I call it Italian season. When the leaves have fallen from the trees and the first snows are blanketing the mountains, it’s time to stock up on pastas and tomatoes, preparing for the hearty meals of winter. The storm windows are closed and the house takes on a wonderful aroma as the pasta sauce festers on the stove.
I love Italian food. True Italian cuisine is a part of the local culture, combining nearby ingredients mixed with centuries of tradition carried down through families. Globally, we’ve clearly homogenized Italian dining. But as a comfort food, it’s something we all love. My paradigm of Italian food stems from my mom’s kitchen and a sweet tomato sauce served with spaghetti and tasty, perfectly round meatballs. Spaghetti and meatballs was always a two-plate dinner. It was nothing exotic. It wasn’t a recipe rooted in the Piemonte. It was just a good, hearty, middle American meal.
Those who know me are familiar with my bachelor diet of raw brownie dough and beer. But somewhere along the line I mysteriously received a set of three-ring-binder cookbooks in the mail. I never ordered them and didn’t know what to do. But I had recently moved to Colorado Springs and I thought it would be interesting to cook something myself. I immediately gravitated to the Bolognese sauce recipe.
Wow, I had no idea how complicated this sauce recipe could be. It had a ton of vegetables, three different meats and more. It took forever, but it was fantastic – my own creation! I was hooked. From that point forward, my life revolved around plates of pasta!
Traveling the world over the years, a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese became my staple arrival day lunch. You can even get it in Japan. Spaghetti night at Cicero’s in Park City is a part of summer Mondays. I’ll never forget my first plate of Penne Arrabbiata (angry sauce), ironically in Arabba, Italy near Cortina. Or the amazingly dense meatballs at Salt Lake City’s Cafe Trio.
And I long for the days when Carole takes over the kitchen with her own secret recipe. It’s OK if I’m out of town for the first night. It’s that second, third, fourth night when it gets really good. In fact, I’ve thought that we could someday go Paul Newman and bottle his and hers pasta sauce!
The roots of my present sauce date back to the late ’80s and the U.S. Ski Team’s Ski Ball in Greenwich, CT. I was especially intrigued by the chef at one of the many food stations that evening in the Greenwich Country Club. He was custom building pasta dishes by searing the sauce in a saute pan together with the pasta. What a concept? I cobbled together a recipe from memory that evening and went home a few days later to try it myself. Over 20 years of experimentation has led me to my sauce of today – the same hearty sauce that adorned my winning Italia Burger at Burgeroff III. It features a solid base of vegetables (be creative) and and herbs. But the key is cooking it for … days, using wine to keep it moist and finally cream to soften it’s tangy taste and pink it out (it will be a VERY dark sauce). I serve it with meat, but it can easily be vegetarian. In fact, the vegetable base (especially the carrots), gives it a crunchy texture.
I’ve tried many pastas but keep gravitating back to penne. The tubes collect some of the vegetables and meat, but too much as it does with larger tubes. Non-tubular pastas, like spaghetti, just don’t work as well with the sauce.
I would love to say my pasta sauce represents a cultural dish of Italy, but it does not. It is not likely to grace the cover of La Cucina Italiana. But I can truly say, it is a unique taste. And guests enjoy it. That’s all a chef can ask!
Chef Tom’s Pasta Sauce
Each fall is a ritual for me, trying to recall just what it was that I added to the sauce last year. It’s not written down, but crafted in my mind from years of dining and cooking, always seeking that unique taste. My pasta sauce has some distinct characteristics. It’s rich and hearty! And, as I learned from eating Carole’s pasta sauce over the period of a week, it gets better with age. It’s the festering process, as I call it.
I’m sorry I can’t give you specifics – that’s up to you. Throw in whatever you like. That’s part of the charm.
- Olive oil
- Yellow onion, diced
- Carrots, diced
- Green pepper, diced
- Garlic, sliced/diced
- White pepper
- Fennel seed or powder
- Diced tomatoes with herbs (your choice)
- Tomato sauce
- Red wine
- Hot Italian sausage
- Penne pasta
- Heavy cream (or whipping cream)
- Saute vegetables together with herbs in olive oil until soft (6-7 minutes)
- Add diced tomatoes and tomato sauce
- Cook for a few hours
- Begin adding red wine (you’ll go through a lot)
- Continue cooking in stages over several evenings (if you have a super low burner, keep in on overnight), thinning with red wine as needed
- The sauce will be in a thick, ragout form; keep moist with red wine
- Brown the Italian sausage; it may be added to the sauce at any time (FYI, it will add spicy heat)
The sauce is ready at anytime, even the first day. But it will get better with age. I find that after a couple nights of cooking it’s world class.
- Boil the penne pasta until al dente
- Pour a ladle of sauce or two into a saute pan over medium to high heat
- Add cream to pink it up (sauce will be super dark)
- Add a couple handfuls of penne, searing the sauce into the pasta for 30 seconds (high heat)
- Spoon onto plate and serve with grated Parmesan cheese
- An additional element could be slices of Italian sausage alongside the pasta