with lighter sauces, use your taste buds!

If you think these instructions are not very specific, you’re right.  It’s because you can easily make a huge variety of sauces with very few “accidents.”  Once you see how easy it is and get used to stocking your fave ingredients, you’ll rarely resort to that jar anymore.

A quick word on pairing with pasta.  Chunky meat sauces are best used with noodles like rigatoni, pappardelle, and rotini.  Sassy, light sauces go great with delicate pastas like angel hair.

Just because you make your own sauce doesn’t mean you have to do it every time.  Guess what – it freezes great.  Even if you have only a little bit left, put it in a container for what Dan and I call a “sauce starter.”  Next time you crave pasta, you can defrost the starter, throw in a simple can of tomatoes, heat in a pot and voila!  You have a new semi-fresh sauce.

The fresh pasta to go with it?  Maybe you’ll unearth that pasta machine and get crazy.


5 Responses to “Becoming a Saucy Wench”

  1. Yulia September 1, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    Great post! Thank you!
    And the blog design is fresh and attractive. Great job!

  2. Alma Balistreri September 2, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Funny. I love the Kitchenaid Mixer and pasta attachments we got as wedding gifts :O I enjoyed the novelty of making fresh pasta at home, but that wore off after I tried several pasta recipes that yielded noodles that were either too slimy or flavorless. To be honest, I just could not master the mound of flour and egg thing…I ended up with egg dripping into the drawers, sticky pasta dough, and a panicky germaphobe husband. I took to just throwing all the ingredients in the mixer. Anyway, I would love to see one of your recipes for fresh pasta…technique and all.

    • frazzledfoodie September 2, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

      Alma – I will do that sometime in the near future. In the meantime, have you tried making the dough in the food processor? That’s how we do it. I highly recommend catching Lidia Bastianich’s show on PBS (Lidia’s Italy) and DVRing it until you catch her making pasta. Her recipes have turned out to uniformly be the best dough for us. There is no mound of flour and no hand-kneading (except briefly) and it’s easy to do it well.

  3. mealsbysheri September 14, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    Lovely and easy!Great title! I’ve been making my own sauce very similar to yours for a long time, only very occasionally opting for the jared variety and then adding to it. Recently, I have discovered a whole different taste in roasting my ingredients, then blending in a processor..I’ve even been able to sneak in a roasted carrot or adding fresh spinach without the boys knowing! Great recipe! Feel free to check out my Roasted Tomato and Green Pepper Pasta Sauce on my blog. Happy Cookin!

    • frazzledfoodie September 14, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

      Definitely checking that one out! I never thought to roast my ingredients.

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