In these trying times- social distancing, monitoring, testing, panic, self imposed isolation- what we need more than anything else is comfort. And when I need comfort, the recipe I turn to, that most reminds me of my childhood and feeling loved, is my grandmother’s pasta sauce.
Hopefully everyone has one meal that reminds them of being taken care of. It might be grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup (my mother would make that when we were sick) or tapioca pudding (a childhood favorite) or warm chocolate chip cookies with milk (always a good idea). I had a friend whose Mom would make her scrambled eggs with chopped tomatoes and serve it on toast when she was sick, so she made that for me. I appreciated the sentiment, even though it wasn’t my comfort food.
Most Sundays, growing up, we would pile into our ugly brown station wagon and make the treck to my grandmother’s tiny house in Little Havana. We would swim in the pool until our eyes stung and then, sometimes outside, sometimes inside, we would eat this pasta sauce with whatever kind of pasta was chosen. Springs, penne, rigatoni- everyone had their favorite. It was rarely, ironically, spaghetti and my grandmother hated angel hair pasta.
“It tastes like nothing,” she would say.
There was always a green salad with vinaigrette my Aunt Emma made and a loaf of bread served with this meal. Iced tea and water were the drinks, along with cheap Chianti wine. Other dishes- peas sautéed with onions, eggplant parmesan, sausage with peppers and potatoes- might also make an appearance, but this sauce the true constant, the North Star of the meal. After my grandfather (Pop Pop) died, we went over less frequently and eventually my grandmother moved out of that house (my father’s childhood home) to a nicer one in the Gables. By then, my mother had taken over the tradition of making the sauce and, when we got older, we would bring our children to my Mom and Dad’s house to swim and eat.
As I pull out the recipe, stained from tomato splatters, and start the process of making the sauce, I remember sitting down with my grandmother and getting the recipe from her years ago. It was for my sister Kelley’s wedding shower, where I compiled a recipe book of family favorites. My grandmother was not very specific about amounts. The recipe started with “You take a hunk of salt pork and chop it up”.
“How much is a hunk?” I asked.
She had to think about that a minute.
“About a fourth of the package,” she said.
There was a dash of this and a sprinkle of that. She almost forgot to tell me about the basil that went into it. And there were also bay leaves, tomato paste and water to go with the canned tomatoes that had been put in the blender a few seconds. My grandmother and aunts preferred the Cento or Tutto Russo brand of San Marzano tomatoes, whole, peeled.
“Most people make their sauces too sweet,” my grandmother told me. “We only add a pinch of sugar.”
And a very important rule that she emphasized is that the sauce needed some type of pork. There is the salt pork that begins the sauce, but also sausage (spicy or sweet Italian) and sometimes my grandmother would throw in a pork chop as well. This was the sauce her mother from Siena, would make for them growing up and one of the few things my grandmother cooked.
Another comfort is that I can hear my grandmother’s voice as I go through the steps of making the sauce. The meatballs are made with ground beef, bread crumbs, garlic salt and parmesan cheese (“How much?” I asked. “Just grate it over the top to cover”, she said). They are supposed to be sautéed in the salt pork mixture, but they always fell apart when I tried to do that, so I gave up and now bake them in the oven. They go back in the sauce eventually, so I don’t really think it makes a difference in flavor. I also deglaze the pot with red wine, something my grandmother never did (and probably wouldn’t approve of), but it gets up the bits of onion and salt pork that stick to the bottom of the pan.
I made the sauce yesterday just because I needed to smell the aroma and taste it again. After it had cooked about an hour, I ripped off a hunk of bread and stuck it in the red, bubbling sauce and ate it. I don’t think the sauce has ever tasted as good to me, because I truly needed it- my soul needed it. The Frugal Gourmet said it on his show long ago: “Sometimes you just need to cook those dishes of your ancestors.” And this is truly one of those times.
I’m not going to post the recipe here because:
#1 My kids, particularly Christopher, would kill me.
#2 It’s my comfort food, not yours. You should make whatever makes you feel like home.
If you want to taste my grandmother’s pasta sauce, you’ll just have to come to my house and taste it yourself. After this whole thing is over, of course. Stay safe and keep on cooking!
Glee (aka Foodie in Miami)