If you had told me 10 years ago that pasta would be a staple in my everyday diet, I would not have believed it. I didn't like pasta then. too mushy. too much sauce. or bland. yuck. My family was not a pasta family so I hadn't really been exposed to the good stuff. Since meeting and marrying S. that totally changed, and I have been on a quest to make at least a comparable sauce to the one he makes.
And so here we find ourselves. What is the secret you say? Well, in my humble opinion it is two-fold:
1. Use good tomatoes.
2. Let the sauce cook. For awhile. As long as you can and still keep it "quick"
Sounds simple right? Well it is and it isn't. Let's examine the process, keep in mind its all variation on a theme depending on what you have in the pantry, or are in the mood for, or have time for.
Most Italian sauces begin with a soffritto. Soffritto is basically the saute of diced aromatic vegetables - onions, carrots, celery - in extra virgin olive oil. Add a little salt and let them soften. We usually just use onions in the soffritto, probably because we are lazy and don't want to chop all the other veggies. Then add the tomato.
Here I will digress to a more personal approach. We usually use canned organic strained/crushed tomatoes for our sauces. Fresh are good, but as we don't grow our own, when we get fresh tomatoes (in season of course!) we like to eat them with mozzarella, drizzled with ev olive oil, salt, pepper and basil. We never seem to have a surplus for sauce. From time to time we do make a fresh tomato sauce, but I leave that to the expert - S. Anyway, back to the cooking. Try out different brands of canned tomatoes (not the pre-made spaghetti sauce or marinara) to see what fits your taste best. (Currently, we are really enjoying Pomi strained tomatoes). And then, let it cook. stir occasionally. taste for seasoning. let it cook some more. You see, as it cooks out the water, the tomato concentrates and thickens - the flavor is delicious! Interestingly enough, tomatoes are one of the few fruits (or vegetables if you swing that way) that when cooked, have higher levels of lycopene and antioxidants. I know some recipes add sugar to the sauce. I don't do that. I don't really like a sweet sauce - I think the tomatoes are sweet enough on their own. But to each his own I guess.
Pretty much that is it. A basic sauce. Mix it up by adding different herbs (like rosemary and basil or even herbs de provence) or spices. I like black pepper, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika or crushed red pepper. [side note: add some red pepper flakes to your soffritto for more flavor] We also like to add a bit of vegetable broth powder (which comes from Italy) as it gives a bit of depth to the taste. If you want meat or mushrooms in the sauce, cook the mushrooms with the soffritto or add the cooked meat after the vegetables soften.
Now combine it with good pasta. Seriously, there are definitely some bad dried pastas out there. We have tried them all and DeCecco is our pick. There are other good brands but this one is the most accessible to us. (meaning I don't have to go to Whole Foods or Central Market to get it, my local grocery store has it) I just learned from S. that by looking at the cook time on the pasta box, you can tell if it is good or not (most of the time). The longer the cook time, the better the pasta. Who knew? And for God's sake DONT OVERCOOK THE PASTA! overcooked pasta is gross. It should be "al dente" and you don't need to throw it against the wall to see if it's ready. HA just get a piece and chew it. if there is a little bit of resistance when you bite it. firm but not hard, it's ready.
Once the pasta is drained we normally put in the sauce pot, stir to combine with sauce and add parmesan cheese. This technique helps dry the pasta a bit and helps the sauce adhere to it. I'm not sure but I think this is more traditionally Southern Italian. I say that only because there are so many different ways and variations of making "authentic Italian". This is how we do it, it's not even something S's mom ever did - it's our own kind of northern-italian-texan twist.
I don't mean to brag or anything, but S. has even said my sauce is as good as his mother's. High praise indeed! lol