Making Really Good Pasta Sauce

pasta_bOK, we’re in a long-term budget crunch–singles, families, neighborhoods, businesses, cities, states, and nations. There’s no way around it, over it, or away from it. So get with the program! It’s time to live simply, travel simply, work simply, shop simply, and eat simply. (It’s also time to cut back on business expenses, hiring, and expansion, but unless you’re the executive, owner, CEO or CFO of an enterprise, that responsibility probably does not apply to you!)

I live pretty frugally already, but with all the cutbacks, changes, and rising costs of essential items, like medical supplies, prescriptions, gas, rent, and utilities, I’m spending even more time now planning what I do, spend, buy, and eat.

I don’t have cable or a TV, don’t go out to movies, concerts, or any other kind of entertainment generally and I already shop only for what I need. Even then, I wait for sales, and end of season clearances. So in some categories, I’m already up to speed on the “thrift” thing.

But I’m a lazy cook. I really hate kitchen duty. Not that I don’t know how–I’m the oldest of 10 kids, so growing up, I spent a good part of my day in the kitchen or dining room, doing what needed to be done to get meals on the table and cleaning up. But now, alone and with very little time at home, when I have to cook, I make enough for the whole week, fill little containers and carry them to work for my main meal of the day.

Sometimes that gets old–who wants to eat the same thing 7 days in a row, every week? So I also sometimes buy frozen entrees, like wild rice and green beans or Stouffer’s cheap versions of their frozen meals, just for diversion. I also stock chicken and beef broths for soup, and beans, especially black, kidney, and butter beans for a quick meal. I love butter beans, smashed with butter, right from the can to the microwave as a quick, cheap, and nutritious meal. It’s like instant bean soup! “Instant” is good.

A couple of my favorite portioned meals are homemade chili (my way) or pasta and sauce made mostly from scratch. Chili ingredients are  hamburg browned in olive oil, with lots of sauteed onions, garlic, and green peppers, one jalapeno pepper, diced or crushed tomatoes, kidney beans,then simmered to let the flavors blend. It’s awesome, or at least I think so.

Really good pasta sauce always begins with a few critical ingredients–a deep stainless steel pot, (aluminum pots have been linked to Alzheimer’s–the aluminum leaches into the tomato sauce), olive oil, three or four good-sized cloves of garlic, lots of fresh or dried sweet basil, some oregano, at least two large cans of diced or crushed tomatoes, simmered over a medium-low burner for a couple of hours–well at least one. I like to let it simmer for awhile longer–it’s my grandmother’s training!

At this point, the gravy (South-Philadelphia Italian for pasta sauce) is ready for additions. I like to saute mushrooms and veggies in garlic and add them for a vegetarian choice. Beans are good too. If I’m feeling carnivorous, I’ll roll meatballs, bake them on a cookie tray until browned, then throw them into the sauce. Some folks throw them in raw but that’s just nasty! ; )

Italian sausage gets oven browned too, with a little water in the pan. Then I cut it up and plop it into the gravy. The gravy should cover all the meat, so feel free to increase the quantities to cover your additional ingredients.

All that simmers in the pot for awhile longer, then I pull it off the stove, cool it on a non-heat conducting board in the frig, then containerize it for the week.

There are lots of budget-friendly meats to add to the gravy–chicken pieces, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms  for chicken cacciatore, chicken breasts with mozzarella for chicken parmesan, chicken wings, leftover pork, veal, or beef roast, pork or veal neck bones or chops, spare ribs, cleaned crabs, shrimp, scallops, clams, fish, squid, mussels, or octopus. The variations are endless. The containerizing is necessary if you make enough for more than one day.

The critical ingredients–olive oil, garlic, basil, oregano, and chunky tomatoes–are critical because without them, the sauce ends up tasting nasty–bland, flavorless, runny, and gruesomely unappetizing. The sweet basil cuts the acid in the tomatoes, so you never need to add sugar. The deep pot is necessary, according to at least one chemistry professor, to create a positive chain reaction between all the ingredients. My grandmother’s explanation was not so romantic. She said it kept the tomato sauce from bubbling up all over the stove.

(In college, I existed on plain spaghetti, sauteed in butter and garlic, and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and grated Romano cheese. That was good too. Sometimes, I’d add canned tuna. I really liked that–until I realized just how much mercury I was consuming from the tuna!)

Advice from the cheap seats: Even when you’re keeping menus simple, make them worth eating!


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