“Hey Mambo, Mambo Italiano…” is one of those earwig songs that reverberate through my brain at least once a week. It’s one of my mother-in-law’s favorite songs. So when I’m cooking Italian, I’m usually humming this ditty.
The Mother-in-law. In a husband’s eye, mama is the best cook in the world. I remember when I got “serious” with the ex-asshole. My future ex-Monster-in-law took me into her kitchen to teach me how to make Sunday Gravy. She wasn’t the nicest person in the world, but she sure could cook. I still think of her Struffoli and Stromboli. And being that American kind of Italian, they mispronounced almost every “true” Italian dish. It was years later when I realized their “Aya Ooya” dish was really Pasta Aglia E Olia- garlic and oil over pasta. So when I asked in an Italian bakery once years later if they had Struffo’, I was met with blank stares. I found them in the case and just pointed and grunted. They weren’t as good as the Monster-in-law’s.
I practiced that Gravy every Sunday and it was never as good as hers. I think that’s because Mother-in-laws leave out crucial steps or ingredients so their boy could come home and get “real cooking”. I’ve made numerous sauces over the years and have not achieved that perfect spaghetti SAUCE- the one I can make my own and teach to my daughters. Not that they’d ever use it- I’m sure their mother-in-laws (and future MILs) make their son’s favorite sauce.
My mom used Ragu. That’s one step above using ketchup. So I’m not even going there.
This sauce (link to the lab) from Serious Eats went into such delicious detail I couldn’t resist trying it out. And since MR is our resident meatball maker (he learned from his mom) I asked him to try a Serious Eats meatball recipe to keep with our month long experiment.
- 4 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, preferably imported D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes (see note above)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing.
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 8 cloves garlic, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 medium carrot, cut into large chunks
- 1 medium onion, split in half
- 1 large stem fresh basil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional)
- 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley or basil leaves (or a mix of the two)
Adjust oven rack to lower position and preheat oven to 300°F. Place tomatoes in a large bowl. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes by squeezing them in your fingers until pieces no larger than 1/2-inch remain. Transfer 3 cups of crushed tomatoes to a sealed container and reserve in the refrigerator until step 4. (I used 4 cans of good old Redpack tomatoes. They were on sale. And I had a coupon. I promise next time I make this [and I will] I will use a better grade Italian tomato.)
Heat olive oil and butter over medium heat in a large Dutch oven until butter is melted. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until softened and fragrant but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add pepper flakes and oregano and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, carrot, onion, and basil, and stir to combine. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over high heat. (This smelled HEAVENLY! I used minced garlic and homegrown oregano.)
Cover Dutch oven with lid slightly ajar and transfer to oven. Cook, stirring once every 1 to 2 hours, until reduced by about half and darkened to a deep red, 5 to 6 hours (reduce oven temperature if the sauce is bubbling too rapidly or the browned bits begin to turn too dark). (The only Dutch Oven we own is the cast iron one I bought this past summer for camp meals. It weighs a ton and I always say a prayer when I put it on the oven racks in the stove. I won’t do this sauce in the cast iron again…it left a slight metallic taste that we didn’t like. I need a real enamel 6 quart Dutch oven, preferably in red or orange please. Yes, another hint.)
(We left the sauce in for 5 hours and in the last half hour, added the meatballs [they’ll be a separate post].)
Remove from oven. Using tongs, discard onion halves, carrots, and basil stems. Add reserved tomatoes to sauce and stir to combine. Add fish sauce, if using. Season generously with salt and pepper and stir in minced herbs along with additional olive oil as desired. Serve immediately, or allow to cool at room temperature, transfer to airtight containers, and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Sauce can also be frozen in sealed containers for up to 6 months. To reheat, warm very gently in a saucepan with 1/2 cup water, stirring until it all melts and heats through. (I’ve never used fish sauce in anything before. It smells like poo, but added a little depth to the sauce. Before we added the meatballs, I also added 1-1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to cut the acid from either the tomatoes or the cast iron. And a little brown sugar. Don’t hate me.)
This is the sauce. It was thick and sticky- all my past sauces were watery and didn’t stick to any pasta or meat. We discussed what we liked and didn’t like. It was a little too spicy- less red pepper next time, and it was a little metallic- try cooking it in a different pot. I’m also going to try the better tomatoes. A little more experiment with an already good sauce and I think I may become the Mother-in-law that serves up the real cooking.