Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Our Sauce

I wrote a few weeks ago about how I got gut-punched in the tomato sauce aisle of Giant Eagle when I realized my wife had passed without writing down the recipe to her spaghetti sauce.  I wrote about how this random thing gave me a sick sense of finality...we would never have "mommy's spaghetti" again.  It's here if you want to revisit it:  Leslie's Spaghetti.

Emma and I decided that we would make it a family effort to recreate the sauce.  We would honor Leslie's memory by trying to come up with the recipe for her spaghetti sauce together.  We set a date (because cooking sauce takes time and ingredients) and marked it on the calendar:  "The Leslie Walter Memorial Spaghetti Adventure".  In hindsight I wish I'd have called it a caper. 

Emma was in charge of meatballs.  But...she hurt her fingers and had bandaids on them, which she thought would not aid in the development of the appropriate flavors.  Also, she doesn't like touching raw meat.  So she supervised.  Sort of.  We had Leslie's recipe for the meatballs so their assembly was the least of my concerns.

I got my mother-in-law's recipe.  I got my former brother-in-law's tips.  And then...then I solicited the feedback of the good people of Facebook.  And they came through.  Here's a link to feedback in the event that you'd like to benefit from their collected wisdom:  Tell me everything you know about making spaghetti sauce.

What I knew already was this: 
  • Leslie did not like chunks, especially not tomato chunks (she hated tomatoes). This eliminated any advice involving diced/stewed/real tomatoes.
  • Leslie used red wine (at least a bit).  This...though somewhat grudgingly...steered me away from using vodka per one suggestion.
  • Leslie used tomato paste
  • Leslie used mild italian sausage links
  • Leslie used Contadina tomato sauce (5 - 29 oz cans)
  • Leslie didn't mind spice, but she didn't like it as much as I did. 

I then took what I knew and what I learned...and I started to cook. 

First I started the sauce.  I took an entire head of garlic, stripped it of its papery outer whateverthefuckthat's called and then garlic pressed it into a pot that had about two or three tablespoons of olive oil in it.  I cut up the italian links into about 1/2" pieces and dumped them in with the garlic.  Then I seasoned (salt and pepper) and browned the meat with the garlic and drained most of the fat.  Most.

I dumped the small can of tomato paste in the pot with a can of water and stirred and let it simmer for a couple minutes.  After that I dumped a cup of merlot in and let that simmer a few minutes.  Then I started adding cans of sauce.  After four I was a little concerned, but five fit. brother-in-law told me to cut the acidity of the tomato sauce with sugar.  He suggested 1 TBS/12 ounces of sauce.  I thought that was going to be awfully sweet, so I sort of compromised and put in two tablespoons of sugar per 29 ounce can.  His way would have been 12 tablespoons.  My way was 10.  Honestly...I'd probably cut that to 8 next time through.  But maybe not.

Okay...the spices.  Things get very sketchy here.  UNLIKE Leslie, I bought fresh herbs.  I just thought it made more sense.  I rinsed and dried then chopped up the herbs (basil and oregano primarily).  I can't tell you how much I used.  BUT...I can tell you the next time I do it, I'll just use dried.  Why?  Because, at least according to the recommendations on the fresh need three times as many fresh as dried, so when I was tweaking and fine tuning later...I needed soooooo much just to make any noticeable difference.  At the end I started rooting through the lazy susan looking for dried spices to add.  I added a couple shakes of crushed red peppers to spice it up a bit.

I made the meatballs in a big bowl and added them at this point.  
Here is a picture of my balls.

Oh...that brings me to the onion powder/flakes...As I was cooking, I was looking through the suggestions or maybe it was a message, I can't remember, and someone told me to use onion powder instead of sauteing the onions.  I had already decided that a "chunkless" sauce couldn't have onions, but I'd sorta forgotten about getting that taste in there.  So I added the onion powder then.  Also, the onion powder that I added did a really nice job of cutting some of the sweetness that was bothering me after I added the sugar.

My mother in law had suggested adding parmesan cheese, just a little, to the mix in order to keep the sauce from sticking to the sides of the pot.  I have no idea what merit this has scientifically...but I added it.  And it didn't stick.

Lots of the suggestions said that the longer I simmered, the better the sauce would turn out.  I started the process late, but I knew that Leslie's sauce simmered almost all day, so I finally pulled it off the burner around 9:30 or 10 that night.

Then I put it in containers...2/3 of it in the freezer, and the rest in the fridge for dinner on Tuesday.

And then Tuesday arrived...and I invited my in-laws to have dinner with the kids and I.

Emma skipped dance because she had a lot of catching up to do in Science.  There's more to this story, and it touches on how she's handling her grief at school, and I may talk about it at some point, but I think Science class has been receiving the lion's share of Emma's time contemplating her mom.  And I think that it's because it's a lot of talking about stuff that sometimes is dry and it puts her in a place where she daydreams.  And it's really hard to fault her for it.  But...we had a talk.

Anyway, that aside, I went upstairs to summon Emma for dinner and found her sitting on her bed, sad.

When I asked her what was wrong, the general impression I got was that it seemed "wrong" to eat mommy's spaghetti when mommy wasn't going to be there with us.  I too felt weirdly conflicted about this spaghetti sauce.  On the one hand, I was really trying to make it taste good.  You's cooking...that's what you want.  On the other hand, I was keenly aware of the possibility that it might be "better".  And that somehow liking the sauce better meant, or felt like it meant...supplanting Leslie's sauce and that felt disrespectful.  And it was a weird, like, "Okay, who needs Leslie now! Our sauce is better!"

Really the stated goal at the outset was "make mommy's" sauce, right?  But somewhere along the way I'd stopped trying to create what Leslie had created and started trying to "improve" on what Leslie had made.  I had:

  • added crushed red peppers
  • added fresh herbs instead of dried
  • used more wine than I thought she'd used
  • sauteed the garlic and sausage instead of dumping them in

It wasn't anything major...but they were definitely things that I thought would "make it better" versus make it the same.  Which is a weird way of sort of acknowledging that I got sidetracked along the way.  Somewhere along the line I stopped trying to make Leslie's sauce and started making "our" sauce.

Back to Emma.  She was near tears and we talked.  I asked her if this meant she was never eating spaghetti sauce again because her mom made it, because her mom had made a lot of things and if she was going to stop eating all of them it was really going to limit her diet.  She laughed.  I told her that if it had even been something we'd have thought about, mommy would have written down the recipe so we'd have it, but that it wasn't something we'd even thought about.  And then I told her what I blogged about...that every mom has their own sauce that they make, and that every kid likes his mom's sauce best.  And then I told her that mommy's sauce wasn't my favorite.  I told her that mommy had never really made it for me.  She'd made it for us.  I told her that it wasn't even her favorite, though she really liked it.  It was something she made that we could both enjoy, and it was something the whole family would eat.  And then I told her that maybe what we needed to do was not try to take mommy's sauce and make it ourselves, but to make "our" own sauce in the same way that mommy had first learned to make "our" sauce before we were married.  Then we wouldn't feel like we were replacing mommy's sauce...or by extension...mommy.

In the end there was this feeling of sort of..."I meant to do that" with regard to the fact that the sauce I'd made didn't taste exactly like Leslie's.  In the end there was a feeling that we can never replace or recreate Leslie's sauce just like we can never replace Leslie, and so let's not even try.  Let's just instead make "our" sauce. 

It was spicier.  It may have been a tad sweeter.  It may have been a bit bolder.  It wasn't Leslie's, but was perhaps reminiscent of it.  It was good.  Emma agreed.  Lily voiced her opinion non-verbally with a mostly empty bowl (but very full to begin with...).  I liked it.  My in-laws liked it. 

Our sauce then.  Leslie's can't be replaced.

Sure...I meant to do that.


Ingredients for Our Sauce:
5 - 29 oz cans Contadina Tomato Sauce
1 - 6 oz can Contadina tomato paste (plus one of water)
1 - head of garlic
3 - TBS olive oil
1 lb - mild italian sausage links
8 - 10 TBS sugar (I thought the sauce tasted sweet early on, but by the time it had simmered 4 hours and I'd added more onion powder, it was less so.  The end result was good, but I'd probably still cut it a bit)
onion powder
(spices to taste.  what i'd have done if I had all dried was essentially just cover the entire top of the sauce with spices and stir it in...check...adjust...stir...check...etc)
1 - cup red wine (Merlot used, but I'd probably have used Chianti if I'd have had one open)
1/3 cup parmesan cheese.

Ingredients/recipe for Leslie's meatballs
1 lb hamburger meat (if it was up to me, I'd probably mix pork/veal/hamburger)
1 cup italian spiced bread crumbs
4 - cloves garlic
1 - egg

(Leslie's recipe actually says salt and pepper to taste, which made me laugh, because it implied if the raw meat wasn't salty enough I should add do you find that out unless you eat the raw meat?)
onion flakes

Squish together until well-mixed.  Form into 1" diameter balls.  Dump into the pot raw and cook in the sauce.

(I told Emma that when I do it again I might use two eggs.  I was afraid the meatballs wouldn't hold together with just the one.  They seemed too dry.  And over the course of the cooking, I think a few of them did sort of disintegrate into the sauce, which might have made the sauce better, but depleted the ranks of the meatballs)

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