Seriously, who’s even got the time anymore, am I right? Between motoring the spawn schoolward and picking up the laundry from the rock lady down by the stream. Then there are the insufferable chores: milking the chickens, feathering the ducks. And the texts! “Hellooooo, are you there? Why aren’t you texting me back?”
Look, if you want my attention that badly, why don’t you leave your calling card with my chimp butler like a normal person?
And yet, still, we must eat. And I don’t know about you, but more and more, I’m trusting less and less the boxed and bottled “food” products so popular with the kids today. Sure, it’s easy as eels just to uncork a cruet of Krapco® Instant Brain Stew, but wouldn’t an honest-to-Pete home-cooked meal hit the spot?
Well, tell you what: If you can manage to boil some noodles, I’ll show you how to make a red sauce in two-and-a-half jiffies that will leave you smacking your lips like a zombie in a surgical theater.
Why you need to learn this:
Too often, that prepackaged food upon which we have become so dependent tastes little better than floor sweepings.
Life is short, swell peeps. You deserve better than floor sweepings.
The steps you take:
The premise behind today’s lesson is this: Start simple. Just a few ingredients and very little technique. As you get comfortable, start adding more. More ingredients, more difficult techniques. It’s like how you learned to brush your teeth first before you started flossing.
You do floss, don’t you?
Anyway, my only goal here is to get you off of those accursed jarred sauces. And, look, I’m not saying they’re all bad. Actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m so judgy, aren’t I?
Anyway, bear this in mind: Tomato sauce, at its essence, is simply flavored tomatoes.
Here are some quick and delicious ideas to get you started:
Sauce 1: Easiest
Try this: Go to the store, and find the Italian food section. Then, ignoring the sultry siren songs cascading from the row upon row of jarred sauces, march yourself straight to the canned tomato products, the varieties of which are legion: whole, peeled, crushed, diced, pureed, ground, exploded, pre-chewed, etc. I like crushed because I think it’s the closest to sauce consistency. (I like whole, canned Italian tomatoes, too, but, then I have to chop them or whirl them in the food processor like some kind of serial killer. And that’s 87 seconds I may never get back.) Grab a 28-ouncer.
Next, go to the spice section, and pick up a small container of Italian seasoning.
When you get home, put on a big pot of water, on full blast. Then empty the can of tomatoes into a small pot and add a tablespoon-ish of the spice mix and a teaspoon of salt. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for as long as it takes for you to make the pasta.
Taste the sauce for salt, then toss it with your pasta and scrape on some good Parmesan cheese. Nota bene: The real stuff, from Parma, if you can afford it, tastes miles better than the domestic from Wisconsin — no offense, Cheeseheads. Whatever you do, avoid like a talking snake that shelf-stable stuff in the cylindrical containers; it really does taste like actual floor sweepings.
Now, look, I know that this seems too easy. Especially considering how Great Aunt Caligulina used to simmer her famous sauce for hours and hours. Well, no offense to Auntie C., but, trust me, this will taste good and, more importantly, not “straight-from-the-accursed-jar.” Serve it alongside a grilled chicken breast or a seared pork chop or something similar, and it will taste even better.
One more time, here’s the formula: Tomato product + flavoring sauce. Now that you have that very simple strategy down, let’s look at some other ideas:
Sauce 2: Puttanesca-ish
Heat up a cup or so of crushed tomatoes, and stir in a few tablespoons of jarred tapenade along with some crushed red pepper flakes (and minced parsley, if you’ve got a minute), et voila, a reasonable facsimile of that great Italian sauce puttanesca. You don’t even need any other herbs.
Sauce 3: Anchovy and its variations
Here’s you: “But, I hate anchovies!” Here’s me: “Shut up.” They’re little fish. Not monsters. Just mince more or less equal parts garlic, anchovy fillets and parsley so you have a little pile on your cutting board about the size of a golf ball or a small mouse or two. Saute it over medium heat in a tablespoon or so of olive oil or butter for a minute until it starts to brown, then add your 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes and simmer while your pasta cooks to combine the flavors. Season with salt. Done.
Variation A: Tuna. Follow the anchovy sauce instructions above, and, along with the tomatoes, add a tin of canned tuna. Sounds gross, right? But, trust me: Y-U-M.
Variation B: Clams. As with Variation A, pretend you’re going all anchovy garlic. Then, just before you add the tomato, open a can of clams. Pour in the clam water, and boil it down until it’s almost gone. (You could do the same with a little white wine, too, you drinky scamp!) Then add the tomatoes and clams, and simmer until your pasta’s done. Taste for salt and pepper. Done.
Sauce 4: Meaty bits
Brown ground beef or sausage or bacon or a couple of pork chops or anything meat-ish in a saute pan. Proceed as with Sauce 1. Or, you could take the meat from the pan, and add half a diced onion and/or diced green pepper and/or a crushed garlic clove. When the vegetables are soft or a little brown, add the meat back, and return to Sauce 1.
Prep School is a Tribune News Service column by James P. DeWan, an award-winning food writer, chef and culinary instructor who teaches at Kendall College in Chicago. He is the author of “Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques,” a collection of his columns.