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    Tomato Sauces and Pestos
       excerpted from The Sauce Bible: Guide to the Saucier's Craft

    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 Escoffier’s 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 dessert."

    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 world’s 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. Spain’s possession of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, from 1500 until 1700, explains how pomi dei moro (Italian for "Moor’s apples") migrated to the Italian peninsula. In the late eighteenth century, when it was introduced into Paris, to a Frenchman’s ears, "porno dei moro" sounded similar to pomme d’amour, hence the colloquial name "love apple."


    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 didn’t have meat; and Bolognese was the one with meat.

    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 Alfredo’s, a restaurant in Rome), Spaghetti Carbonara (the charcoal maker’s 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 haven’t had the pleasure of dining at Alfredo’s. But Spaghetti Carbonara is the charcoal maker’s 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 retreats—spaghetti, 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 it’s 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 "harlot’s pasta," got its name from the speed with which it could be made—that 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-digger’s Style), Penne all’Arrabbiata ("Angry" style), and Maccheroni alla Carrettiera (Teamster’s Style) are all dishes so highly spiced with both pepper and garlic that supposedly only a virile "he-man" could handle the heat.

    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 paste—a 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 cooking—sauces, pasta, and so on—that 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 one’s own preferences.

    When working with this palate of edibles, there are a handful of important guidelines that will ensure favorable results. These are as follows:

    • 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 sauces—though there are a few exceptions—and 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 water—1 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 luxury.)

    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.

    The Sauce Bible: Guide to the Saucier's Craft
    The Sauce Bible: Guide to the Saucier's Craft

    A complete contemporary reference on the subject of stocks and sauces, including complete instructions for creating ``arabesques'' of sauce paintings. Features anecdotes, miniature biographies regarding several major and minor contributors to modern cooking techniques as well as historical and linguistic references to specific dishes. Numerous sauces and accompaniments created by other culinary professionals are also included.


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