As to which pasta sauce reigns supreme in our house, it’s a toss up between “red sauce” and “pepperoncini.” I’ll save the pepperoncini recipe for another day.
The “red sauce” is my version of the tomato-based pasta dish my mother made so often when I was growing up. Unfortunately, we’ve got no Italian blood in our family, but I’ve eaten so much pasta over the years, I consider myself an honorary Italian.
My cupboard is always stocked with packets of dried porcini, cans of whole Italian tomatoes, and spaghettini. So all I need to do for a quick, easy, and delicious meal is bicycle over to my local supermarket to pick up a couple of ripe avocados, a packet of shiitake mushrooms, some ground beef, and salad greens. I’ve been making this pasta sauce for so many years, I do it on automatic pilot while listening to National Public Radio and sipping a tumbler of red wine.
Basically, you’re making a marinara sauce. For marinara, tomatoes are the most important ingredient. Any brand of whole Italian plum tomatoes will do. I’ve made this sauce many times with the cheapest canned tomatoes I could find, but it’s worth seeking out San Marzano tomatoes. They are richer tasting and meatier than any other type.
First, let’s do the prep work. Get yourself a glass of red wine. All right? Let’s go.
• 3 cans (14 oz. each) San Marzano tomatoes
• two bay leaves (preferably Turkish, the most flavorful)
• one package dried porcini (30 grams)
• 6 to 8 fresh shiitake mushrooms (caps only: sliced or roughly chopped)
• one medium onion (finely diced)
• 4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 200 grams ground beef or pork
• 4-5 large cloves of garlic (whole and peeled)
• 1 tsp.salt (preferably sea salt)
• 1 tsp. herbes de provence
500 grams spaghetti or spaghettini
• freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
For the Starter: two ripe avocados, one lemon, olive oil, balsamic vinegar
In a small bowl, add a half cup of luke-warm water to the dried porcini to cover. Let them soak and soften for 20-30 minutes. The water will become a deeply perfumed, dark brown broth.
Dice the onion. Peel 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic. The easiest way to do this is to smash the cloves with the flat side of a chef’s knife. The papery skin will come right off. Open the three cans of tomatoes. Remove the stems from the shiitake and slice the caps.
Add 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive to a large saucepan. My family loves garlic, but I don’t want it to dominate the sauce, so I saute the garlic cloves on medium-low heat until they’re colored a pale gold. Be careful to turn the garlic frequently so that it doesn’t burn. When nicely colored, remove the garlic to a paper towel.
At this point one of my sons will come over and snag a crisp clove or two. They’re delicious. Add the chopped onion, turn up the heat to medium and saute the onions until they’re translucent: maybe five minutes.
Now add the San Marzano tomatoes. I use a potato masher to crush the whole tomatoes to an even consistency in the sauce pan. Toss in a bay leaf or two and a teaspoon of sea salt. Most marinara recipes call for oregano, but I’m partial to herbes de provence and use a teaspoon of that fragrant melange instead.
Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms. Squeeze the reconstituted porcini in your fist to drain them, reserving the broth. Chop the wrung out porcini roughly. Add them to the sauce. Pour the porcini broth, but not the grit at the bottom of the bowl, into the sauce. Stir.
In a separate fry pan, brown the ground beef, then add it to the sauce. Stir and let the sauce simmer and thicken uncovered on low heat for at least 45 minutes.
The great thing about this sauce is that it’s so versatile. You can add other types of mushrooms. Use ground pork or chicken instead of beef, or leave out the meat entirely. I’ve got no name for this sauce, but I’m sure my mother would approve of naming it after her: “Pasta alla Elaine.”
A couple of points to note when cooking the pasta: Make sure the water is properly salted. And don’t rely on the timing written on the package. Set your timer a minute or two earlier than the recommended timing and keep tasting the pasta until is done al dente. Drain then immediately toss the pasta with a cup or two of the sauce. Serve with some extra sauce on top and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
My son, Christopher, who always votes for “red sauce” says if you add more cheese, it’s double the goodness.
The starter is easy too. Halve an avocado, remove the stone, peel and slice the avocado. Arrange the slices on a plate. Mix one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice with two tablespoons of olive oil. Drizzle the lemony oil over the sliced avocado, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finito.
Serve these dishes with some crusty bread and a green salad and Buono Appetito!
I never get to eat right away, though, because at this point my dog starts pestering me until I dust her kibble with freshly grated cheese.