I love learning the techniques behind the recipes I use, and I love how knowing how I am cooking makes me feel all warm and domesticated inside! Here is an Italian cooking lesson from my cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.
Flavor in Italian cooking builds from the bottom up, building a good base of flavor. There are 3 levels of this building. The first layer of flavor is called a battuto. The typical components of this layer are fat (olive oil or butter or lard) and onion. Garlic, if used, is added after the onion (not at the same time as the onion, as garlic cooks much faster than onion and will burn, imparting a bitter taste in the battuto and subsequent sauce). This is the base of virtually every Italian pasta sauce or risotto or soup.
When the battuto is sauteed in a pot or skillet until the onion becomes transluscent and the garlic, if used, becomes a pale gold, it is then called a soffritto. How well or poorly this step is executed will affect the flavor of the succeeding steps of your sauce. Make sure you get your onions tender and don't burn your garlic.
The step that follows a soffritto is called insaporire, which means "bestowing taste." This step usually applies to the vegetables that are added to the soffritto. The vegetables that are added to a sauce, such as carrots, celery, fennel, are sauteed over high heat until they have become completely coated with the flavors of the battuto, particularly the onion. The taste of the finished dish can be traced back to this layer, so it is important to give it sufficient time over heat and not skip it.
Now that you know the Italian basics of building and making a good sauce, can I just tell you how wonderful it is to have a supply of homemade sauce, all ready to go at a moment's notice? Well, let me tell you--it is wonderful! I know that good sauce can be purchased rather inexpensively, but a quick glance at the ingredient list will reveal corn syrup and sugars in the sauce. Really? I am finding that I really like to be in control of the ingredients in my food, so it is a pleasure to make a batch of sauce that is brimming with nothing but good stuff! This makes a lot of sauce, but it is easily frozen and thawed later for future dishes.
Bring on the homemade!! :)
RECIPE FOLLOWS THE JUMP!
Source: Everyday Italian from Giada de Laurentiis
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped or minced
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt (use either sea salt or kosher salt), plus more to taste
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
2 (32-oz.) cans crushed tomatoes
2 dried bay leaves
To start making the battuto, in a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute until tender. Add the garlic and saute until pale gold (soffritto). Add the celery and carrots and 1/2 tsp. each of salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft about 10 minutes (insaporire). Add the tomatoes and bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.
Sauce can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, then cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat before using.
(It's ok for you to feel like a proud Italian grandmother right about now! Good job!)
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