Sauce, Red Vines & Eggplant Parm
Understanding the basics of making the perfect Italian sauce
It’s Fall and this means abundance.
An abundance of fruits, an abundance of veggies, the pigs eat an abundance of corn and overripe fruit.
Everything is spilling over. Everything is being birthed all at the same time. Or, so it seems. Which, for me, makes for a lot of kitchen time.
Honestly, there’s never enough kitchen time to pickle, ferment, can, sour or preserve all of the fall harvest food.
Some tomatoes just don’t make it. I used to be sad about this until we got real, live composting machines: enter our chicken flock and our drove of pigs.
I will admit, no matter what season it is, I’m always working on multiple different tasks in the kitchen. There’s never one sole focus, but many hands in the pot at one time.
This is how I role. I like the challenge. I like the diversity. I like just the perfect amount of chaos. It fuels me.
I’m a second generation Sicilian. For those of you unfamiliar with this culture, Sicilians love lard, hot peppers, eggplant and cannolis.
My grandfather was Sicilian. His parents came to the states by boat entering at Ellis Island. My grandfather, Carl Trubio, or, Poppie as I grew up calling him, loved his Italian heritage and took it seriously. He could cook any Italian dish in a traditional way and took pride in doing so. To him, there was no other way to make Italian food.
I couldn’t agree more.
He rolled his own pasta, grew his own tomatoes for sauce; he even made a cylinder out of steel (he was a metal worker and an electrician by day) that he used as a cannoli mold.
He’d roll the dough for his cannolis and wrapped the dough around the cylinder to form a tiny yet perfect cannoli shell. Then, using tongs, he’d place the dough-wrapped-steel cylinder into a pot of sizzling hot lard for several seconds until it reached a golden brown color.
To this day, his cannolis are the best I’d ever had. Especially his ricotta filled cannolis.
Who wouldn’t pine for a cannoli shell fried in lard and stuffed with ricotta and spices? Legend.
Whenever I make Italian food, I think of my mom. I think of Poppie. I think of my heritage. I love that my food roots run deep. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Fall provided us with a bounty of tomatoes and eggplant. To me, this combined with the cool fall air means one thing, comfort food.
For me, that’s many things and one of those things is, eggplant parmesan.
To make eggplant parm, you, of course, have to start by making a sauce. For the past three days there’s been a huge bowl filled with tomatoes sitting on my counter. I’ve been waiting for a free morning to put those tomatoes to good use before they turn to mush.
Honestly, there’s no such thing as a free morning when you live on a farm and run a full healing practice. But, I knew if I didn’t get to the tomatoes today that instead of sauce they’d be a chicken feast at the end of the day. Chickens love tomatoes.
I put a stock pot full of water on the stove and brought it to a boil while I marked an X on the tops and bottoms of each tomato. This is how the skin comes off, flawlessly. Every. Single. Time.
Making a sauce with the skins on the tomato is sacrilege. This will make your sauce chewy. And, you’ll end up spending your entire meal chewing on the skins like a cow chews its cud.
There’s another thing that’s sacrilege when it comes to tomatoes…well, a couple of things actually.
1. Never buy a tomato from the store.
Here’s the deal…Almost every single tomato sold in a grocery store - conventional or organic - have been grown inside and under very strong LED grow lights.
Many tomatoes in the store have never seen the light of day.
This is why store-bought tomatoes taste, well, tasteless. They taste mealy and disgusting.
Buy your tomatoes from an organic farmer that grows their tomatoes outside, in sunlight. Or, better yet, grow your own tomatoes outside in soil and sunlight. The flavor will be much more rich, deep and pleasing than the store-bought alternative because your home gown tomatoes will absorb a plethora of nutrients from both soil and sunlight. This is what gives a tomato flavor. Not a grow light.
2. Never store a raw tomato in the fridge for the love of sweet baby Jesus.
Whenever I see someone storing a tomato in the fridge I get upset. It’s an amateur move. It’s a move that only people who don’t know much about cooking or know anything about a tomato abide by.
Their reasoning for storing in the fridge is that the tomato will mold or will attract fruit flies if left on the counter. The truth of the matter is, this will likely happen. Your tomato left on the counter will start to breed copious amounts of fruit flies. But, the point of a fresh tomato is to eat the whole tomato, in one setting, fresh. This will allow you to avoid the fruit fly and mold issue all together and the longer a sliced tomato sets, the less flavor it has and the more nutrients lost.
I leave the tomatoes simmering in the pot and start rolling meatballs.
Every sauce needs meatballs.
Meatballs add flavor, nutrients, richness and body to a sauce. Sometimes I add sausage and short ribs. But today, it’s all meatballs.
There’s several ways to make meatballs. Many cultures have their own unique version. Because my daily diet is lacking in organ meats, I typically use ground beef and venison mixed with ground organ meats to make my meatballs.
I’m a child of the 80’s. And, while I did grow up eating lard, steak, butter and ham hocks, I sure didn’t grow up eating organ meats. It’s not the modern way. But, organ meats are chock-full of nutrients that I know feed my brain, heart, uterus and cells, so in the sauce they go.
Today, I’m making meatballs with ground beef, ground beef organs and ground venison. I grab a large mixing bowl from my cupboard and place the ground meat and organs into the bottom of the bowl. I use my hands to spread the mince out along the bottom and edges of the bowl and start seasoning the meat. Basil, thyme, oregano, red pepper flakes, sea salt, black pepper are spread evenly throughout the meat.
I pour a generous pile of grated pecorino cheese into my palms and sprinkle it over the meat.
A raw egg is cracked on top.
I use my hands to mix the ingredients - it smells of raw meat, dried herbs and salt. It smells fresh and alive. I can tell by the smell that it’s going to nourish me and my family when we eat it.
I quickly remove the top from the stock pot simmering the tomatoes, take my index finger and poke at the biggest one to test for doneness.
I turn the flame off and remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon. Most people let the tomatoes cool a bit before peeling away the skin. I’m impatient and want to go outside and be in the sun so I quickly remove the skins and place them in the compost.
The tomatoes are piping hot, steam rises from their insides. I place the peeled tomatoes into a large and beautiful bowl and melt a generous amount of butter in the stock pot that once held the tomatoes.
Honestly, I would have used lard instead of butter but I had just used the rest of last years lard in a batch of homemade tortilla chips last week. So, butter it was.
The stock pot is still hot from cooking the tomatoes and the butter sizzles as I drop it into the bottom of the pot. I quickly throw in my sauce herb line-up: one whole red chile pepper, fennel seeds, oregano, basil, thyme, a couple of bay leaves, fresh cracked black pepper and sea salt.
My hands, soggy with tomato juice, quickly grab the handles of the stock pot shaking the herbs from side-to-side so they don’t burn and so the flavors spread evenly throughout the melted butter. I pour in the bowl of tomatoes and break them apart with my favorite cooking spoon.
As the saying goes, You can’t buy a 'spoon' like that anymore, that’s the type of spoon I was using. An old schooler that my mother gave to me when I left home and started cooking for myself. The spoon is wooden and has a long, sturdy handle - the wood has darkened overtime from the many meals and hands it has stirred and served. If my house were on fire, I’d go back for this spoon.
When the tomatoes are crushed and incorporated with the herbs, it’s time for tomato paste.
If you’ve never made sauce you likely have no idea that tomato paste is a key ingredient. If you didn’t add tomato paste, your sauce would be thin and runny and wouldn’t stick to the pasta.
Oh, how I wish I could eat pasta. But, the several rounds of antibiotics I was administered as a kid has allowed me to lose that privilege without experiencing severe IBS. So, hard pass on the pasta but I still dream that one day I’ll be able to eat it, without the digestive distress.
In fact, if I were to choose a last supper, it very well would be homemade pasta or homemade pizza. My Aunt Rita made the best homemade pizza…
I have three jars of tomato paste open and scoop it into the sauce. With each jar of tomato paste, the sauce thickens. And, in order to achieve the perfect consistency of your sauce, you have to follow each tomato paste with chicken or beef or lamb stock.
Today, I use chicken stock.
My dog is only a little adamant about sharing her chicken stock with me. When the tomato paste jars are empty, I fill each one with chicken stock, place the lid back on the jar and shake the heck out of it so the tomato paste, clinging to the sides of the jar, fall into the broth. I pour the mixture into the sauce and stir it all together.
Now, all the sauce needs is time and meatballs. I place the cover on the sauce, set the flame to the lowest setting and move on to the meatballs.
I roll the meatballs into balls and stack them onto a platter. After the first few meatballs are ready to go, I drop a generous amount of butter into my cast iron skillet and start placing the meatballs in the skillet.
There’s a few keynotes to a delicious meatball.
For one, make sure your skillet is nice and hot before you drop them in.
For two, you want to brown your meatballs really nicely on all sides before adding them to your sauce.
For three, you don’t want to cook them through in your pan just brown on the outside, rare on the inside.
And, for four, you want to finish cooking them low and super slow in your pot of sauce - this prevents them from drying out.
When all the meatballs are browned, I gently drop them one-by-one into the sauce making sure they are fully submerged in the sauce. Then, I put the top on and walk away for several hours. Only returning now and then to give the pot a good stir and maybe a taste test.
The sauce recipe I follow is very similar to the sauce recipe that my family has called upon for multiple generations.
I learned how to make sauce by watching my mom make it from scratch and she learned by watching Poppie make sauce, also from scratch.
For generations, my family has gone about their sauce making in the same way I’m going about it today - harvest tomatoes from the garden, pull from the spice cabinet dried Italian herbs from last years herb garden (don’t forget the crushed red pepper, remember, we’re Sicilian), flash boil and peel the tomatoes.
My sauce recipe isn’t written down on an index card nor is it stored on my Google Drive or in the cloud, it’s tattooed on my DNA.
Every time I make a sauce it’s an instinctual process.
Hours pass and the sauce continues to cook. The longer it cooks, the more flavor it develops. When I add short ribs to my sauce, the flavor is exceptionally rich. People downplay short ribs. They have no idea what to do with them.
The truth of the matter is, short ribs have exceptional flavor. They’re called short ribs because they’re cut from pieces of the cow that contain small or literally short pieces of rib bone - these most notably come from the brisket section but can also come from the chuck or rib cuts as well.
While short ribs have less meat than steak, they still contain a generous amount of meat as well as fat.
Short ribs are tough and chewy if you cook them too fast or at too high of temperature. This makes them a perfect addition to my low-and-slow sauce allowing their meat to notoriously fall off the bone after several hours.
Not only are short ribs phenomenal in a sauce, they are surprisingly good when smoked or slow cooked in a dutch oven with broth and spices. When it comes to short ribs, the world is your oyster.
I didn’t add short ribs to today’s sauce.
But, I will be making eggplant parm to go with it. Several hours have passed, the sauce has thickened and dinnertime is approaching. I know this because my wife comes into the kitchen asking me if she can help with dinner.
Jen doesn’t cook.
If she asks to 'help with dinner', it’s actually code for, I’m starving or in her words, I’m about to pass out I’m so hungry.
After a month of dating and me willingly and lovingly cooking each meal for us, Jen invited me over to her place for dinner. She wanted to cook a meal for me. I thought it was incredibly sweet and thoughtful of her and I was excited to have someone cook for me.
When I got to Jen’s house, I realized I was going to be starving for the rest of the night. Her cooking entailed picking up some chicken tortilla soup from Whole Foods and a package of frozen tamales.
It may seem a bit pompous but, I don’t do packaged foods. Or, Jeff Bezos.
It was early on in our dating game so I hadn’t fully let my organic, grass-fed, locally sourced flag fly yet. However, when Jen pulled out the Red Vines Chewy Licorice after dinner, I had to come out to her about my food needs.
Jen loves to eat. She loves food. But, she has no idea how to cook. Nor does she have any idea about proper food combinations.
For example, when I make sauce, she wants to put an avocado on top.
She once baked a Fall spice cake and added cumin to the batter because, well, it was a spice, in our cupboard.
One of the many things I love about Jen is her love for food and listening to her Ooo and Ahh at the dinner table like Bill Murray in the dinner scene in What About Bob?.
Today, Jen and I are on the same page about our food choices and sources. Which was an easy sell to Jen. Through our talks, she really started to see how toxic our modern day food is and it was easy, much easier than I originally anticipated, to get her on the organic, grass-fed, locally sourced food train.
It was this conversation that inspired Jen to reveal that deep down, she wanted to be a farmer, grow food and live off the land. It only took us 10 years after that conversation to start doing so. But, we made it happen.
As soon as Jen asked if I needed help, I knew I had a very short-window of time before I’d lose her to a bag of corn chips (the only positive here was that they were made with coconut oil and not seed oils).
So, I quickly grated a heap of pecorino cheese and threw it in a big bowl with Italian herbs. I whisked 2 eggs in another bowl, dunked the eggplant in the egg wash and then dosed it in the cheese-herb blend and tossed it into a sizzling hot pan of butter.
One-by-one I did the same thing with each slice of eggplant.
When they were browned on each side, I layered them into a Pyrex baking dish, sauce on the bottom, eggplant, then another layer of sauce and topped with more pecorino cheese. In the oven they went at 350°F for 20 minutes and then, buon appetito.
Another corn chip spoiled dinner saved.
We heaped meatballs and eggplant parm onto our plates, with extra sauce and extra red pepper flakes for me. It was a night of comfort food and basking in one of the last warm summer nights of the year.