Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mamma Mia, Ats'a Spicy Hallway!

As I mentioned, I was at the gym last night. I had eaten a serving of All-Bran before heading over, because I knew I would leave the gym in a ravenous state after an hour of selectively abusing various muscles and joints. Some sources advise exercising on an empty stomach. I agree with this rule for first-thing-in-the-morning gym trips, but I know myself: If I returned to the apartment starving, there was a greater chance I would eat crap like a PB&J instead of just the protein/fruit shake I usually chug after lifting.

This proved to be a wise idea. Although I was getting growly in the abdominal region by the time I left, it wasn't as severe as if I had eaten nothing. So I drove straight home, avoiding both the pizzerias in town and the Trader Joe's right next door (oh, those spicy tortilla chips), and ascending to the second floor of my building.

All my discipline was undone when I caught a whiff of my hallway. Someone was cooking Italian food. More specifically, someone had clearly spent a fair portion of the day making fresh Italian meat sauce. It filled my nostrils like some sort of scent-based Sicilian embrace. It had just the right tang, too . . . that sassy, broad flavor you can only get when you let some sturdy cut of beef simmer and break down over the course of sweet, slow hours, flaking and yielding its savory punch with each forkful of pasta.

I somehow tore myself away from this maddening embrace and found my apartment. Mixed berries and protein powder were now looking, by comparison, like North Vietnamese prison rations. I was not without hope, though. Two weeks ago, I had bought a dozen 2-pound cans of crushed plum tomatoes on sale, in anticipation of making a new batch of my own tomato sauce. Plans to craft this crimson potion over Labor Day Weekend never manifested. I will now enact them this weekend. There is no other way.

Though I have no Italian blood, I benefit from having ancestors who hailed from the Bronx. My maternal great-grandmother was sufficiently catholic in her culinary worldview to befriend and learn from Italian housewives in her neighborhood. The recipe I follow had its origins nearly a century ago, and what changes in it I have made, I have kept quiet from my mother. (She likes a thinner sauce than I do; I also prefer not to add sweet sausage chunks to the mix.)

I measure the amount of sauce I make by the number of cans of plum tomatoes I use to produce it. I used to make massive amounts, up to 12 cans' worth. I was one cheesy label away from having a home industry. Now, I just use 6 cans, but more tomato paste than my mom does (thus the thicker sauce). I could probably go as low as 4 cans, but 6 strikes a good balance. Not so much sauce that I have to haul most of it over to my parents' basement freezer to store it, but not so little that I feel like I am gearing up the entire process for a stash that's only going to last a few weeks.

And boy, is it a process. Labor Day is actually a perfect day to produce this red gold. On Sunday, I can get over to Whole Foods and buy the meat. My mother uses odds and ends of beef and pork in her sauce, but then removes it to eat separately once the sauce is done. I prefer to use prime meats — center-cut pork chops and sirloin, both cubed and sauteed briefly in olive oil and herbs — that I leave in the sauce for the entire simmer. I also buy a couple of trays of ground beef for the meatballs.

Here's another difference in my philosophy of tomato sauce that differs from my mother's. Her meatballs tend to be considerably larger than mine. I'll use 2 or 3 pounds of ground beef — I don't bother with the ground pork or lamb that some do; I've already got pork chunks in the mix, and the lamb flavor tends to get lost amid the seasonings. What differs between us is I will make a good 45 or so smaller balls, which I find easier to fry such that the insides get done evenly. She prefers to make a smaller number of biggies, which complete their cooking process in the sauce itself over the simmer.

That's just the meat aspect of things. The tomatoes are another ritual. All of the plum tomatoes boil for a good hour to 90 minutes, depending on how many cans, along with the spices and the tomato paste. Unlike the old Italian women who first imparted this wisdom, though, I prefer a smooth sauce, no seeds or skins. So I grind the entire lot through a strainer, ladle by ladle, until all of the pulp is out. This might be another reason why I make only 6 cans' worth of tomatoes; by the end of the process, my right arm is just about numb! My parents do have a food mill, which my mom uses to separate her sauce. Not my preference; it results in a thinner sauce. I like it to be able to cling to pasta and endure baking in parmigiana dishes without separating out.

So you're looking at a good five hours' worth of prep, some of it just simmering time interrupted by stirring to keep the bottom of the pot from burning. How, then, to occupy my time while the zesty maroon treasure bubbles happily away in the kitchen?

Simple. You throw in a Mob movie.

It is an inflexible rule in this house: Thou shalt not make tomato sauce without Mafia media playing on the television.

The Godfather is the natural choice. If I time it right, I am making the meatballs just around the same time Clemenza is demonstrating his sauce-making skills to Michael Corleone. Considering how much the characters of that movie eat, it's wise to have a little something of my own to nosh on so by the film's credits, I'm not frantically faxing the local Italian deli with "one of each" scrawled across their menu.

Another fine selection for an afternoon of sauce brewing is Goodfellas. Again, the characters in that film eat constantly. If you don't at least have a nice ham, salami, and provolone sangwich handy, you're gonna begin gnawing on the curtains even befofe that hunger-stoking closeup of Paul Sorvino contentedly munching sazzeech and peppah like a Sicilian Buddha. (Note to self: Sneak out of work early and go to San Gennaro.)

This time I might shoot for another star in the Mob constellation (what would that be, "Nicky the Butcher?"), something like Donnie Brasco or Casino. That brings up a whole, separate obsession, though . . . Las Vegas. The rush of having a TV screen full of casinos and a kitchen wafting with fresh sauce is enough to make me pass out and imagine I'm attending a summit of various Vegas operators as they carve up the Strip over eggplant parmigiana and grappa.

So here's hoping for a Biblical downpour to keep me shut in this weekend, surrounded by cans of tomatoes and spices and frying meatballs on their fragrant bed of translucent onions, while I craft a mighty flood of my own, this one to welcome me home on lazy evenings to come, when all I need to do is make pasta and simmer that mighty sauce to a sensuous boil.

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