26 September 2012

Journey to the Kitchen for a Simple Gravy

tomato sauce with sprig of basil

By Jane Pellicciotto

One of the best scenes in the 1996 movie Big Night was the simple preparation of an omelet in stark contrast to the previous night’s gluttony that ended in a brotherly brawl. The best and most enticing food is often the most humble (and brawl-free), and, to go a step further, that which comes from your own kitchen.

This statement comes dangerously close to the Italian notion that no one’s food tastes as good as one’s own, or rather one’s mamma’s cooking. I say dangerously because Italians are notorious for being close-minded about food. I prefer to be curious and experiment. But they have an enviable, embedded food wisdom that we Americans will never fully grasp. This wisdom is no doubt related to how hard it is to extract recipes from an Italian grandmother.

The notion of eating from my own kitchen lingered all last week, a week punctuated with the desire to cook when I least had access to a kitchen. My preferred dish? A simple tomato sauce (recipe at end).

It started with a visit to see old friends San Francisco. Though we all like to cook, we ate out almost every meal, from overdoing it on award-winning pastries to indulging in high-end Moroccan and Indian. They begged me to teach them how to make pasta so by the third night, I was happy (read: craving) to indulge them (Curious? See my Team Pasta class).

We amassed a great deal of pasta thanks to their deft three-and-a-half year old. The table went quiet as we all took our first bites. This is what handmade pasta and simple tomato sauce does to you. As your belly swells, so does your pride in having produced for yourself one of the most satisfying dishes known to man.

This only scratched the itch.

Why the itch? September is my favorite month and with Portland’s temperate climate and near-perfect September weather, the farmers market explodes with a mashup of summer hangers on like corn and tomatoes, and fall’s pears and winter squashes have marched in.

A not-so-best-kept secret at the market? Roma tomatoes are a steal at this time of year. This, and the notion that summer produce will soon be a mere memory makes me want to hit the kitchen.

But I was on vacation making my way up the California and Oregon coasts, and would arrive home only to drop my bags and run off to volunteer at FEAST Portland, the multi-day foodie phenomenon. In spite of, or maybe because of, the preposterous array of celebrity-status culinary goings on, all I really wanted to do was be in my own kitchen. That would have wait another two days.

In a FEAST speaker series, Oregon farmer/philosopher Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, journeyed around the globe from Oregon’s spot on the 45th parallel to our same-latitude culinary cousins. Even as we are surrounded by exceptional restaurants, as Boutard said, “It’s really the home kitchens that inspire what we grow, especially immigrant kitchens.”

That was the final nudge I needed on the journey to savor the simple pleasure of Sunday gravy bubbling away on the stove.


Tomato Sauce Recipe

For a recipe with so few ingredients, there’s much to be said about skin and seeds, about pureeing before or after or not at all, about quick cooking versus slow and low. This recipe results in a thick sauce that can be used as is or you can add meat, seafood or vegetables. This sauce goes a long way especially if additional olive oil is added at the end, which helps to really coat the pasta. I did not peel my tomatoes but I do puree the sauce once cooled to avoid the unpleasant texture of the skins. Alternately, you can use a food mill to eliminate skins.

As for seeds, it’s been found that much of a tomato’s flavor comes from the gelatin-like substance around the seeds. I use a method passed on from Kathryn LaSuza Yeomans, a fixture at Saturday’s Portland Farmers Market, that uses this liquid for the sauce.


3–4 pounds of roma tomatoes (good to use because they’re mostly flesh and not runny)

1 onion, chopped finely

1 clove garlic, crushed or chopped finely

1 tsp salt (or to taste)

pinch of red chili flake (optional)

1–2 T olive oil

Several fresh torn basil leaves


1. Heat the olive oil in a medium to large saucepan and sauté onions on low heat till translucent.

2. While onions are cooking, halve the tomatoes and, using a sharp knife, carve angled slits to remove the hard part of the core. This doesn’t have to be perfect or thorough. Scoop the seeds into a wire mesh sieve set over a bowl and chop tomatoes into chunks. Return to your reserved seeds and vigorously swish with a wooden spoon for a minute or two to release the jelly-like liquid in the bowl. Add this to the tomatoes.

3. Add garlic to the cooking onions and allow the aroma to just surface, then add the tomatoes and salt. Stir and let simmer very gently for an hour or more. Towards the end, add a pinch of red chili flake if desired and some torn basil (you can add more fresh basil to your pasta dish).

4. Puree the mixture or run through a food mill. You can freeze some or all of the sauce in freezer-safe jars or containers. If using glass, leave at least one inch of head space to avoid cracking the jar when the sauce freezes.

5. Add to your pasta of choice!