Prep school: easy techniques to use tonight
Homemade pasta sauce
Make a flavorful pasta sauce in no time
Why you need to learn this: Corporate assassins be darned. You can make an awesomely good sauce in just barely more time than it takes to heat up a jar of pre-made. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
And that's really going to irritate the black-hearted overlords of those power-mad multinational sauce conglomerates. They'll be wanting my head on a stick for sure.
Why you need to learn this
Corporate assassins be darned, though. I'll not shy from the blessed truth: You can make an awesomely good pasta sauce in just barely more time than it takes to heat up a jar of pre-made. Add to that the fact that yours will be cheaper. Plus, it won't have any chemical preservatives or artificial flavors.
The steps you take
We'll focus on tomato-based sauces because you can't think of pasta without at some point thinking tomato sauce. First we'll look at the method of producing a good sauce, and by "method" we mean the order in which we do stuff.
Once you understand the method, you can start to think about the individual steps that make up that method, and then, any shortcuts you can take to make the method easier and quicker.
So, look, if I were going to make about a quart of really tasty tomato sauce, here's what I'd do:
1. Slice 4 to 6 pieces of bacon into 1-by-1/4-inch pieces ("lardons") and crisp them up in a dry saucepan over medium to medium-high heat.
2. Remove the bacon, but leave the fat. Then, turn the heat up to high and add some aromatic vegetables cut into small to medium dice — about a cup, total, should do it for a quart of sauce. You'll want onions, for sure, but you could also include a little green pepper, celery or carrot. When those guys get a little color on them, after about 5 minutes, toss in a little crushed or minced garlic and saute for another 30 seconds, just until it's fragrant.
3. If you want meat, when your aromatics are just starting to color, before you add the garlic, add some ground beef (or pork or lamb or sausage) — about a pound should do it. Saute the meat until it's cooked through, just a few minutes of cooking time, then add the garlic. If you don't want meat in the sauce, skip to the next step.
4. Add your tomato product. Puree the contents of a 28-ounce can of plum tomatoes, or save yourself some effort and use crushed or ground tomatoes or even tomato puree. There's no right or wrong; it's just whichever product you prefer, based largely on its consistency.
5. Add any other vegetables you want: If you like mushrooms, saute them in oil over very high heat until they're browned and cooked through (about 5 minutes), then add them to the sauce. You could also just throw the raw mushrooms into the pan along with the tomato product. They'll cook in the sauce and your final product will be fine, but I still like sauteing them separately for the color and the resulting flavors that come from that browning. Other good vegetables include slices of bell peppers, chunks of onion, fresh peas or slices of summer squash.
6. Add about a tablespoon of dried herbs, season with salt and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the reserved bacon just before serving. (Take the easy way out and use prepackaged "Italian Seasoning" mix, or add your own mix of dried or fresh herbs: oregano, basil, thyme, black pepper, crushed red pepper, fennel seed, bay leaf — any mix of these will work. If you have fresh herbs, double the amount. Remember: There's no right or wrong about this, so give yourself permission to experiment.)
These six steps will give you a perfectly delicious sauce in a relatively short period of time — 20 to 30 minutes.
If you're short of time, though, look at the steps we can leave out:
1. Forget the bacon. Use bacon fat if you have it, or, just use regular butter or olive oil.
2. No time to cut up and saute vegetables? Forget it. Use granulated garlic and onion if you have it.
3. Meat? Feh. Who really needs it?
4. Tomatoes. A 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes makes a really nice sauce. If it's too thin for your taste, cook it down to thicken. If it's too thick, add some water, stock or tomato juice.
5. Vegetables will add to the cooking time, some more than others. Peas are the quickest, onions arguably the longest.
6. Add your herbs and salt.
See what we've done: We've reduced an originally six-step method to the following:
Open a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes and heat it along with about a tablespoon Italian herb mix. Season with salt and simmer for about 10 minutes and you're done.
Remember: no right or wrong. After two or three tries, I'll bet you'll love the result.
James P. DeWan is a culinary instructor at Kendall College.