Hittin’ the Sauce

For the past several years, I’ve haven’t been known to imbibe. But on Monday night, I found myself hitting the sauce.

Don’t get the wrong idea. My adventure with the sauce was part of a East Grand Forks Community Education class at Senior High School. Actually, it was the first of three beginning cooking classes for men. The goal of the class is to give men who don’t have a lot of experience with cooking an introduction into something that always used to be the domain of women, although this has been changing in the past decade or so.

Granted, there are some men who like to cook, but the majority of them do most of it on a grill. The kitchen is a foreign place to them.

When asked by Greg Leigh about teaching the class, I thought segments on sauces, soups and salads would be a good place to start. Since then, I’ve decided to drop the salad class in favor of one focusing on meat.

On our first night, I mixed up an easy homemade barbecue sauce that was complemented with some pulled pork and pheasant and served on small buns. I also talked about a couple of other sauces that are simple to make and wouldn’t be hard for novices.

Among the other sauces that I talked about was a meatless marinara, which can contain any number of fresh vegetables, including carrots, peppers and mushrooms. Or it can be strictly tomatoes, tomato paste and sauce with onions, garlic and celery.

Here are a couple of variations of that sauce that will elevate a box of pasta to the heights of culinary excellence.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes, crushed, with the juice
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, peeled and cut in half
Put all ingredients in a saucepan and cook, uncovered, at a slow but steady simmer, for 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomatoes.
Stir from time to time, mashing any large pieces of tomato in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing sauce with pasta. Yield: About 2 cups of sauce, enough for 1 to 1½ pounds of pasta.
Note: Serve the sauce with grated Parmesan.

Italian-American Meat Sauce
½ cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled
½ small onion, peeled but intact
1 14-ounce can tomato paste
4 ounces (1 tomato-paste can’s worth) red wine
4 leaves fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
2 pounds meatballs or Italian pork sausage, browned in a skillet
Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat. Add garlic and onion and cook until golden brown. Remove and discard. Add tomato paste and stir into oil. Fill tomato-paste can with wine, swish it around to get excess paste, and pour into pot. Add basil, salt and pepper, turn heat up and stir until liquid has evaporated, about 2 minutes.
Add canned tomatoes to the pot, rinsing out each can with water and adding that water (about 2 cups) to the pot. Adjust heat so sauce simmers slowly, and cook, with the lid askew, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thick and silky, 1 to 1½ hours. Add browned meat and cook for up to an hour longer.
Serve sauce with pasta and place the meatballs or sausage on a separate platter.
Yield: Makes enough sauce for 1½ pounds pasta.

Quick Tomato Sauce
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 sprig fresh rosemary or ½ teaspoon of either, dried (optional)
1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes
Salt and pepper
Film the bottom of a skillet with oil and add garlic and herbs, if using. Turn heat to medium and cook until garlic just starts to color, but doesn’t brown. Add tomatoes and a big pinch of salt.
Crush the tomatoes with a potato masher. Bring contents of pot to a brisk simmer and cook until thick.
Give the sauce a good grinding of pepper and taste for salt. Fish out the garlic and herbs before serving.
Yield: Makes about 2 cups, enough for 1 to 1½ pounds pasta.

Ragu Bolognese
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 carrots, finely chopped (about 1½ cups)
3 ribs celery, finely chopped (about 1½ cups)
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground chuck
1 pound ground veal (or another pound of beef)
Freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
2 cups whole milk
1 28- or 35-ounce can tomatoes
Place butter, oil, carrots, celery, parsley, onion and 1 teaspoon salt in a large, heavy Dutch oven. Cover and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until fat begins to sizzle, then uncover and cook until vegetables soften, become translucent and lose some of their brightness. (Vegetables should not brown; you may have to turn heat down to low.)
Still over medium to low heat, add meat, another teaspoon of salt, a good grinding of pepper and nutmeg. With a large spoon, break up meat, smearing it against the bottom of the pot, so it’s well integrated with the vegetables. Cook, stirring constantly, until meat loses all of its raw color and begins to look a bit granular, about 10 minutes. Add wine, turn heat up to medium high, and cook, stirring constantly, until wine is evaporated and the bottom of the pot looks almost dry, about 10 minutes.
Pour milk into pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly until the milk evaporates, about 45 minutes. Stir frequently — especially toward the end — and make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Add tomatoes, crushing them with your hands before adding them to the pot. Rinse out the tomato can with about a cup of water and add to pot. Turn down heat to a very low simmer; bubbles should only occasionally break the surface. Cook for 3 hours uncovered.
Yield: About 2 quarts.