Secret Sauce

January 29, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

“So, what’s your secret recipe for this great tomato sauce?”

I heard this from at least 8 or 9 people on Saturday night, when my wife and I served up 65 pounds of ziti and 480 meatballs, all covered in almost 25 gallons of our home-made tomato sauce. No, I don’t have a big family; this is a now annual fund-raising dinner to help out the confirmation class of the First Congregational Church in downtown Southington.

I know, I know – you came here to read about Freemasonry, not about my cooking skills. I’m getting to that part.

My wife and I had started cooking the sauce a week previously, using the 8 burner stove and large pots available in the church kitchen. I’m sure that the church meeting hapll must have smelled like an Italian restaurant by the end of the week, and by 5:30 pm – a good half hour before the advertised time – because people were ready to stampede lining up to get good seats. We started serving at a quarter to six, and didn’t get a lull until well after 7:00, at which time I was able to walk around, fishing for compliments asking for feedback for the next year. And that’s when I noticed something: even though I told people what I put in my sauce, everybody acted as if I were being cagey about the answer. But that certainly was not the case; I’m usually more than happy to tell people what my own recipes are, and in fact, I’m going to tell you right here how I make tomato sauce.

Yeah, yeah, I know – you’re waiting for the part about Freemasonry. It’s coming, really.

A word of caution: if you’re the type of person who enjoys “recipes” that include such syrupy metaphors as “Add a cup of courage, a teaspoon of tolerance, stir with passion, and serve with L O V E“, then get thee hence! This blog is a NO GLURGE ZONE. Sure, those cutesy sayings were funny the first six or seven hundred times I heard them, but enough already. The 70s are over, and those little naked kids with the big eyes and hearts over their heads are has-beens. Deal with it.

Yes, yes, I’m getting to the part about Freemasonry. Really.

Now, I take a dim view of people who refuse to share good recipe. I don’t care if your great-great-grandmother carried it in her boot when she came from the old country, or if you just discovered it while messing about in the kitchen. In my opinion, the kind of people who won’t share their recipes are merely feeding their egos while they feed you a meal. When they invite you to dinner, it’s either to brag or to play the “I’ve got a secret” game and are, in essence, saying “Hey, I’ve got this really great thing and I’m only going to let you have a little taste in order that I might feel special. But don’t worry; come back next year and I’ll let you have another little taste, just so you can remember how special this is.”

Even more odious are those that purport to give you the recipe, but hold back a key step or ingredient, thereby making you think that you are stupid for not being able to follow directions. A pox on all of them.

What? Oh, yeah – the Freemasonry part. Sorry.

When the first few people asked what I put in my sauce, I told them “A hell of a lot of tomatoes.” It was funny at the time, and very true – we bought over two dozen of those large restaurant sized cans at the local warehouse store, along with salad for 200 people, dressing, grated Parmesan, and sundry other items. We started by sauteing several bulbs – that’s bulbs, not cloves – of crushed garlic in olive oil. Once the smell started wafting through the church hall (I should point out that I did this during one of the services in order to remind people of the upcoming dinner) I added a few scoops of the crushed tomatoes, and some of the typical Italian spices: oregano, parsley, basil, and a bit of fennel seed. I let this cook for a good thirty minutes, and then put some into each one of the five large pots. This served as a base, to which we added the rest of the canned tomatoes. One pot we reserved as a marinara sauce, and to the others we added some cooked ground beef (left over from the Rally Day picnic in September), and some minced and cooked Italian sausages, both of which had been cooked and minced previously in order to save time. We cooked the sauce for about six hours that day, and then came back for a few hours mid-week, and put them on again first thing Saturday morning so that they had another good eight hours to simmer. Usually I put some red wine in the sauce to counter the bitter taste from the tomatoes, but after a few people had concerns about sensitivities to the sulfites in the wine, this year I opted to add some sugar and salt.

I have to say that this was one of the best batches of sauce that I’ve made in a few years. Even my wife will attest that this year it was particularly good, and the compliments from the hungry crowd was certainly a testament to how it turned out.

Yes, yes – I’m coming to the Freemasonry part directly.

I told every person who asked me exactly what I used in the sauce – which, as you can see, are just regular Italian spices. Every person had the same reaction: If I’m just using regular spices and ingredients that you normally find in sauce, then why did this batch come out so well? Certainly I’m leaving out a crucial step, a secret ingredient, a particular item that made this come out better, right? After all, you can’t just throw some tomatoes and spices in a pan and expect it to come out like that, right? Right?

Apparently, my sauce admirers miss the essential point.

They had the list of ingredients that I use, and I even gave them some little tips. And while in theory there might be some small differences between brands of tomatoes or spices, in practice I’ve never noticed any significant difference.

So, what is the point of all this?

The raw tomatoes contain a lot of water, which needs to cook off. In that process, the heat breaks down certain proteins and acids, releasing certain chemicals, and causing others to bond. Five gallons of sauce in a pot takes hours to get up to the proper temperature, with constant stirring to prevent the bottom from burning and tainting the rest of the sauce. The heat also breaks down the chemicals in the spices, and the stirring allows the flavor to gently infuse throughout the pot of warm liquid. Eventually, the acids break down and dissipate, and the sauce itself tastes of the fragrant basil and oregano, perhaps mixed with the spicy saltiness of the sausage.

The secret, you see, is not the ingredients at all. It’s the time.

Those people who are accustomed to opening a jar of grocery-bought sauce simply can not conceive of the investment of time that one must make to cook a good, home-made tomato sauce. Despite the stereotype of old Italian ladies standing at a stove all day, few people really understand that it’s the process of cooking that makes the difference between a rich, thick, savory sauce and a thin, slightly bitter one. Too often we try to make up for the lack of flavor by adding extra garlic, salt, basil, or other spices. But these serve merely to cover up the fact that the sauce itself is a hastily prepared affair.

Even the cooking shows on television offer up tips on how to make good tomato sauce, especially tailored for busy people who only have an hour or so. And now question about it, some of those sauces are tasty. But they’re not the same; indeed, if I may be so bold, they’re not even in the same class.

Let me make this clear: In sauce making, as with so many other things in life, there is no substitute for the investment of one’s time. It is only through the lengthy process of cooking that the unwanted and unnecessary ingredients break down, and are replaced by the desirable aromas and textures. It is only through time that certain agents can be make their way around the large vat of liquid, moving here and there until the gentle stirring combines them with other agents to produce something delightful to the senses. And certainly, the larger the pot, the more time is needed.

Time.

Speaking of which, it looks as if I’ve run out. It appears that I’m just not going to get around to discussing Freemasonry, doesn’t it?

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  1. kmousli
    February 8, 2008 at 2:47 am

    very wise, i see your analogy and all i can say bravo !, i learned something today

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