Chapter 10- Tomato Sauces and Pestos
Though tomato sauce is the fifth and last of the five mother sauces,
there are only a handful of classical derivatives within this category,
making it somewhat different than the other four foundation sauces.
In addition, the traditional French tomato sauce (as originally
set forth in Escoffiers Guide Culinaire) is thickened with
a butter roux. Since tomato sauces are most commonly associated
with Italian cuisine, and in particular, as an accompaniment for
pasta, the French-style roux-thickened tomato sauce has always seemed
to be a contradiction to the true nature of tomato sauces. Not only
is the presence of flour a redundant use of carbohydrate, the very
essence of a hearty tomato sauce is a purée of the ingredients.
In the late eighteenth century, a New York food importer claimed
duty-free status on a shipment of tomatoes from the West Indies.
He argued that since tomatoes were anatomically a fruit, as per
the import regulations of that time, they were not subject to import
fees. The customs agent disagreed, and imposed a 10 percent duty
on the shipment, designated as vegetables. The case went as far
as the New York State Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the
customs agency, on the grounds of traditional linguistic usage.
Tomatoes, held the majority, are "usually served at dinner,
in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the
principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as
Armed with the mother sauce matrix we were taught in culinary school,
we later learned of the multitude of regional tomato sauce varieties,
illustrating that Italian sauces were not organized in any fashion
similar to the French sauce system. In fact, Italian sauces (and
cooking) are not organized at all, but disorganized, passionate,
and emotionally intense, a reflection, perhaps, of the collective
personality and temperament of one of the worlds oldest cultures.
This is not a negative evaluation of the Italian cooking traditions.
Rather, it is an embrace of a uniquc history that has fostered a
passionate and spontaneous style of preparing the foods indigenous
to the Mediterranean, one of the most bountiful regions of the world.
Tomato sauces were not a part of Italian cookery until the sixteenth
century, when the Spanish explorers returned from the New World
with them. Europeans were slow to accept the strange and acidic
fruit, and it did not become common fare in Italy before 1830. So
for the more than two millennia before the introduction of the tomato,
there is considerable ground to cover, in order to gain an understanding
of Italian sauces and how they fit in with Italian cooking styles.
Tomatoes were unknown in Europe until the sixteenth century, when
Spanish explorers returned from South America with them. Spains
possession of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, from 1500 until
1700, explains how pomi dei moro (Italian for "Moors
apples") migrated to the Italian peninsula. In the late eighteenth
century, when it was introduced into Paris, to a Frenchmans
ears, "porno dei moro" sounded similar to pomme damour,
hence the colloquial name "love apple."
A PHILOSOPHICAL WOK AT ITALIAN COOKERY
In commercial cookery, there are a handful of tomato sauces that
until recently have been passed along as the sauces typical of Italian
fare, at least as they were transported to the New World. But just
as chow mein is unknown in China, the Spanish paella rarely includes
seafood (unless in the style of Valencia), and the best French food
is that of the peasantry (historically unable to afford cream or
butter), we can conclude that the Italian fare we know in the United
States may be corruptions of true Italian cuisine. Of course, this
has changed considerably in the last generation, partially due to
a proliferation of very fine and technically accurate cookbooks
and recipe collections.
Nevertheless, in the restaurant trade, sauces Amatriciana, Bolognese,
Marinara, and Napoletana have long been standard restaurant offerings,
and will probably remain as such, in spite of the fact that even
the true ingredients of these dishes are eternally disputed and
debated by cookbook authors of Italian origin. Typically, Amatriciana
was the tomato sauce made with pancetta (rolled up Italian bacon);
Marinara was quick and simple plus some seafood (sometimes); Napoletana
was simple or complex (depending on the recipe version and the region),
but definitely didnt have meat; and Bolognese was the one
A further study of the true nature of Italian cookery uncovered
another level of dishes, among them Linguine Vongole (clam sauce),
Fettucine Alfredo (created at Alfredos, a restaurant in Rome),
Spaghetti Carbonara (the charcoal makers spaghetti), and Pasta
Primavera (with miniature spring vegetables). These dishes, like
the common sauces, were also corruptions of their true nature. I
cannot speak for Senior Alfredo, since his is a fairly modern addition
to the Italian repertoire, and I havent had the pleasure of
dining at Alfredos. But Spaghetti Carbonara is the charcoal
makers mainstay, a dish prepared in the mountains where the
charcoal makers retreat for days at a time to carefully burn the
mountain hardwoods, creating charcoal drawing utensils for the artists
of the world. They bring with them essentially nonperishable ingredients
which become a dish these artisans subsist on during their retreatsspaghetti,
olive oil, black pepper, pancetta, an egg or two, and a hunk of
Parmesan cheese. There is no cream, butter, olives, or prosciutto
in the dish, as many a restaurant insists on adding. Anything outside
of the original dish, as its made by the charcoal makers,
should be given another name.
Pasta Primavera is another victim of restaurateurs best intentions
to make a beautiful dish "better" for their dining patrons.
Primavera is like the French printinière, the young first
growth of succulent miniature vegetables grown during the spring.
Dishes (French or Italian) so named are a reverent celebration of
the end of winter, and the start of another growing season. Sliced
"horse" carrots, chunks of zucchini and yellow squash,
and quartered mushrooms, bound in a flour-thickened white sauce,
smothered with a mound of grated cheese, is as clear a case of gastronomic
sacrilege as claiming that margarine possesses a "buttery taste."
The next major revelation regarding cuccina Italiano was that Parmesan
cheese was not intended to be grated over absolutely everything
in that realm. Bread crumbs, for example, often toasted in a pan
with olive oil, were also an important seasoning element. A typically
Sicilian dish, for example, was pasta with anchovies and bread crumbs.
The sauce consisted of garlic fried in olive oil, blended with tomato
paste and anchovies, and tossed with spaghetti. The bread crumbs,
toasted by sautéing in olive oil, along with chopped parsley,
were then sprinkled over the top.
Other dishes with intriguing sounding names had even more intriguing
stories to go along with them. Pasta Puttanesca, or "harlots
pasta," got its name from the speed with which it could be
madethat is, one that could be made between clients, or a
quick dish made by a wife for her husband after an afternoon matinee
with her lover. The sauce consisted of olive oil, garlic, plum tomatoes,
olives, capers, salt, and parsley, all tossed with spaghettini (the
thinner the pasta, the shorter the cooking time), and is prepared
in about 15 minutes. Bucatini Briganteschi (Highwayman Style) was
so named for a benevolent coiithern Italian outlaw known solely
by the name Giuliano; Spaghetti alla Buccaniera (Buccaneer Style),
Ravioli alla Zappatora (Ditch-diggers Style), Penne allArrabbiata
("Angry" style), and Maccheroni alla Carrettiera (Teamsters
Style) are all dishes so highly spiced with both pepper and garlic
that supposedly only a virile "he-man" could handle the
There are stories behind the names of the pastas themselves as
well. Spaghetti was derived from "spago," meaning cord,
linguine came from "lingua," meaning tongue, refer ring
to the oval shape of the noodle, and lasagna was derived from lasanum,
meaning "big pot"; ravioli was derived from "rabiole,"
meaning scraps of little value, referring to the leftover food chopped
up and wrapped in small pasta pillows by the sailors of Genoa during
their longer voyages; tagliatelle was invented in 1487 by a Bolognese
cook in imitation of the hair of Lucrezia B orgia.
The final chapter is the pesto movement, already a part of the
west coast repertoire, which later picked up momentum as it was
adopted in the East. In truth, pesto has no direct relation to basil,
but is derived from the Latin word pestare, meaning "to pound,"
from which is derived pestle, the grinding tool used with a stone
bowl (a mortar), and in which various herbs and spices are ground
into a pastea pesto. "Pistou," for example, a bean,
pasta, and vegetable soup unique to Provence (southern France),
includes an olive oil, tomato, garlic, and basil paste that is added
to the soup just before serving. We can now find numerous herbal
and nut pesto sauces used to dress any number of pasta dishes.
As for the quartet of tomato sauces most familiar in commercial
cooking, they cannot be considered in the same way as the French
mother sauces. They are simply commonly accepted corruptions of
a handful of sauces from a cuisine that has emigrated into our melting
pot cuisine. But we do begin to understand the nature of Italian
cookingsauces, pasta, and so onthat it is more a style
and approach than a grand organized system. In fact, pasta, and
the sauce that dresses it, represents a very creative moment in
the kitchen. The choice of noodle must first be made, based on the
character and texture of the sauce that accompanies it. And the
number of choices are enormous, in spite of the fact that our choices
are limited to the varieties which manufacturers and importers decide
are the most popular. In Italy, every town and village boasts its
own shapes and names for pastas unique to that area. But the ingredients
for the sauce can be made up based on ingredients available at the
time a dish is made. And that sauce can be created at the moment
one decides to create it. Giuliano Bugialli, for example, divides
his book Bugialli on Pasta into chapter titles as follows: Pasta
with Beans, Pasta with Vegetables, Pasta with Fish, Pasta with Meat
and Game (followed by regional and flavored pastas, a chapter on
gnocchi, couscous and other grains, and desserts). In practice,
there is no limit to the combinations and varieties of sauces that
can be innovated. One works with inventiveness and imagination guided
by availability of ingredients and ones own preferences.
When working with this palate of edibles, there are a handful of
important guidelines that will ensure favorable results. These are
Use only fresh, local ingredients.
A quality dried pasta, made from durum semolina (the hard
wheat that makes the best pasta), is generally superior to fresh
pasta, which requires as little as 1 minute of cooking time. Fresh
pasta lacks the chewy (al dente) quality that comes from semolina
flour, and fresh pasta absorbs the juices and liquids of the sauce
that dresses it too rapidly.
"One should not indiscriminately sprinkle Parmigiano
over everything if all dishes are not to melt into an unappealing
sameness," writes Giuliano Bugialli. "Generally, cheese
is not used with fish, game, or mushroom saucesthough there
are a few exceptionsand rarely in dishes with hot red peppers."
When using grated cheese, always grate your own.
Pasta must be cooked in rapidly boiling, lightly salted
water. It should be stirred for the first couple of minutes, to
prevent the pasta from sticking to itself, until the water returns
to a boil.
Use plenty of water1 gallon per pound of pasta.
Cook the pasta just before it is to be served. Avoid precooking
and reheating. (Large production houses cannot always afford this
Olive oil is often added to the water for cooking pasta, based
on the supposition that it will prevent the pasta from sticking
together. This is a misconception, since the oil floats on top of
the water and has little interaction with the noodles. The true
reason for adding olive oil (or plain vegetable oil), is that it
prevents the water from boiling over. In large production cooking
(10 to 40 pounds of pacta at one time), this is a valid step, even
with sufficient space between the water and the top edge of the
pot. Nevertheless, the author recommends adding a small amount of
olive oil (a tablespoon or two) to a pot of boiling water, as a
spiritual ingredient, one of many mystical little tricks of the
trade that adds a subtle and undefinable characteristic to a dish.