Assorted ingredients for the Fox family's fresh spaghetti sauce.
PHOTO: THOMAS R. FOX
There is a thunderous noise. Children are running. There is shoving. The building shakes as a pretty little girl screams at the top of her lungs, "Me first! Me first!" No, the school dismissal bell hasn't just rung. Rather, my wife, while still stirring a pot of spaghetti noodles, had just slowly turned her head and stated in a low voice, "The spaghetti is almost ready." No one had to tell our kids the spaghetti sauce on the stove was homemade. Their keen olfactory nerves informed them all afternoon of this fact. Our house would have been a lot quieter if there had been canned sauce from the store in that pot. There would have been no screaming, no shoving, nor perhaps even any running, but far fewer smiles.
As you have probably guessed by now, everyone in our family relishes our home-made fresh spaghetti sauce. When birthdays approach, the birthday kid is given the choice of a meal: either pizza, French toast and fried ham, or homemade spaghetti. Most of the time, it's the spaghetti that's chosen. Luckily, we grow our own tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, onions, parsley, and basil–in other words just about everything we need to put together the delectable spaghetti sauce our family craves.
We have been experimenting with various spaghetti sauce recipes for a number of years. We have added ground beef, meatballs, and have even tried adding a soup bone or two. But our favorite spaghetti sauce, everyone in our family agrees, is the meatless one. The primary ingredient of our favorite spaghetti sauce, and the one which we believe is the real secret, is homemade tomato puree. Whether the puree is fresh, frozen, or canned doesn't seem to make a great difference–as long as it is homemade. Last year we canned and froze 53 quarts and we ran out in April! This year, we canned and froze a lot, lot more.
To make great tomato puree, we use only tomatoes that have ripened on the vine. This doesn't mean they have to be dead ripe on the vine, just mostly red. It doesn't seem to make a difference if the tomatoes are left a day or two inside before making puree. However, we always keep the tomatoes warm–from 65°F to 85°F. One rule we apply religiously is to keep them out of the refrigerator.
Although we do often use Italian plum tomato paste, we found that the exact type of tomato doesn't seem to be that important. What is important is that the tomatoes be truly vine-ripened. There is a dirty little secret shared by commercial tomato growers and buyers. Vine ripened, to them, simply means the tomato was picked at the mature green stage. This stage rarely includes tomatoes with even a hint of a pinkish tinge here and there. Most tomatoes picked at the mature green stage will look nice when they finally ripen in the store, but their taste can best be described as fair–and this characterization may be a bit generous. A true vine-ripened tomato is one which can be enjoyed fresh (not fried!) when picked right off the plant.
A Squeezo strainer, Victorio strainer and some other kitchen appliances do a good job in making tomato puree. The Squeezo and Victorio strainers remove the seeds and skin and just leave the pulp and juice, doing most of the labor for you. Before we had our strainer, we used a relatively inexpensive food mill. A food mill is a fine-holed colander that uses either a wood mallet or a metal blade attached to a handle to push the tomato pulp through. While food mills work great, they require more effort than most other puree makers.
We only puree good quality tomatoes that are nice and ripe. If we find a small bad or green spot, we cut it out before putting it in the strainer or food mill. Our kids love to help here. Some of them prefer to turn the handle of the strainer and see the tomato's innards ooze out of the strainer's screen. Others, who are a bit more refined, prefer to simply wash or cut the tomatoes.
Is all this effort a pain in the neck? Well... very occasionally, but you can taste every calorie of effort in the sauce. Remember, while large canning companies may have inspectors going over tomatoes traveling down a conveyor belt, most of the commercial operation, from harvesting to labeling, is automated. This results in numerous sub-standard tomatoes (including rotten and unripe ones) finding their way into the cans on the supermarket shelves. Other reasons for the difference in taste may have to do with the added salt and preservatives, not to mention the flavor imparted by the metal can.
Ingredients From the Garden
We like a lot of green pepper and zucchini in our spaghetti sauce. The frozen pepper and zucchini are nearly as good as the fresh. To freeze peppers, we simply wash them well and prepare them as we usually do for fresh use (cut out the seeds and chop) and then put them in freezer bags. Basil and parsley are prepared similarly. Here, we only select well-formed blemish-free leaves. After washing thoroughly, we drain the leaves and dry on a paper towel before putting them into freezer bags. Zucchini are really important to us, so we make sure we have a good supply on hand. We like the nearly seedless young zucchini, perhaps up to eight inches long. We wash and cut them into chunks before sticking them in freezer bags. While zucchini itself doesn't add significant flavor, it does absorb the flavor from the other, more flavorful, ingredients. One bite into a zucchini chunkgives you the essence of the flavor of summer: fresh tomatoes, sweet green peppers, tangy sweet onions, parsley, and basil, all right from the garden.
Our Favorite Meatless Garden Spaghetti Sauce Recipe
4 quarts homemade tomato puree (freshly pureed, frozen or canned)
2 to 3 large onions
5 to 6 cloves garlic
2 cups chopped green pepper (freshor frozen)
1 tablespoon olive oil
dash black pepper
2 cups zucchini cut into 3/4" chunks
1/2 cup cooking wine (optional)
1/4 cup sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons good quality cider vinegar
1/4 cup basil (fresh or frozen preferred)
3 to 4 bay leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons oregano
1 tablespoon marjoram
1 tablespoon parsley (fresh or frozenpreferred)
salt (optional, to taste)
Heat tomato puree in an eight-quart pot. Dice onions, garlic, and peppers. Place the diced vegetables in another pot with heated olive oil. Cook until liquid is nearly gone, or about 30 minutes on medium-high heat. While onions, garlic, and peppers are cooking, place remaining ingredients in pot with tomato puree. Add cooked onions, garlic, and peppers. Simmer for two to six hours or more. The longer time is preferred. Leave uncovered while simmering. We seldom add any salt to the sauce. It doesn't seem to need it. However, we list salt as optional since some tastes may prefer it.
This recipe makes about 24 servings. This doesn't mean it will feed 24 people, however. If our family can be any judge, plan on it only feeding 10 to 14 people. Freeze or can whatever sauce is left from the first meal. The frozen or canned spaghetti sauce not only makes a quick meal, but it also tastes as good or better than when you first made it.
While our family prefers the meatless spaghetti sauce, no doubt some will prefer a richer, meat-flavored one. Here, you can simply add some ground beef. Make sure you brown the beef before adding it to the spaghetti sauce. For an even richer meat flavor, add a soup bone or two and simmer for a couple of hours. Browning the soup bones in a hot oven (about 450°F) for a half hour intensifies the meat flavor. For a slightly different taste, try adding the turkey drippings and some leftover turkey meat from a roast turkey. The result is a sauce that has the taste and aroma of the chicken cacciatore served at the finest Italian restaurants.
We usually serve the meatless sauce with grated Parmesan cheese and often accompany the meal with cottage cheese and sometimes an Italian-type homemade bread.
In addition to putting our sauce on spaghetti noodles, we found it has a multitude of other uses. For instance, if we cook a small pot of it down to make it thicker, the result is a delicious, fresh tasting pizza sauce. We have also mixed it with ground beef and macaroni noodles and topped it off with mozzarella cheese and stuck it in the oven until the cheese was melted. Delicious. Our spaghetti sauce also makes a truly delectable sauce for homemade lasagna.
Things get too busy for us in August and September, so we quickly freeze and can as much puree as possible for the winter. During the cold months, we make our spaghetti sauce with frozen and/or canned tomato puree, frozen zucchini, frozen peppers, frozen basil, frozen parsley leaves, and sometimes even frozen onions. The winter-made spaghetti sauce tastes as good as the late-summer-made one. As a bonus, winter-made spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove not only warms up our appetites but our chilly house as well.