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THOMPSON: Italians are passionate about pasta sauce

December 10, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


If you want start an argument the likes of which you’ve never seen…forget politics or religion. Simply get one Italian to sample another’s pasta sauce. It matters little whether they are man or woman, young or old. I have borne witness to this phenomena in the United States and Canada…but in Italy…it is art form.

Passionate disagreements might arise among the French over the proper Coq au Vin, the Germans over Jagerschnitzel, Americans over Pulled Pork BBQ and Canadians over Poutine. But none of these comes close to the near epic brouhahas that evolve when one Italian tries to convince another Italian that his or her sauce is the best ever.

Italians are relentless. They give no quarter. You don’t even get style points. It’s either “the best” or it’s not worth eating. Hell, you can’t even get an Italian from Bologna to try a sauce from a nearby village or town. They begrudgingly might agree to taste someone’s sauce - maybe a relative - if they live in Bologna…maybe. Of course, they won’t like it compared to their own.

Sure, you might get what could almost pass for a sincere compliment…were it not for the one raised eyebrow, slight roll of the eyes or almost imperceptible sigh. These are all examples of not-so-subtle gestures in Italian body language.

Of course, it’s not necessarily that any given Italian’s sauce is truly the best. I’m convinced that you could put five bowls of the identical sauce before any Italian gourmand in a blind tasting and they would say one of the sauces was best. Somehow, the conversation about the “winner” would turn into how much it was like his or her own “secret” sauce...though not quite as good. It’s not so much about the best sauce...it’s just that Italians love to argue over food…almost as much as eating it.

Regular readers of my column know I’m a foodie…and a trained amateur chef. I certainly understand the passion of Italians when it comes to cooking and eating. You use the best fresh ingredients you can find…and never substitute or take short cuts.

If you don’t care about food or count Kraft dinner among your favourite dishes…you’ve probably stopped reading already. But this doesn’t get any better…none of what follows will make a lick of sense to you.

Most of the really good times of my life have involved good food, wine and great company…friends and family that you really care about...and sparkling conversation. I have always referred to the confluence of these elements simply as the pleasures of the table.

The fun always starts - for me - when I begin planning a menu for a meal…large or small, formal or casual. Over the years, I have learned to cook a wide variety of dishes…French, Continental, Southern, German, Spanish…and, of course, Italian.

I - like most Italians - make a variety of sauces for pasta…Alfredo, Carbonara, Frutti di Mare, Funghi e Piselli, Marinara, Puttanesca and Arrabbiata…among others. I love them all…but everyone has a special sauce…one that is made consistently with passion and reverence…your favourite.

Mine is Bolognese. First, understand that to call Bolognese sauce - anyone’s - simply meat sauce is a travesty. You wouldn’t call Wayne Gretsky…a guy who played hockey. Secondly, there is no garlic in Bolognese sauce. As actor Nathan Lane's Max Biallystock character advised in a high-pitched squeal in “The Producers” on investing your own money in a Broadway play…"Never, never, never!"

I rarely share recipes because I hate to get a call from someone the day after they cook something…it goes like this:  “Hey, Don, I made your blah, blah, blah last night and it turned out awful. I couldn’t find blah, blah, blah so I substituted Strawberry Twizzler, and didn’t have fresh blah, blah, blah so I used some old grass clippings…So, where do you think you screwed up?”

With that misgiving admitted, here is the recipe for my Bolognese sauce for anyone so adventurous as to use it.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, plus 1 tablespoon for tossing the pasta
1 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup finely diced celery (essential to dice finely)
2/3 cup finely diced carrot (again, essential to dice finely)
1.5 pounds ground chuck roast
3/4 pound of ground Italian sausage (spicy)
1 1/2 cups of Marzano Italian tomatoes, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons of sun-dried tomato paste (Don't use just any tomato paste!)
Salt
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill or mortar and pestle
1 cup whole milk (not no fat, 1 percent or two percent…whole milk)
Whole nutmeg, grated
1 cup dry white wine
1¼  to 1 ½ pounds tagliatelle or broad, flat pasta like pappardelle or fettuccine
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at the table

Preparation

  1. Put oil, 3 tablespoons of butter and chopped onion in a large pot on medium heat. Sauté the onion until translucent, add the chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring vegetables to coat them well.
  2. Add ground chuck (I prefer to buy a chuck roast and grind my own coarsely), a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Add Italian sausage. Break the meats with a fork, stir well and cook until the beef and sausage have lost raw, red colour.
  3. Add wine and simmer until it has mostly evaporated, add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat to a low simmer, with an occasional bubble breaking through to the surface. Add tomato paste (Valoroso Foods in Kelowna have a Sicilian tomato farmer process paste for them...$7.29 for a 7- ounce jar...and worth every penny. It will make everything you use tomato paste in better.) Cook uncovered, for 2 hours or more, stirring from time to time. To prevent sticking, add 1/2 cup of water from pasta water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water must be left and separate any fat from the sauce. Correct for salt.
  4. Separately warm milk and let it simmer gently, add to sauce in last hour of cooking, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating -- about 1/8 teaspoon -- of nutmeg, and stir.
  5. Toss with cooked drained pasta, adding the remainder of butter, and serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

Invite those you love, serve your favourite red wine…a Barolo, Barbaresco or Chianti Classico talk, laugh…enjoy. Then, phone a friend…preferably an Italian…and offer to give them YOUR Bolognese recipe. Then, sit back and wait for the response. It’s even better if you FaceTime and can see them raise an eyebrow or roll their eyes.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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