Thursday, October 02, 2008

Lidia Bastianich's Tomato Sauce

Inspired by Adam Roberts' cooking demo at the first-ever underwater Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday, I went ahead and made pasta sauce. It was the first time I had ever done this, though I have made other tomato-based sauces before. These were usually of the vindaloo and murgh makhani varieties. One would think the ancestors would get me to make an ancestral tomato sauce at some point, but nooooo. Then again, food-wise I best remember my Italian-American grandmother for her Thanksgiving stuffing, and the little pot of coffee she cooked every morning. It wasn't even a tea pot - just a little aluminum saucepan. Perhaps she did make napoletana food (her parents were from a little mountain village outside of Salerno, near Naples), but I never had the fortune to eat it.

Where was I? Oh yes, pasta sauce. I hunted down the Lidia Bastianich oeuvre at the Towson Library and found the recipe that Adam had made for Saturday's demo. I finally found said recipe in her book Lidia's Family Table. For this recipe, the words "SAN MARZANO TOMATOES" jumped out at me. I had heard the Amateur Gourmet utter these same words the other day, so I went a-searchin' for some San Marzano maters. I found none. Not in Trader Joe's. Not in Super Fresh. I almost got to Whole Foods but it was late and I couldn't be bothered.

I finally did find two cans of organic San Marzano tomatoes, canned by Racconto. Their Bella Terra brand of peeled organic tomatoes have little in the way of preservatives. And what they lack in preservatives they more than make up for in two areas: taste and price. They are some tasty tomatoes. And they are some expensive tomatoes. One 28-oz can cost me $3.30! That's over 1 1/2 times the price of the super-expensive 28-oz can of "organic" tomatoes sitting right next to them. I was deterred enough to buy only one can, since I already had two cans of the local Sun of Italy brand peeled "Italian-Style Whole Tomatoes" waiting for me at home (about $1.75 each). I grew up with Sun of Italy, so I figured they had to be the best the area could muster.

Always the bridesmaids, never the bride...

I wasn't sure how each would fare against the other, since I had no idea where the Sun of Italy tomatoes came from. So I opened each and tried them.

One of these cans tastes better than the other...

I tried the San Marzanos first, and they were a little sweet and not salty at all, very robust and (forgive the word) "tomato-ey". Then I went for the Sun of Italy brand.


I had never realized just how salty those tomatoes were! They were a bit more acidic than the others, I will say that. Not a bad tomato, and I love most of Sun of Italy's products, but I now know why those San Marzanos cost so damn much.

On to the pasta sauce, which La Lidia and Adam both recommend you should mush up with your fingers.

I did make the mistake of waiting a little too long to mush up those tomatoes. This was a problem because, after starting the pasta water (for my fusilli), I put about eight garlic cloves into a pan of olive oil, then started mushing up the tomatoes - I ended up combining the San Marzanos with one of the Sun of Italy cans. By the time I was done, my garlic was just starting to burn. I salvaged most of it, but had to spoon out a few black slices which floated to the top of my not-too-crushed tomatoes.

It was starting to look less like tomato sauce and more like tomato stew. Don't believe me? Look for yourself:

Trust me: it's tomato stew.

This was, again, because my tomato chunks were just too damn big. Even after adding a cup of pasta water and a big bunch of basil, letting it cook, covered, for 10 minutes, and then uncovered for 5, I eventually just cheated and threw the whole batch of tomato sauce into the blender. And yes, I did take out the basil before doing that.

This was only after I first ate some of it, mind you.

I must have done something right in the end, even with the sprinkles of sugar and cayenne pepper. It did taste good - not as good, I imagine, as if I had only used San Marzano tomatoes and had not burned any of my garlic. But in a mildly salty kind of way, it was a robust and smooth sauce. Especially since I had blended it up. In a big blender.

Besides fusilli, I have been eating it on meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It was alright on the pasta but OH MY GOD it was just wonderful (or as my buddy Jim out in Yucaipa, CA, would say, mostly to irritate me, "exquisite" and "to DIE for"). Yeah, Jim, that one's for you.