How many ways are there to prepare a basic tomato sauce? Probably as many as there are grandmothers in Italy. My mom has her recipe, always a throwback to my childhood. Sofagirl a while ago posted a wildly popular one by Marcella Hazan . The farther south one travels down the Italian boot, the more garlic and spices are added.
But now I live in LA and my personal cooking is morphing a bastard child of two cultures – or three or four. Some of my LA based Italian girlfriends have stayed very attached to the way things are done “in the old country” and, in many instances, I can relate to that. You will not find me drizzling balsamic on a Caprese (a special anathema to my friend Luisa), nor will I ever finish a risotto with cream (nor will I ever order one in a restaurant). And don’t get me started on the quest for the perfect pizza (best, so far, Olio’s on Beverly Boulevard).
In many other respects, though, I am open to experimentation. California is blessed with a bounty of fruit, vegetables and spices that are not often available in Italy, so why restrict myself? It’s not out of necessity anymore that Italians modify their food – when emigration started in earnest at the dawn of the last century, mammas had to make do with what was available, and hence the birth of what I call “New Jersey Italian cooking” – let’s just say not one of my favourites.
I experiment with very un-Italian ingredients because it’s fun and, sometimes, the results are lovely. Take chile peppers for example. Since working in a professional kitchen alongside many Mexicans, I have discovered all manners of chiles and often wondered how I went through life without chipotle, a divine inspired ingredient that makes anything, from sweet potatoes to chocolate, more interesting. Last night I felt like pasta with tomato sauce but didn’t want to use butter, and going the simple olive oil/onion/garlic/tomato route seemed a bit boring. Enter Ancho Chile powder.
Ancho is a poblano pepper that has been dried and ground. Anyone with access to poblanos can make their own powder which, by the way, is a main ingredient of mole, but the powder can be easily purchased anywhere (on line, Penzeys and Amazon have it). Ancho chile is not particularly spicy but adds depth and a touch of smokiness to sauces. I tried a little pinch in my tomato sauce. Then I added a pinch more, just enough for a subtle taste but not so much to render the sauce unrecognizable. Everyone at the table agreed it was delicious – nobody could pinpoint what the secret ingredient was.
1 large onion, chopped
2 cans of tomatoes (whole or diced), with their juices
1 T honey or sugar
2 ts ancho chile powder
3 or 4 T of white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
5 T olive oil (or canola)
- Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and let cook on medium-high heat until soft, but now brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, honey (or sugar), ancho chile powder, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and let the mixture bubble until thickened, about 20 to 30 minutes.
- Let cool and pour in a blender. Add the vinegar and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Cook your pasta of choice, pour some of the sauce on it, heat everything quickly and serve.
- The sauce serves up to 12 portions.