Deconstructing Mom’s home cooking
I am a child of the 1950s, the daughter of a woman who grew up hardscrabble-poor in Depression-era North Texas and went on to learn “modern” cooking and menu planning from Betty Crocker, and a man whose idea of Real Food involved meat, potatoes, and vegetables boiled all day (wtih fatback) on the back of the stove. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle I like food at all.
Take pasta: When I was a kid, we never heard the word, for one thing. It was spaghetti, or macaroni, or noodles, and it came in one of three forms: With red sauce, with American cheese, or as filler in the dish mom called “slumgully” (hamburger, celery, dried onion flakes and canned mushrooms, simmered in her biggest skillet with a sauce made of nothing but ketchup and pan juices, and served over enough flat egg noodles to fill up four hungry kids when there was more month left than money. We loved it. We were kids. What can I say?)
Spaghetti was a big deal, because (in those days before the coming of Ragu), mom made her own sauce, cooking it all day long on the back of the stove. It was mostly canned tomato sauce, canned tomato paste and a little bit of onion. No garlic – my dad didn’t like it. Herbs: Oregano and thyme, from jars that sat on the back of the stove and had about as much flavor as the dust that clung to their surfaces. Hamburger (because it wasn’t a proper meal without meat, except on Fridays), either cooked down until it became one with the sauce, or (for special occasions) formed into meatballs as big as a child’s fist, bound together with egg and corn-flake crumbs.
I don’t want to slander my mother. She actually had a pretty adventurous palate – I can remember her dragging six-year-old me and my little brother through the back streets of the Japanese town near the airbase where we were stationed, and egging us on to sample raw fish, strange soups and exotic vegetables. It’s just that she considered it her job to get three meals a day on the table for a picky husband and four ravenous kids, so she stuck with what was safe, filling – and bland.
Still, some tastes form early, and I do have a taste for pasta with meaty red sauce. Over the years, though, I’ve discovered the joys of sauces that aren’t cooked all day long, that include fresh ingredients and herbs and spices. The result is still comfort food, but it’s comfort food with flavor. Mom, rest her soul, would approve.
This past weekend, I hauled my visiting sweetie down to the market with me. We picked up strawberries, and scones, and a pound of the most excellent breakfast sausage from Wood Family Farm. If you’re an Albany Farmers’ Market habitué you’ve probably tasted or at least smelled it; Dan Wood likes to keep a skillet of sausage simmering at his booth to tempt passersby, and tempting stuff it is, lean and well-seasoned. We took our sausage home and set it out to thaw, thinking to have it for Sunday breakfast. But we wound up going out for breakfast instead, my sweetie took the train back to Seattle – and here I was with a pound of sausage that needed cooking.
And though the weather forecast calls for unseasonable heat by week’s end, it’s still chilly tonight, so I came home from work and went straight for the comfort food: Pasta with an easy, flavorful sauce that took hardly any effort to prepare.
You may not have oven-roasted tomatoes in your freezer. I was kind of surprised to discover that I did – I thought I’d used the last container from the 2007 harvest. I was delighted to find I still had about a pint of the stuff – but it’s not essential. You can make this with fresh tomatoes (well, not quite yet, perhaps), or with canned tomatoes, or sun-dried tomatoes. It’s hard to go wrong. And you can substitute the heck out of the ingredients, too.
Pasta with easy, meaty red sauce
- 1 pound lean,bulk breakfast sausage, locally made if you can find it
- Half a small onion, diced
- A few (or more) cloves of garlic, minced
- A generous handful of fresh mushrooms (if you like them), coarsely chopped
- 2 cups oven-roasted tomatoes, OR any combination of
- Ripe, meaty tomatoes, chopped coarsely
- Sun-dried tomatoes, reconstituted in a little hot water (or if you’re using the kind that’s packed in oil, drained)
- Canned, diced tomatoes. I like the low-salt ones
- Handful of fresh basil, chopped (I skipped this, because I use a ton of basil in my oven-roasted tomatoes)
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- Pasta of your choice (I used rotini)
- Good grated parmesan, not the tasteless stuff in the green can
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, break up the sausage with a wooden spoon, and stir around a bit to start it browning. Stir in the onion, garlic and mushrooms, turn the heat down low, and put a lid on the pan (I don’t have a lid that fits my skillet, so I use a pizza pan).
Go away for 10 minutes or so. A pocket oven timer comes in handy if you’re prone to getting distracted answering your e-mail.
Come back, give everything a stir. The onions and garlic should be soft by now, the mushrooms looking cooked, and the sausage pretty well cooked through. Dump in tomatoes-of-your-choice. Add herbs. Stir, cover, and go away for another 10 minutes or so.
When you come back, put a big pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Taste the sauce (don’t burn your tongue!) and correct the seasoning if necessary. It should be starting to taste like sauce, rather than its component parts, but will probably be pretty watery. Remove the lid, give it another stir, turn the heat back up to medium and let it simmer and sputter while you cook the pasta according to the package directions.
By the time the pasta is done and drained, the sauce should have reduced down a bit and thickened some. If it’s not quite ready, no worry, just toss the noodles with a little olive oil so they don’t stick while you finish the sauce. When it looks and tastes ready, ladle it generously over the noodles, sprinkle with a little parmesan, and enjoy.
This takes all of about 30 minutes to prepare, and very little of that is spent at the stove. The quantity described here could serve 2-4 people, depending on how hungry they are, and if you need to feed more, just do what mom did: Cook more noodles.