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It’s All About The Sauce—Barbara Worton Repeats History

It’s All About The Sauce — Barbara Worton Repeats History

If the Italian-American side — my mother’s side of my family — had a coat of arms, it would be an overhead shot of a bubbling pot of tomato sauce with the upper righthand quadrant festooned with meatballs, the lower right sausages (both hot and sweet), and on the opposite side, short ribs bottom left and bresaola at the top. In the center, a rosette of spaghetti.

My grandmother made exceptional, delicious, rich, deeply-seasoned tomato sauce that coated and clung to pasta. So did my mother, and now I do too. Making this sauce is a sacred ritual — christening, communion, confirmation. It is the coming together of spices, olive oil, tomatoes, meats, onions, peppers, mushrooms and maybe a little vino. I do not use sugar. Never. 

My first step in making pasta sauce is to put on my running shoes. I will be on my feet a long time and want to stand tall. I do not consult a recipe — have never had one. Tomato sauce flows through my veins. Then, on goes my red and white apron, over my head. Out comes the Dutch oven, the wooden spoons, the bowls, knives and cutting boards. All the tools take their place at the back of my kitchen island where I can reach them once it’s their turn to take centerstage. I press play on my latest audiobook.

On the right-hand side of my kitchen island, I stack the meats: ground beef and pork, sausages hot and mild and boneless short ribs. If I’m feeling adventurous, and it’s a holiday, I add flank steak to pound, flavor with pine nuts, raisins and Parmesan and roll and tie into bresaola. Grated Parmesan and Romagna cheeses go on the left, with the eggs. In the middle of the island, garlic — lots of it, salt, red pepper flakes, oregano, parsley, a bay leaf, basil, onions, mushrooms, yellow and orange peppers (I don’t like green peppers.), olive oil and unseasoned organic breadcrumbs. Behind me on the counter next to the stove go three cans of organic crushed tomatoes, a tube of organic tomato paste and any left-over very good wine that might be in the refrigerator. 

I don’t know how much I use of any of these ingredients. I just cook. I drop the short ribs into the Dutch oven with a little olive oil and a little of each of the spices. They take about four minutes a side to sear and brown nicely. That gives me time to chop the sausages into pieces. Ribs done, I take them out of the pan and toss in the sausages. While they brown, I cut the short ribs into nice chunks and put them to one side. I pound the flank steak, shake some cheese, raisins, pine nuts, salt and pepper, roll and tie them with butcher’s string. I swap the sausages in the pot for the bresaola and brown them, only a few minutes. That’s when I chop a large onion and add it to the bowl of ground beef and pork. Then, in go the Parmesan and Romagna, the breadcrumbs and parsley, some of the garlic and as many eggs as I need to knead it altogether so I can roll perfect balls. 

The bresaola come out of the pot, and I stand them on a plate. I drain off the excess fat, add a splash of olive oil, let it warm and place the meatballs in one by one. As they brown, I turn them gingerly so that they do not burn or flatten out on one side. This is not easy, usually a two wooden spoon operation, and I watch the meatballs carefully to make sure I get them out of the pan and onto a paper towel to drain before they are overdone. It’s time for the rest of the garlic, spices, mushrooms, peppers and another onion to go into the pot. I stir. They soften. The tomatoes go in, followed by a very, very little squeeze of the tomato paste. To not leave any tomatoes behind, I splash a little wine into each empty can, swish it around and dump it in the pot. I spoon the meats back in. Stir. Sometimes add peas. Put on the lid to the pot. Bring it to a fast boil, immediately turn the heat down to low and let it simmer away for hours. I taste it after it’s been cooking for about an hour and adjust the spices as needed. I keep an extra can of tomatoes ready just in case I need a little more. 

In my grandmother’s kitchen, making sauce was a multi-fronted military maneuver. She cooked for thirty people on most Sundays and led her troops, her five daughters. They took orders, chopped, carried, watched and learned. Granddaughters, once we were old enough, were conscripted into service too. My grandmother never passed down her pasta sauce recipe from one generation to the next. We apprenticed and then each made the sauce our own. I think about all those pasta dinners in my grandparents’, parents’, aunts’ and uncles’ houses, while I stand over my stove. I know I am stirring history and serve up my al dente fusilli with three meats sauce with a smile and so much pride.