Wednesday, February 5, 2014

FAKE SAUCE (sugo di scapatto, sort of)

I spent December, 1971 in Rome, visiting a girlfriend from Philadelphia. She was enrolled in a junior-year-abroad and I had spent the first of two years on a Scottish island writing poetry, drinking and smoking dope; getting over a war. It was just as cold and wet in the Eternal City and very crowded with Christmas shoppers. Some of the piazzas were ringed with green plywood booths selling celebration foods; I particularly remember enormous slabs of chocolate and nougat.

Timing is everything. In the midst of our romantic month, her parents flew in for a surprise visit. Her father, a psychiatrist, had gone to medical school in the Eternal City. We had to make arrangements to reassure him of the security of her virtue. The arrangements, of course, were rearrangements. More specifically, I was to stay out of sight except when I was specifically  invited. They needed a lot of family time. Whether or not he knew what we were up to, he certainly knew the city well and very kindly included me for a few of their outings.

On the days when I was not included I felt very sorry for myself and wandered the damp and windy city with a small cassette player listening to "After the Gold Rush"; both the rain and Neal Young's whiny voice provided the perfect soundtrack for my misery. But what a place to be miserable: I kept returning to the Capitoline hill, overlooking the Forum. I think that there were orange trees with fruit. In Rome with Christmas approaching. Enjoying my Roman Holiday.

When I did join them it was for meals that are still vivid in my memory. One day we went to a place outside of the city. I can't remember why, but I was the designated driver of the rental car. Driving in Rome during the evening rush was the third most terrifying experience of my life; at one point we were stopped for a light and on the curb was an actual one-eyed cat staring at me, very tough looking. There is an entire feral cat culture in the ruins throughout the city. I felt the scorn.

We arrived at the restaurant which was deep in an ancient cellar. There was no menu but they gave us everything. First, an aperitivo, wine, then a platter of cured meats and cheeses, wine, then a vat of spaghetti with a plain but perfect marinara, wine, then a huge assortment of grilled meats: beef steak, pork chops and both beef and pork liver, various sausages and chicken, wine, then (for those still able) a salad, wine, and finally, a digestivo. Everything was perfectly delicious. The meal, which went on for hours eclipsed my nervousness and on the way back to Rome, I drove like an Italian.

I won't  describe my other meals except to say that I found a different experience of food than I had known. In fact, although it took decades for it to sink in, the foundations of my culinary identity were being laid. The first principle of this identity is, "Everyone should be able to eat like a Roman." Food is simply much more important to the Italian than to the American.

In the end, on New Year's Eve, I shared a train compartment with a young German I had met. I was headed through Switzerland and across France to Calais and the ferry to Dover. My friend was only going across the Swiss border under a deportation order because of his day job. He drove luxury cars  to the market in Istanbul. As it happened, his employer did not own these cars.

Outside of the hamburger, nothing comforts me as completely as pasta in almost any form. Eaten for at least 4,000 years with western literary references from BCE Greece. The earliest record of boiled pasta is in the Talmud but people had been eating forms in China much earlier. There are so many different theories about how pasta might have been introduced from one culture to another that I have to conclude that it arose, independently, everywhere that grain was milled (or, in fact, where any starch was consumed).

4,000 year-old noodles with Chinese dirt

I love all varieties of pasta, although not equally, from Vietnamese glass noodles made from canna lily starch to Mueller's elbows made from bleached, bromated, "enriched" and extruded wheat flour. I like it stuffed, in broth, fried into rangoons, baked in lasagna (and even the baked spaghetti at the S&W cafeteria), boiled and tossed with butter and black pepper, boiled and then sauteed, or pushed through a ricer into a simmering stew as spaetzle.

Sometimes we just want pasta with red sauce and what follows is my approach. The sauce I make is based on a recipe by Giovanni Bugialli, a great chef and writer who inspired me through the 1980's. His intention was Sugo di Scapatto, meat sauce from which the meat has escaped. The sauce is normally meatless, hence the name. An alternate meaning is "fake sauce" because it is often a meat sauce without the meat. His version included veal stock. The one I made yesterday included ground beef simply because we had some in the fridge. His sauce was a revelation to me and the techniques I learned form the basis for a great number of my dishes.

red sauce ingredients                    brigid burns

My approach depends on a soffritto or a mirepoix, a seasoned vegetable mix: celery and onion and garlic . I add parsely and carrots (which is a bit Frenchy) for their sweetness. I think the size of the chop is important and for this sauce, I like a mince, which is pretty small (see below). For other dishes I might want these ingredients to remain separate and cut them into chunks. 

This time I began by cooking ground beef until all of the pink was gone. As it cooked, I broke the meat into the smallest pieces I could by stabbing it over and over with a wooden spoon. When the meat had all gone brown I added the soffritto, seasoned it lightly with salt and pepper, and cooked it slowly for about a half hour until all of the vegetables were soft and brown, If it seems that the sauce is too dry and might burn, a splash of water slows everything down.

Next, I added a glass of red wine (enough to lift the solids into a shallow soup) and cooked the mix slowly until it absorbed the liquid and had become almost dry again. Then I added an equal amount, or more of stock (in this case, a mix of veal and beef stocks). If you haven't got any of your own, the next best thing is to get 2 quarts of an organic stock and reduce it to one. It will cook for quite a while so there is no need to reduce it in advance. As the stock simmers into the mixture, add the seasoning that you choose. In this case I used a mix of oregano, marjoram and red pepper flakes.

When the stock had also been absorbed I added a large (28 oz.) can of the best tomatoes I could find. I prefer the whole peeled variety although you can use crushed or "chefs cut" if you wish.  I pour the juice into the pot and squeeze the tomatoes through my fingers. Now it is time to begin tasting for balance. This batch needed quite a bit of adjustment as the tomatoes were a little flat: I used lemon juice to raise the tartness, soy sauce for umami, or savory roundness, honey to balance the tart, heat from the pepper and just enough salt to bloom the flavors. It shouldn't actually taste salty, but the right amount opens your palate to the full savoriness of a dish.

From this point it is all about personal taste, tune it until you like it. Then it is time and low heat until all the flavors meld. It improves with an overnight rest. When you reheat the sauce taste it again until it pleases you. This works well with most pasta shapes, I like it with bucatini for a long pasta and penne rigate for a short  version.
Dinner        by brigid burns

Heat the sauce in a large frying pan while the pasta is cooking in a separate pot of salted water. When it is done, net it out with a spider, a skimmer or a slotted spoon into the sauce and turn it over and over to coat the pasta. If necessary, use a ladle of pasta water to thin a sauce that has become too thick.

Mange, mange!



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