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American Pasta Sauce


I had the Cooking Channel playing in the background the other day while I was getting some work done.  I stopped in my tracks when a sweet young southern belle said she was ready to show us her secret ingredient for her Marinara Sauce.  My jaw hit the ground when she showed us a stick of butter!  While my arteries started to harden, she explained the that butter would help with the acidity from the tomatoes.  Later that day – some other cook on tv added ½ cup of sugar to his sauce - sighting the same reason.  I couldn't help but wonder - was the world going nuts or was I?


Don't answer that!


I’ll be the first to admit – acidity and bitterness are 2 problems to be dealt with when making pasta sauce, but if you follow my directions, you probably won’t need to add any sugar into your sauce at all.  Perhaps ½ teaspoon – but I doubt it.


I cooked this last Saturday and invited my mother for dinner.  We were in the family room watching tv and eating when I heard this loud scraping noise.  My mother had her bowl up to her mouth and she was scrapping the last of the pasta sauce in.  When she saw that I was watching, she smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry, but it’s just so good!”  Enough said….


The Recipe –


2 lbs. - ground meat - I’m using 1 lb. of my favorite Italian sausage and 1 lb. of freshly ground 80/20 beef.  This is my favorite combo, but I’ve also used all sausage or all beef.  Vegetarians can skip the meat altogether.


3 - 28 oz. Cans Whole Plum Tomatoes Peeled – I use a good brand that is steam peeled – not chemically peeled.  Do Not Use Diced Tomatoes – they contain a ingredient which makes them retain their shape – yuck!


1 - 3 oz. Can Tomato Paste

2 lbs. - Mushrooms - I’m using crimini, but button mushrooms work as well

1 - Lg Green Bell Pepper

½ - Large White Onion

3 - Cloves Garlic

1 tbsp. - Dried Oregano Leaves

1 tbsp. - Dried Basil Leaves

½ Cup - Dry White Wine – Use Chicken Stock if you don’t want to use wine.

Kosher Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

Olive Oil


The Options –


Pancetta - Many Italian cooks start their sauces with pancetta.  I personally don’t like it for this sauce, but it is an option.  Purchase 1-3 oz thinly sliced.  Dice it up.  Add some olive oil to the pan and fry this up until crispy.  Remove the crisp meat to a paper towel to drain.  Start the sauce using the fat that is in the pan.


2 Cups - Dice Celery – I actually like celery in my pasta sauce sometimes

1 - 3.8 oz. Can Sliced Black Olives

1 - 4 oz. Can Green Chilis - This doesn't add heat - just a little zip

Red Pepper Flakes – You decide on the amount


I don’t use all of the options at once.  If I add olives, I might add chilis too.  For this day, I just did the main recipe.


The Pan –


The best pan for this sauce is a substantial non-reactive pan.  I’m using a hard anodized pan, but a ceramic cast iron pan would do as well.  You don’t want to use a pan with a metal interior – the acid in the tomatoes will react with the metal, and the sauce will taste like tin.  If you are using a thin non-stick pan, you’ll want to take care not to burn anything.  You’ll have to stir and baby sit the sauce far more – not fun.   


Mushrooms –


There’s a debate out there – should you wash the mushrooms or should you not…  I’m with Alton Brown on this one – I wash them.  I don’t soak them in water, but I wash and brush each mushroom making sure each is void of planting soil.  I let them drain on a paper towel for a bit – then I cut the tip of the stem end off of each mushroom before slicing them thinly.


Chopped Vegetables



The Other Veggies –


I dice the green pepper and onion in ½” dice.  The optional celery can be cut the same.  I ended up with about 2 cups each.  The garlic – I use a cooking rasp.  My hands are too weak to use a garlic press – you could also mince the garlic.



Put a couple tsps. of olive oil into the pan heated to medium high.  Put the mushrooms in first – add a pinch of salt and pepper.  These are going to release a bunch of water – whether you’ve washed them or not.  After the water comes out – keep stirring them until the water is almost evaporated. 


Cooking Mushrooms



Turn the heat to medium and add the green pepper, onion, garlic, the oregano, basil and cooked pancetta or celery or chilis or olives or red pepper flakes, if you’re using them.  The herbs, I pour them into my hand and then rub the herbs between my hands to release their oils.  Add a couple pinches of salt and some pepper, and stir this for a couple minutes so it can start cooking.


Turn the heat to medium low and move the veggies to one side of the pan.  Pour a little olive oil into the open space and then scoop the tomato paste into the oil.  What you’re doing is concentrating the sugars in the tomato paste.  This can burn easily, so the medium low heat sufficient to do this safely.  Sauté the paste for 2-3 minutes before stirring it into the vegetables.  Cook for another minute or 2 before adding the meat.


Saute Tomato Paste



Adjust the heat back to medium.  The sausage has seasoning, but the ground beef does not.  Add a good pinch of salt and pepper to the beef.  I use a potato masher to break up the meat quickly.  Be careful not to scrape this tool on the bottom of the pan – you could mess up the surface.  Once the meat is broken up and mixed in with the vegies, add the wine or chicken stock to deglaze.  


Ground Meat

Deglaze Sauce


Now it’s time to address the tomatoes.  “Hello tomatoes!”  Sorry – I can’t help myself. 


I’ve seen plenty tv chefs and cooks pour the entire can of tomatoes into their recipe and snip them – rip them – crush them – blend them.  I disagree with this for 3 reasons.


1 – The stem end of the tomato is very hard.  No amount of cooking is going to soften these.


2 – The seeds of the tomato are bitter tasting.  Adding them into the sauce will make it bitter as well.


3 – Every single time I’ve worked with canned tomatoes, I’ve come across something that I wouldn’t want to add to my sauce – be it some skin that didn’t come off during the steaming process or a part of a tomato that doesn’t look good for some reason.  So – I inspect and cut each tomato before adding them into my sauce.


I put a plastic sieve over a container to catch the tomato juice.  I take the tomato at the stem end and slice through it – turn it 90 degrees and slice through again.  I then tap the tomato against the side of the sieve to get as many seeds out as possible.  You won’t get rid of them all, but you’ll get rid of enough.  I then cut the tomato into my sauce with my paring knife and discard the stem into the sieve.


Taking Seeds Out of Tomatoes

Cutting Tomatoes into Sauce

Use a paring knife to cut tomatoes into sauce


Seeds and Unusable to Tomato parts to be Discared

Tomato stems and seeds to be discarded

I know this sounds laborious, but there are only 3 cans – probably a total of 24 – 26 tomatoes.  This doesn’t take long to do and it’s a worthwhile step.  After you finish up with the tomatoes in each can, pour the juice through the sieve to catch any other seeds.  When you’re done – you’ll have a sieve with seeds, stems and any other unwanted bits – squeeze these to release as much juice as you can before discarding.  Stir the juice into the sauce and turn the heat to medium low.  Make sure that the sauce is at a very low simmer.


Simmering American Pasta Sauce


Do Not Taste The Sauce At This Time.  You’ve just added raw ground meat to it and you don’t want to take any chances.


Allow the sauce to cook for an hour before tasting for acidity, herbs and salt & pepper.


Acidity - If you sautéed the tomato paste and added the wine to deglaze, chances are you won’t have a problem with acidity.  If you feel that the sauce is a little acidic, sprinkle ½ tsp of sugar onto the sauce and stir.  A little sugar goes a long way, and you don’t want the sauce to taste sweet – you just don’t want it to taste too acidic.  I didn't need any sugar this time.


Herbs – This is a personal taste decision.  You want the sauce to taste like an Italian sauce, but you don’t want the herbs to take over everything.  Oregano is a little strong, so I felt the sauce had enough of that.  I did, however, choose to add a couple more teaspoons of basil.


Salt & Pepper – Pepper is easy – you either want more or not.  The salt – especially for a new cook – can be a little more complicated.  You don’t want the sauce to taste salty.  What you want is to add enough salt to allow the ingredients to shine their brightest – so to speak.  


If you are concerned about this step, add a pinch at a time – stir, taste and add another pinch if you feel you need to.  If you are going to err – err on the side of under salting.  You’ll be using the salty/starchy pasta water to finish the sauce.  And, if you are adding Parmesan cheese to the finished sauce – that’s salty too…  After tasting the sauce, I found it a little bland.  I added another teaspoon on kosher salt and few few grinds of pepper.  With experience - you'll be able to gauge these decisions without going through a taste and add slow method.


Let the sauce cook for another hour before taking it off the heat. 


I let it sit until it isn’t as hot as lava – lol.  I pour it into a plastic container and let it sit on the counter until it isn’t hot any more before covering it and putting it into the refrigerator.  You could also sauce your pasta immediately, if you’re ready to do so.  I prefer letting the sauce sit in the refrigerator for a few hours so that any unwanted fat comes to the top and solidifies – making it easier to remove.  Also - letting the sauce rest for a while helps it meld together better.


Let’s talk pasta –


Small pasta will get lost in this hearty sauce – angel hair, spaghetti, orenchetti, and cavatappi are all too small.  I used fettuccini, but linguini, bow tie, penne or rigatoni will work as well.


Use a tall/big pot to cook pasta.  Fill it very full with water and add a good amount of salt.  I actually let the salt dissolve and then get a spoon full of it to taste.  I’ve seen tv chefs and cooks say that it should be salty like the ocean, but I’ve tasted the ocean, and that is too salty.  You want to taste the salt in a solution - as you would to gargle with for a sore throat. 


Add the pasta and stir it gently – you don’t want to break it.  The box of the pasta I used said to cook for 9 minutes – I tested at 8 minutes and left it for the extra minute.  The pasta was not quite cooked at this time – which is perfect.  Take a ½ - 1 cup of the salty/starchy pasta water and put that to the side before you take the pasta to the sink to drain.  Do Not Rinse The Pasta.


Reserve Pasta Cooking Sauce

Reserve 1/2 - 1 Cup of pasta water

Put the pasta back into the pot, turn the heat to medium, and start adding the sauce while stirring.  You might be looking into the pot and wondering, “What is going on here?”  It looks like the junior high dance with the girls on one side giggling and the boys on the other picking their noses, and no one wants to dance together…  The pasta water will help here.  


Pasta Cooking in Sauce



Adding the cooking liquid will add moisture and starch.  I added the entire ½ cup of pasta water for the half a box of pasta that I cooked.  After a minute or 2, the starch in the water and on the pasta will bring the sauce together – the sauce will cling to the pasta.  


Pasta in American Pasta Sauce



Now is the time to test the pasta.  You want it to be al dente with no chalkiness in the center.  I ended up cooking the pasta for another minute before the pasta was cooked perfectly.  After I took the pasta off of the heat, I grated Parmesan cheese into the pasta – gave it another stir and then served it.  Do not put grated cheese into a boiling sauce – it will break and you’ll have a mess on your hands.


Unless you were cooking for a crowd – you probably have a lot of sauce left over.  Put it into serving size containers and freeze it.  When you want to serve it again, let it thaw overnight and start at the Let’s Talk Pasta portion of this recipe.