Friday, 24 May 2024

Foodie Freak: What is that sauce on your spaghetti?

I’ve been trying to create a unique spaghetti sauce for my Italian wife. During the process I wondered, “What is the difference between all these spaghetti sauces that you see on the grocery store shelves, and what does it mean?”

Marinara started out being the most confusing sauce. There are so many versions, all with different lists of ingredients, which made it hard for me to figure out what made marinara, well, marinara.

After a bit of studying I found that, literally translated, a marinara is a tomato-based sauce that contains seafood, sometimes clams but more typically anchovies. The “Mari” in Marinara means marine, but its history can be traced to a light sauce created by fisherman that could be made on board a boat quickly, since the availability of wood at sea was scarce and fires on a ship were hazardous so the fisherman would want them burning long.

Characteristically, in addition to the anchovies, a marinara also contains tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil and spices. It’s only in America that we have distorted marinara into a nondescript, one-size-fits-all spaghetti sauce.

Ragu essentially means “Italian meat sauce,” so almost all spaghetti sauces in America are ragus. Tucco is the Tuscan name for a ragu, and Sugo, loosely translated to “sauce” or “juice”, is typically called a “light” tomato sauce with onions, garlic, and basil.

The problem with finding the true name of Italian sauces is that every Italian immigrant family called sauces something different, depending on the region they came from or just their own family influences.

It’s like asking an American, “What are the ingredients in barbecue?” Texans will start with “Beef with a tomato-based sauce,” while North Carolinians will begin with, “Pork and a vinegar-based sauce.”

Kansas City residents will just confuse the issue more. So many recipes may say “Ragu ala Bolognese,” but “Sugo ala Bolognese” or “Salsa ala Bolognese” would still be correct.

A Bolognese sauce originates from the landlocked Bologne (pronounced bo-LOHN) region of Italy which is not far from Parma (where the cheese Parmesan comes from). Their recipes favor beef or veal as the meat in their ragu, with the inclusion of tomatoes and wine. So a meat sauce from this area would be called “Ragu ala bolognese” (Rah-GOO AH-la bo-lohn-AYHS).

Naples is a seaside city of Italy, and they are credited for being the first Italians to actually eat and cook with tomatoes. Originally in Europe, tomatoes were grown only for ornamental value and as a curiosity, since they are related to the deadly nightshade plant and they were considered poisonous. A famine in the seventeenth century was enough to push people over the edge and attempt to eat the deadly tomato. That was the birth of the tomato into Italian cuisine.

The people of Naples tend to prefer pear-shaped tomato varieties because they are sweeter and less acidic. “Neapolitan gravy” is a basic tomato sauce from Naples that they use as a base to build on. They tend to favor pork in their ragus. On the other hand, brains, chicken, duck, duck liver, kidneys, sweetbreads (culinary code for “thyroid glands”), and rabbit can all found in various sauces throughout Italy.

Pasta ala Puttanesca is a dish with an intense tomato sauce that allegedly originated with the prostitutes of Naples. The name translates to “Harlots’ pasta” or “Pasta in the style of whores.” Wow! Who thought a food column could turn so blue? Many stories claim the origin of the sauce but the two most believable go like this ...

Brothels were called “closed houses” because by law the shutters were required to stay closed at all times to keep from offending the neighbors but the strong smell of the sauce was the lure for customers to enter their establishment. Now I may not be Italian but luring a potential customer with tomato sauce and feeding him pasta doesn’t sound like a brothel priority so the story that I find more believable is ...

At the end of the evening as the restaurants were shutting down, local streetwalkers would go begging for any leftovers before the restaurant was locked up for the night. The restaurant owners would throw any remaining tomato sauce, olives, capers, anchovies and hot peppers (the five classic ingredients that signify it as a puttanesca sauce) into a pot, pour it over some pasta and serve it to the unfortunate girls before going home. That story sounds a little more plausible to me. (My wife just told me that she, understanding Italian men better than I do, thinks the first version is more likely. “The way to a man’s heart, or wallet, is through his stomach.” OK, we agree to disagree.)

Arrabbiata sauce is traditionally served over penne pasta but spaghetti is sometimes also used “All’arrabbiata” translates to “angry style” since it is a very piquant and spicy sauce. The unique thing about Arrabbiata is that it is classically NOT served with meat in it.

Vodka sauce is also reserved for penne pasta and short cut pastas. A number of stories have it being created in 1970s Bologne, but some say it was invented by Frank Sinatra. What we do know is that it first appeared publicly during the 1980s and is considered part of nuova cucina, or Italian “New cuisine.”

It usually contains vodka, tomatoes, heavy cream, onions, garlic, prosciutto or ham, olives and parmesan cheese. Some early recipes contained rice, caviar, sour cream and strawberries. The meat preferred with this sauce is most frequently salmon.

Why make a sauce with vodka? Many ingredients, including tomatoes, contain flavor compounds that can only be released in the presence of alcohol. Vodka, being a “flavorless and colorless” alcohol, won’t clash with cream like wine in a sauce would.

Finally, sauce “All’Amatriciana,” or “Lovers sauce,” originates in the town of Amatrice, an agricultural area near Rome. The people from the area are so well renowned as good cooks that the Vatican prefers their cooks to come from Amatrice. With a name like Lovers Sauce, everybody wants to claim the recipe for their own, which makes the ingredients list difficult to nail down.

The known origins are that the sauce was adapted from a recipe made by shepherds, was first called La Gricia, and is always based on pork. The common components are tomatoes, guanciale (salt cured pork cheek, but pancetta is a frequent substitute), and chili peppers. Cooks in Rome include onions, but cooks in Amatrice don’t. Amatrice serves it on bucatini (spaghetti with a hole down the middle), while Rome uses rigatoni.

Now this brings me back to the sauce I am trying to create for my wife. How do I classify it? It doesn’t include anchovies so technically it’s not a marinara; no pork so it's not “All Amatriciana”; no capers or olives, so it’s not a Puttanesca; no vodka, but a hint of sour and spicy so maybe its an Arrabbiata ... That would make sense, she’s frequently angry at me! But it has meat in it so ... aw crud, this is going to take a while... Well anyway, here is the sauce recipe I created for my wife.

Salsa Arriabbiata della moglie (angry wife sauce)

Since my wife loves lavender, I wanted to create a sauce for her based around Herbs de Provence (an herb mixture that includes lavender). Sure, using fresh tomatoes and herbs is great, but for this sauce I wanted something that could be created in no time with items straight from the pantry. It can be made with your favorite ground meat (beef, pork, Italian sausage, or turkey), or the meat can be left out for a hearty vegan sauce.

1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes

1 6 oz. can of tomato paste

1 large onion diced

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Herbs de Provence

½ cup white wine

½ cup olive oil

1/8 cup sugar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Pinch red pepper flakes

Dash nutmeg

Blend everything except onions in a blender until smooth. Pour mixture into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Meanwhile, sauté the onions in oil until browned. Stir caramelized onions into sauce and leave on the heat for at least half an hour until sauce reduces and thickens slightly. Add browned, cooked meat at this point if desired and serve over pasta of your choice.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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