A Farewell to Joe (or, how I finally learned to make marinara sauce)

I think I’ve mentioned before that I am a musician by trade; in one of my lives I am organist at a large church, and a fairly big part of my work there is planning and leading the music for the funerals of the church’s parishioners.  Sometimes they are very very sad; sometimes there is this sense of bittersweet joy, when someone has lived long and well and was ready to go.

We have a small choir of about 25 total mostly-retired parishioners, called the “Resurrection Choir.” (Okay, sometimes jokingly and very in-house they refer to themselves as “the Deadbeats,” but only when it wouldn’t be taken wrong or hurt someone’s feelings. Given what they do, a little humor to lighten certain moments is important.) At any given funeral, as many as are available on the couple of days notice we have come and sing for the service.

This morning we sang for another funeral–but this was different, it was for one of our own.  This was for Joe.

Joe was a 95-year-old Italian man who had sung for the Resurrection Choir, for God only knows how many years.  Once  a year he would rent a pasta factory overnight and make over 100 lbs of pasta, which he would give as gifts for Christmas.  He knew how to make rosaries out of dried rose petals; I’m not sure exactly how he’d do it, but he ground them into a powder, mixed them with some kind of binding agent (probably not even remotely green or sustainable, but hey, it was a very cool thing), and made beads, which he would then string onto chains and make rosaries out of.  Once a year around Christmastime he took our entire choir to lunch at his country club, serving us his own pasta with his own red sauce, and raffling off a few boxes of pasta and rosaries. (As director, I always got a 2 lb. box of pasta all to myself)  He was a living breathing example of how to really live every moment you get, live it well and full, right up to the end.  He had a lot of pain, with really fierce arthritis, and by the end he was bent over so far that he held his head almost sideways and had to wear a neck brace, but even during his last few days in the hospital he was still making rosaries and trying to sell them, so he could give the money to charity.

Joe was a seriously cool guy.

This past December was the last time he took us to his club for lunch, he sadly admitted that this year he had had to pay someone else to make all the pasta, and that the sauce it was served with was not his own. He asked us all, “How is the pasta?” and we all of course praised it.  He shrugged and said, “It’s okay.  But I can make a better sauce.”

So tonight, after saying good-bye to Joe, I decided that I wanted to learn how to make a really good red sauce, something that’s eluded me for years.  I have a fairly adequate recipe for a crockpot pasta sauce, but honestly it’s not fabulous and it takes a lot of tweaking in the past half hour or so of cooking to rescue it from Blandville.  So I did a few Google searches for things like “secret to best red sauce” and “how to make perfect marinara,” and I learned a few things.

One of the things I learned, and why my crockpot sauce probably tends to the bland, is that simmering uncovered (or, to save the kitchen, partially covered) so that the extra liquid can cook off, is fairly important.  Also, in a crockpot, the herbs and seasonings get sort of washed out in the long cooking.  Probably off-setting the lid for the last couple of hours and adding the seasonings in the last hour would help a lot.

I’ll keep making the crockpot stuff, no doubt.  But every couple of months, in the future, when I have time to babysit a pot for a couple of hours, I plan to try this recipe instead and freeze a bunch.

There are lots of good recipes out there–On some things they agree: usually you saute the aromatics and vegetables in olive oil, then add tomatoes (although some suggest adding half a cup of wine and letting it cook down before adding the tomatoes), then add herbs, then simmer for somewhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, depending on the recipe, and that’s it.  Me being me, I’ve already done some tweaking…so here’s what I’m doing.

Jenn’s Homemade Pasta Sauce

  • Heat 1/4 cup or so of olive oil in non-reactive pan (aluminum pans will react badly with the acid in the tomatoes; I think steel or enamel or nonstick should be fine.)
  • Saute 2-5 cloves of minced garlic and 1 chopped onion in oil till garlic is golden and onion is soft. (Depends how much garlic you like.  We like a lot.)
  • Add half a cup Cheap Red Wine; stir till most of the liquid is evaporated
  • Pour in 2-3 28 oz cans (or your summer harvest’s preserved equivalent) crushed and/or diced tomatoes. Okay, this step is the kicker! No one agrees–pre-crushed, or buy whole tomatoes and crush them yourself? Crushed or diced? In puree or juice? Italian imports or are domestic canned tomatoes okay? Do your own google search on this if you really want to get into particulars; I used 1 can of Muir Glen fire roasted crushed tomatoes, 1 can Muir Glen plain diced tomatoes, and 1 can Eden crushed tomatoes. (Note: Muir Glen Organic, along with pretty much everyone else, does use small amounts of BPA in their can linings.  Eden is one of the few that does not.  There’s a company called “Pomi” which I think comes in tetra-pak boxes rather than cans, but I can’t find it locally…) What everyone seems to agree on is that the final quality of the sauce has everything to do with the quality of your olive oil and tomatoes.
  • Add 1-2 tablespoons tomato paste. (I recommend the stuff you can buy in a tube, which keeps indefinitely in the fridge–the canned stuff tastes tinny, to me, and you only need a tiny bit for the recipe, so a lot is likely to be wasted.) (I can get the tube stuff at Whole Foods or an Italian grocery, if you have any of those nearby.)
  • Add seasonings: to your taste, but I added about 1/2 tsp pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, 1/2 tsp oregano, 1 tsp basil, 1/2 tsp fennel seeds.
  • Simmer it all together about 45 minutes, stirring frequently.  Also taste frequently: if it tastes too acidic, you might want to add up to 1/2 tsp sugar.  It doesn’t really sweeten the sauce, but it takes the edge off the tomatoes.  One author suggested, if at the end the sauce is too acidic, sprinkling up to 1/2 tsp baking soda into it and stirring it in will take the acid edge off too.

This sauce is not bland; it’s rich and tart and tomato-y, and for a change I don’t have to add tons and tons of seasoning to give it life–the tomatoes are giving it its life, which is the way marinara ought to be.  The combination of diced and crushed tomatoes gives it a nice chunkiness, but it’s definitely sauce, not soup.  This will make a lovely dinner.  And I know exactly what went into it–okay, the BPA in the Muir Glen tomato cans is less than desirable, but aside from that I had total control over the ingredients and process by which it was made.  Trash-wise we probably just broke even, since there are a couple of cans going into the recycling bin (since I wasn’t forward-thinking enough to plant enough tomatoes to can last summer–maybe next year!), and I’m getting a couple of jars worth of sauce that don’t get bought at the store. But this is good stuff.

We’re having this tonight with fresh bread and a bottle of organic sulfite-free red wine; this is for Joe, we have to do it right.

He’ll be much missed.

(UPDATE: okay, did further research; Eden Organics does use BPA in the linings of its tomato cans, but not for most of its other products.  It’s kind of a no-win situation, isn’t it? There’s a company called Bionaturae which sells tomatoes in jars rather than cans and thus avoids BPA, although when you buy canned tomatoes from them there’s BPA in them.  The Pomi tetra-pak boxes are available online in several places and don’t contain BPA in the packaging.)

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Posted on January 19, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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