I want sauce that'll make me miss my Italian grandma, even though I never had one
January 30, 2010 1:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm cooking up pasta sauce. I've got recipes, and also the knowledge gained from previous batches. But I have some questions about a few related matters.

I've been getting more serious about my cooking lately, and since I've always loved pasta sauce, that's one thing I've been putting some effort to lately. I've done a few batches and while some have been better than others, none of them have been bad. I have a food mill and there's a nearby Italian imports store that has some superb ingredients (including some drop-dead awesome sausage made in store) for when the fancy strikes.

I'm also in Tucson, which means that thanks to our proximity to the border we have access to cheap produce that is normally off-season in most parts of the country. Right now I have 9 pounds of plum tomatoes that I'm about to start cooking. They aren't the best ever, but they're not bad, especially for the time of year. They're big, plump, and they've got more sweetness to them than I was expecting. I've had them ripening in a basket for the past three days and they are looking purty.

What I'm wondering about has to do with other ingredients and cooking techniques. For example, I'm wanting to start recipes that use wine. However, I don't drink, so I won't be using much. How long does wine keep after it's been opened? And what kind of wine (the recipes I'm wanting to use call for a dry red wine) would be sufficient? I don't know my wines; I just remember from recipes in the distant past that wine adds a wonderful dimension to cooking. Bonus points for wines that are easily available at Trader Joe's.

Next is herbs. How long does fresh basil keep? At Trader Joe's, they are selling really big boxes of fresh basil for under $3. They sell it unrefrigerated, but other stores keep it refrigerated. There's just no way I can use it all that quickly; these boxes are huge. What's the best way to keep it? How much of an appreciable difference is there using fresh oregano vs. dried? The recipes say dried is fine, but is there an extra kick that makes fresh worth it?

Garlic! I want more of a garlic kick, but adding more doesn't seem to help. What's a good way to get that extra hit from the garlic?

Any extra insight to cooking sauces is welcome, of course.
posted by azpenguin to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Any robust dry red will do, such as cabernet or pinot noir. It doesn't need to be expensive, and you can buy small bottles. Or, keep a larger bottle refrigerated, it will probably be good for weeks (and, if you want to take one more step, get some marbles, wash them, fill the partial bottle of wine with marbles until the level is almost to the cork, then recork it.

we keep a basil plant growing in the laundry room window... I've been picking leaves all winter!
posted by HuronBob at 1:49 PM on January 30, 2010

Garlic! I want more of a garlic kick, but adding more doesn't seem to help. What's a good way to get that extra hit from the garlic?

Are you using the freshest possible garlic? Are you chopping it super fine? If all else fails, you can add it very close to the end so that it's almost raw when it gets to your mouth.
posted by mhum at 1:49 PM on January 30, 2010

Herbs: the ones from the farmer's market are usually cheaper and last markedly longer than the stuff from the store. Since you said you live in Tuscon, I'm guessing the farmer's markets are year round there so this shouldn't be a problem for you. If you're not particular about using sweet basil, I've found that the tougher thai basil leaves keep longer in the fridge (sometimes I can get two weeks out of them). The flavor is a bit stronger is all.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:54 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: As for wine--the GF and I drink a lot of wine and unless we're making something special (e.g., a roast that calls for a Barolo), we just use whatever's handy in the kitchen. I had some good success with the pretty cheap Lindeman's that's on sale at TJs the other day. Grab a Cabernet or a Shiraz, and you're off to the races.

I wouldn't buy a lot of basil if you can't use it all right away. If you have the space, I'd just grow my own. It's an easy to grow, hardy plant and it grows like crazy. That way you can prune only what you need for tonight's recipe. Alternatively, you can make and freeze pesto using your excess basil. Lastly, you can dry it, suspended upside down in a sealed (and roomy) paper bag--think a TJ paper shopping bag, stapled shut. Home-dried herbs are better than store bought, as they are still more fresh than whatever you're buying in a jar. Thus, I would try to avoid the dried oregano--just buy it fresh and dry whatever you don't need. You can freeze herbs, too (google it) but I never had much success with that.

Lastly, for the garlic, try adding some roasted garlic, which is made of such goodness that you might asplode. Easy to make--Here's the Haddock way: take a head (or two, three etc.) of garlic. Trim the tops of each clove WITHOUT separating them from the whole head of garlic--it will help to peel the outer paper first, but you don't need to peel individual cloves. When you're done, you will have a sort of ziggurat--all the cloves are still attached (and covered in their individual skins), but the tops are flat. Place it in a small cast-iron skillet (or whatever you've got that will take the heat). Drizzle VERY generously with olive oil and salt/pepper to taste. Bake in the oven for say, 0h, 45 minutes at, oh, 450 or so--but only until the tops look like they're caramelizing--not longer (garlic will taste bitter). BUT along the way, every 10-15 minutes, take the garlic out of the oven to spoon some of the olive oil back over the garlic (and to assay whether it's done or not). Once you're done, the leftover garlic-infused oil is really nice on a salad (I don't think it's good to keep long term, though).

Good luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:54 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try a dry white wine, instead of red. I got that tip from an Italian grocer in my neighborhood and I like it much better than red. Also, fresh basil will keep longer if you snip the ends, put it in a glass of water with a baggie over it, and store in the fridge. But a really big box of it sounds like too much.

Also, when a friend of mine buys huge flats of tomatoes at the end of the season, she cuts them in half, drizzles with EVO and crushed garlic, then roasts them in a slow oven for a while. When they're a little carmelized, she cools them, and puts them through the food processor. This turns out a very concentrated sauce that she freezes and uses in batches as needed. Her sauce is unbelievable.
posted by Gusaroo at 1:55 PM on January 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

Herbs: fresh vs. dried - there's no comparison. Fresh wins by a longshot. The flavors are completely different animals. Sure, dry will do in a pinch, but there's nothing like fresh (especially when it comes to basil, oregano, cilantro).

Go ahead and buy the big package of fresh basil. Whatever you don't use, make into a pesto, which is just buttloads of basil, tons of fresh garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts (make sure you get the ones imported from Italy else you may suffer from a metallic tasting mouth for a few weeks). You can also add various grated cheeses and salt and pepper if you like. Play with it until you get it right!

Garlic: Are you using dry or wet? If dry, ditch it and go with wet. If wet, are you using the kind in jars or fresh? The jarred garlic packed in water is good, but again, there's nothing like fresh garlic. Get a garlic press and go to town.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 1:59 PM on January 30, 2010

1. Garlic is at its peak flavor just after cutting/chopping, so do this at the last possible moment; try roasting garlic bulbs for a different, sweeter flavor

2. When using red or white wine for sauces, deglazing, etc, you can always make extra sauce and freeze it (use ice cube trays for a quick way to add a sauce to a single dish).

3. Seconding a basil plant; you can also make pesto and freeze it using the ice-cube-tray method.

4. This is a good, quick tutorial of cooking with wine.

5. Typically a cook should never use a wine that they wouldn't drink. Since you don't drink, ask someone at your wine store (Trader Joe's is good for this) which dry red or white wine they recommend; you don't need to specify it's for cooking (and probably better if you don't). If you're making fish, ask for a dry white that goes with fish; same for beef, pasta, root vegetables, etc.
posted by melissasaurus at 2:02 PM on January 30, 2010

A relatively cheap wine should work fine for cooking. Since you're not going to be drinking it you can refrigerate after opening. A boxed wine will last a little longer, since there's less air contact. But what I used to do when I only needed wine for cooking purposes was to buy mini wine bottles. You can get these in most liquor stores, often in a six-pack.

I'd also recommend using the extra basil for pesto, but only add the cheese after thawing; it doesn't freeze well. Unlike most herbs, I don't think there's a big advantage for fresh oregano over dried.

I've never had a problem getting my tomato sauce garlicky enough (and I like garlic). But you could try adding in a bit of uncooked garlic at the end to supplement what's already in there. I've heard this trick used for simple oil-and-garlic sauce, so it's worth a try.
posted by serathen at 2:09 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: You can buy the big package of basil. Just chop the rest up and freeze it with some water in an icecube tray. It works really well.
posted by Kicky at 2:14 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: Heh. Well, uh... I feel almost embarrassed linking to this, as I was channeling my Italian ex-mother-in-law (!) at the time, but a few weeks ago I made a longish (and unnecessarily bombastic) comment on how to make basic tomato sauce for pasta. Like I say, it's sort of embarrassing, and I still seem sort of shocked myself that I said all that, but people seem to have liked it, so if you find it helpful, there it is.

As far as basil goes: unfortunately, drying it doesn't do much for it. I've tried it, drying it very carefully in a cool place over a long time, seeking to preserve the flavor, and you can get satisfactory results this way – in fact, as I mention in the linked comment, I don't have a lot of money, so I tend to have to dry the fresh basil I buy to make it last longer. But fresh is inordinately better. Fortunately, everybody else is right: it's very, very easy to grow basil indoors, particularly if you're in Tucson and rarely will have to worry about drafts killing them off. A small pot in the kitchen should work great.

One ingredient you should spend some time getting to know is balsamic vinegar. I'm skipping over the all-important olive oil to get there, but I think it's a fantastically important part of many good sauces; it's almost a unique flavor in our foods, a flavor that is savory-sweet, dark and satisfying. Get some good stuff (don't overpay, just make sure it's 100% Italian product; we can't do much more than that here in the states) and try it with some recipes. I find it's particularly interesting to add an effect to the pan when one is browning things; it goes very nicely with that flavor, and it seems to help the sort of carmelization process along.

Finally, I know you didn't mention books, but if you're thinking about Italian food in general and sauces in particular, I cannot recommend highly enough the excellent recipe book by NPR's cooking maven Lynne Rossetto Kasper entitled The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food. It's wonderfully written, fascinating, never condescending, and always enjoyable; and it introduces the reader to all sorts of wonderful types of Italian foods without ever once being pretentious about it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:18 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Two buck chuck is perfectly fine for cooking, but I'll second mini bottles. The ones I get contain two cups. For basil, I've had luck keeping TJs basil alive for a week maximum by cutting off the ends of the far stem side and stuffing them into a glass of water, like you would a plant cutting.

All of my tomato sauce recipes call for Roma tomatoes; I'm not a tomato person so I can't say what the relative taste difference is from plum tomatoes.
posted by rhizome at 2:26 PM on January 30, 2010

I grow my own tomatoes. And I try to make several kinds of tomato sauce. In some pots, I put some rosemary. That's one of the sauces I like the best. I also put some cayenne pepper in the sauce. Actually, I pour boiling water over a pepper in a glass, I leave the pepper in the glass for a while, and then I pour the water in my sauce (to avoid swallowing a pepper seed later on). In some pots, I just put Tomatoes. In others, Tomatoes + Onions, Garlic, pepper, some sugar, laurel.
posted by nicolin at 2:26 PM on January 30, 2010

some liquor stores will sell little bottles of wine for around $2-$3. I don't know how many ounces, they're about 6 inches tall with a twist-off cap. They're usually sold in 4 packs at supermarkets but some liquor sell them individually.
posted by Neekee at 2:31 PM on January 30, 2010

I don't drink wine, but I cook with it. I buy the cheap (like $10ish) wine and use a wine saver in the top to keep it. I keep it in a dark cabinet and it seems to be fine months later. I don't like the taste of wine for drinking anyway, so it could taste like ass for all I know, but it adds a good flavor to my pasta sauce.
posted by ishotjr at 2:57 PM on January 30, 2010

Trust koeselitz.

There's no such thing as too much basil. Make pesto as others have said. Even if you can't make pesto, at least mix the basil with olive oil and salt, then refrigerate and make it later. You can use pistachios or cashews instead of pine nuts.
posted by yesster at 3:01 PM on January 30, 2010

I use roasted garlic, which I always keep on hand (Costco sells 3LB tubs of pre-peeled garlic for $5, and I roast it all at once and freeze/refrigerate) as well as fresh garlic.

I'd imagine if you're not getting a full enough garlic flavor, you may not be using enough oil to carry the flavor.

I really like homogeneous red sauces with a parsley flavor, but I also like fresh red sauces with small chunks of tomato, garlic, and basil. The most important thing to me is that the sauce is robust enough that you can taste it in every bite.
posted by mhuckaba at 3:16 PM on January 30, 2010

For any non-basil extra fresh herbs you use: If you don't want to dry them, you can wash them and wrap them in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag in the fridge to make them keep a bit longer.
posted by cheerwine at 3:26 PM on January 30, 2010

Best answer: Buy the basil. Instead of making pesto, just wash and spin-dry the leaves, combine with olive oil and put in food processor. Pour into a jar, and top off with a layer of olive oil. Store in the refrigerator. The oil will seal out the air, so the basil won't turn brown. Any time you need some, scoop some out, let the rest settle, and add a little more oil to the top. You'll have a lovely basil paste that you can use anytime. Alternatively, you could store in smaller jars/containers/ice cube trays in the freezer.

Remember when adding fresh herbs (like basil, parsley or oregano) to a sauce, add some right at the end for extra flavor. I'm getting hungry already!
posted by Cheeto at 3:29 PM on January 30, 2010

How much of an appreciable difference is there using fresh oregano vs. dried? The recipes say dried is fine, but is there an extra kick that makes fresh worth it?

Instead of asking a website about the taste difference, why not get both and compare the smell and taste? I'm skeptical of those who say fresh oregano is better than dried. Deborah Madison says dried is maybe a bit better than fresh. Frankly, I've never used fresh oregano -- I always use dried. In contrast, fresh basil is much better than dried (you didn't ask about this so I assume you know).

What's the best way to keep [basil]?

You can keep fresh basil in the refrigerator, but that's not ideal. It's better to keep it in a glass with water at room temperature as if it were a houseplant. (Of course, if you actually buy it as a potted plant, even better.)

Garlic! I want more of a garlic kick, but adding more doesn't seem to help. What's a good way to get that extra hit from the garlic?

People have recommended roasting. If you like roasted garlic, I recommend roasting a lot of it while it's particularly fresh, then scooping it into the cubes of an ice tray and freezing. Once it's frozen, you can take out the cubes and store them in a plastic bag or Tupperware in the freezer (if you want to free up the ice tray). You can measure 1 tablespoon per cube if you want to be able to follow recipes that call for X tablespoons of garlic.

Another technique is to add half the garlic in the middle of cooking (don't cook it for too long unless you like it burnt -- some people do), and add the rest just a minute or two before you're done cooking. Mark Bittman particularly recommends this method for making an extra-garlic-y tomato sauce.

Since you seem to generally want to use fresh herbs but are concerned about how long they last, consider freezing them. The best way I know to do this is in an ice cube tray. Chop the herbs very finely (so they'll fit). Pour a bit of water in each cube. Then add herbs to fill each cube most of the way up. Top the cubes off with more water, and put them in the freezer. Then you can throw them into whatever you're cooking (as long as the sauce will benefit from a bit more water from the ice melting).

Any extra insight to cooking sauces is welcome, of course.

OK, here's a vegetarian sauce I've been making lately:

1. Slice portabello mushrooms and chop onions. (I peel the mushrooms and cut off the gills. Some people think this is too fussy or wimpy or something, but, well, it depends on whether you enjoy eating dirt.) Saute onions in olive oil in a big skillet for just a minute or two, then add the mushrooms and saute for about 10 minutes. I'll add seasonings such as ground thyme and crushed red pepper (you can freely experiment with this). Then I'll add white wine and/or vegetable stock (see step 3!), turn down the heat, and let it simmer for a while. If I have time, I'll add garlic to this pan at some point (not at the beginning).

2. Meanwhile, on a second burner, heat up some vegetable stock. (I generally keep some around -- this would need to be made in advance. There are lots of recipes out there; I'm sure you can Google them. I use a combination of the tips on making vegetable stock from Deborah Madison's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and Mark Bittman's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It's convenient to keep it frozen in a big Tupperware bowl, or you can refrigerate it as long as you're going to use it up within 2-3 days of making it.)

3. On a third burner, mix equal parts flour and butter (or a substitute made with nonhydrogenated oil such as Smart Balance) in a little pan. This is how you make a "roux." This just takes a couple minutes -- don't overcook.

4. Pour the vegetable stock into the roux and combine so it becomes the "sauce." (BTW, I don't measure any of this -- I just use trial and error, so I apologize for not giving measurements here.) Then pour the "sauce" into the mushrooms and onions. (Optional: add chopped fresh parsley.)* Continue cooking for a couple minutes so everything blends together, then you're done. You could add parmesan cheese, but it's fine without it. Of course, you can use other vegetables in addition to, or instead of, the mushrooms.

That's a recipe I came up with by cobbling together recipes from the internet. I've been making it a lot, but I'd actually be interested to know if anyone else has tips on making it better.

* General parsley tips: Parsley should always be fresh, not dried. Flat-leaf ("Italian") is better than curly. It should be washed thoroughly since it's sometimes quite dirty. It's one of the most useful herbs -- a good addition to almost any savory dish even if the recipe doesn't mention it. If you have time, save the stems (in Tupperware in the fridge) for making a stock.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:29 PM on January 30, 2010

Basil is preserved by mashing it into a paste with olive oil, e.g., pesto, as others said above. Even if you don't add the nuts and cheese that make pesto so yummy on pasta, it's a great way to preserve the bright taste of the basil. If you're using fresh tomatoes, one addition to consider is salt, which will help bring out the garlic. I like either olive oil, or some of the fat from sausage in pasta sauces.
posted by theora55 at 3:44 PM on January 30, 2010

First wine: for cooking it's pretty rare you need a good wine. The flavour will be very similar whether you use a cheap one or not for a pasta dish. Really, whatever anyone says, cheap wine is great for cooking, bad for drinking.
Second, keeping basil: DON'T refrigerate basil. It hates being frozen. Just buy it, keep it at room temperature and use it. If you can't buy the fresh plant, try another recipe, dried basil is not very useful.
posted by brighton at 4:10 PM on January 30, 2010

Keeping the wine since you don't drink it:

1) Small bottles (like the plonk that comes in 4 packs) is an idea. As everyone else has said, it doesn't need to be fabulous to make good pasta sauce!

2) If you get a vacuum sealer thing, like this, use it properly and then stick the bottle in the fridge -- I'd guess you have several weeks.

3) Total and complete guess here -- d'you think it could be frozen in roughly 1/2 cup to 1 cup quantities?? In ziploc bags, or even in an ice cube tray? I have no idea what happens to wine if it's frozen. I bet you wouldn't want to drink it, but I kind of suspect it would be A-OK. (She googles..... she scores!!)
posted by kestrel251 at 4:34 PM on January 30, 2010

I've kinda been beaten to the couple things I was gonna say...

Since you mention Trader Joe's - the "Charles Shaw" aka "3 buck Chuck" they sell will do just fine for cooking. For pasta sauce I'd probably pick either the Shiraz or the Merlot for a red. White wine does work just as well, gives a lighter flavor, go for the Chardonnay. (Bonus, if they have the Charles Shaw chardonnay from Australia, try it instead of the standard California one. If not, don't worry about it. The California one is fine, California chardonnay makers just tend to emphasize the "oak" flavor from the barrels during the aging. It's a distinction someone who doesn't drink a lot of wine might not even notice, really.)

I've never seen the Charles Shaw in small bottles here, but at $3, if you don't use it all it's not like it's a big pricey loss. There are plenty of other things you can use it for - like deglazing pans to make a sauce after cooking steaks or chicken. (cook a steak or chicken breast in a pan with a little butter. When done take it out, saute chopped shallots in the pan. As they start to color pour in some wine - either color - stir around to pick up and dissolve any bits stuck to the pan. Let the wine bubble until it reduces way down to just a few tablespoons. Remove from heat and whisk in bits of butter until you have a creamy sauce. Spoon sauce over steak or chicken and feel like you're the next Julia Child!)
posted by dnash at 7:20 PM on January 30, 2010

I freeze wine for cooking all the time, and it's totally fine. I wouldn't drink it, but for putting in tomato sauce or a stew or something, no problem. I use ziplocs or plastic storage containers; because of the alcohol wine freezes kind of slushy, so there's no real need to portion into ice cube trays or anything - you can just spoon out what you need.
posted by yarrow at 8:12 PM on January 30, 2010

if you've got a pressure cooker then please try this recipe:

not only does it taste amazing, it makes the whole house sing.
posted by kimyo at 8:24 PM on January 30, 2010

I'm a big fan of Oregano (it makes everything taste better!) and in my experience dried beats fresh in flavour as long as the dried oregano is not too old.
posted by Memo at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lots of good tips here, but I will add one more. I was taught by my mother-in-law that the tomato seeds are bitter and since you love your family you will take the them out. Here is the sauce recipe which goes with the meatball recipe I posted a few days ago.

Brown a spare rib and a short rib in a dutch oven, once brown add 1 chopped onion. When the onion is translucent, add 3 cloves of garlic, minced.
Meanwhile take a large (28oz) can of whole tomatoes, san marzano are the best, and bring to a boil in a saucepan.
Once the tomatoes are boiling, run them though a food mill, this will take the seeds out.
Add the milled tomatoes to the dutch oven along with 1 small can of tomato paste, 1tbs sugar, salt, pepper and 1tbs dried basil (if you have fresh basil, I would add 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil 10 minutes before the end). Cook for an hour or so and then add the meatballs.

If you want to make lasagna with this sauce, "you need a lighter sauce so cook two chicken legs instead of the ribs."

If someone asks for a good anise biscotti recipe all the secrets will be out.
posted by shothotbot at 7:02 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the mention of The Splendid Table's Italian cookbook, and adding Johanne Killeen's Cucina Simpatica and maybe most of all, Rao's Cookbook by Frank Pellegrino, from the infamous NYC restaurant of the same name. The spicy sausage sauce as well as the fresh marinara sauce in that book is excellent and disturbingly simple/easy. They are all about the ingredients and not fussing with secondary things.

People already mentioned the garlic thing--the finer you mince your garlic, the sharper the flavor will be; ditto with the later you add it to the pot. My favorite everyday-simple-sauce order of things is to fry it in your olive oil first, taking care not to burn it, so you have fresh garlic-infused cooking oil.
posted by ifjuly at 2:49 PM on February 6, 2010

And I may get hanged for suggesting this, but frankly, dry white wine works very nicely in bright, simple red sauces. You may not want to discount them. Or maybe I just like my everyday sauces perkier.
posted by ifjuly at 2:51 PM on February 6, 2010

Oh, and one more thing re: garlic: to me personally, there is absolutely no comparison between hard-stem or hardneck garlic, which comes in much deeper shades of brown and purple and can be found if you're lucky at local growers' stands in farmer's markets, and those lifeless little snow white bulbs of soft-stem garlic piled up at the grocery store. If you love the flavor of garlic and have been trying to figure out how to get it deeper and all that, that's the ticket. When I run out of my arsenal for the year (my parents send it to me; I can't find a grower where I live now) I am very sad.
posted by ifjuly at 2:55 PM on February 6, 2010

« Older Looking for true story about adopting children...   |   How important are (chemistry) graduate school... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.