So You Want To Cook Italian

Have you decided where in this journey you're going? Don't know what you'd like to make? Is it your first venture down this road? Not a problem! If you can perform the basic steps involved in my recipe and supply the items don't skimp or shy away from any of those ingredients because you'll change the result and then I can't make any guarantees, but if you follow my outline your guests will be delighted and even you may be surprised!

There are probably very few people in the USA not familiar with Italian cuisine. It's in virtually every town, city, village, hamlet and burg across the continent. But how many really have eaten something wonderful? You my friend can create that dish at home and it's not all that hard. Just knowing how to put together the list of ingredients will place you well ahead of most. In some Italian families part of the traditional Sunday dinner is the gravy and we peons normally think of it as a spaghetti sauce. I'm going to explain how to produce a sauce with velvety texture, an aroma that entices and a flavor that will make your friends beg you for some to take home.

Lets make an assumption that you have cutting boards, knives, decent cookware and access to more than a corner grocery. First off, don't try this with a naked aluminum pot. The acids in the tomato base will produce unpleasant after tastes. I use nonstick pots and pans in my kitchen almost exclusively. The nonstick coating is inert to acids and is perfect for what we are about to begin.

You'll need a nice size saute pan and an 8 quart stock pot. Again, I use a nonstick stock pot and nonstick saute pan because they're easy to work large volumes of food in and they clean up in a snap. Yes, I generally do a lot of my own cleaning. It keeps you grounded in the reality of life in a kitchen and stops you from taking your help for granted. Nonstick pots and pans have a forgiving feature that allows you to stir less vigilantly and I'm inherently lazy if I can get away with it.

So now you need to go shopping! I want you to get everything on the list and then we'll start the preparation work.

  • 28 ounce can of crushedplum tomatoes...don't use a store brand if you can help it. Look for tomatoes that were canned with some basil leaf if you can find it.
  • 28 ounce can of pureedplum tomatoes
  • 6 ounce can of tomato paste
  • 1 lb hot Italian sausage..don't worry about the heat. It will moderate in the sauce.
  • 1 lb beef, pork, veal ground meat mix...if you can find grass fed the flavor is best.
  • 4 cups of Cremini mushrooms coarsely chopped
  • 1 large yellow bell pepper chopped into inch pieces
  • 1 large white onion chopped the same
  • 1 large stick of celery chopped the same
  • 9 cloves crushed garlic (a garlic press works best)
  • 1 cup of dry red wine & 1 glass to drink...cook only with what you drink!
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon basil
  • 1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
  • teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • teaspoon white pepper
  • 4 large bay leaves

Cut the sausage into 1 inch pieces and brown in your saute pan with enough olive oil to cover the pan bottom. When done set aside in a dish lined with paper towels. Break up the ground meat so that it's somewhat loose. Add a heavy pinch of the salt and black pepper, then saute until browned and set aside with the sausage. Depending on the meat you used, you may have an excess of fat in the pan. If so you'll need to discard the majority of the fat. Leave just enough to continue sauteing your other ingredients. Add olive oil sparingly if required to maintain a light oil base for sauteing your ingredients.

Into the same pan place the onion and saute until translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook until the onions have just begun to show some color. Then add the bell pepper, celery and garlic and continue to saute until the bell pepper and celery are softened. At this point add the cup of red wine to gather in all those flavors from the meats, mushrooms and vegetables and cook until it comes to a high simmer. Remove from the heat and transfer to your waiting stock pot. Add all three cans of your tomato product and bring to a low simmer.

Once you have the sauce simmering add all of the herbs and spices...if you want to be anal like me, try tying the bay leaves together in a loose little bundle, because you'll be removing them later. Never leave little surprises like a bay leaf behind for your dinner guest to fish out of his or her plate. It's not very classy, plus you don't want to get a bay leaf stuck in your throat. It'll take three glasses of wine to make it better! Trust me.

Now, you've essentially cooked nearly everything you bought, but we're not done. Cover the stock pot and reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Keep your eye on that pot and stir thoroughly, frequently and from the bottom up to make certain nothing is trying to stick. This is one of many reasons I specify the use of nonstick pots and pans in general. If you're using a nonstick stock pot, you still want to stir occasionally, but it's not as critical as when using a naked stainless steel stock pot. If stainless is what you've got, then you'll need to be more vigilant with stirring the sauce. I recommend using a semi rigid utensil with a flat, angled face so that you can be certain you're actually scraping the pot bottom clean on each pass when stirring. comes the part when we're getting ready to recombine the meat into the sauce, but I did say getting ready! The real trick to turning what already is a great sauce into something amazing was traditionally performed using a food mill. This was usually a two person process if you were lucky. The sauce was slowly ladled out of the pot into the hand cranked mill poised over a large bowl. The result after another 35 or 40 minutes of hard work was a velvety smooth sauce loaded with aroma and flavor! I did say I'm lazy right? Well we're not doing least not that way. In order to produce virtually the same effect in under 5 minutes without removing the sauce from the pot, you will need an immersion blender. Now don't freak out and panic! If you don't own one they are fairly cheap and once you've played with one there's no turning back! Mine is stainless steel and has an easy to use and clean assembly. You can get one just like it for about $30 so it's not going to threaten your bank account too severely.

Turn the heat as low as it will go and remove the bay leaves. Using your immersion blender, starting from the bottom and slowly using the blender to stir the pot, puree your sauce. Be careful not to lift the blender too high or it will splash sauce all over the place! Also be careful not to press down onto the pot bottom if you're using a nonstick stock pot. Mine are pretty tough and occasionally running the stainless blender base across the surface doesn't hurt it in the least, but some surfaces are touchier than others so be careful. Once you're satisfied with the smoothness of the sauce, add the meats left waiting in the bowl and return your sauce to a low simmer. Ten minutes at simmer and you're done. The sauce is ready to serve!

I would suggest a Caesar salad with a homemade dressing. Don't serve bottled dressings to your guests. They'll ruin the atmosphere of an authentic Italian dinner. Garlic toast made from fresh Italian bread is essential. I'll tell you how to make both dressing and garlic toast later. Right now, consider serving this sauce over a fresh spinach pasta if you can find it. Linguini would be my preference. If fresh pasta isn't readily available, several of the more famous name brands make lovely multihued spaghetti's and linguini's. I like the green spinach pasta because of the subtle flavors and it looks pretty on the plate! You'll also want some fresh grated, aged Parmesan to generously sprinkle onto each guests plate. I normally provide a small bowl of Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh ground for my guests to freely spoon onto their dinner as they like.

The final element in your Italian dinner entre should be Chianti. It doesn't have to be expensive, but please don't get a gallon box either. The Chianti will complement the flavors of the sauce and your guests will complement you. Get them to reciprocate with meals of their own and who knows where it may all lead!

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