My girlfriend and I have what we call Pasta Fridays. This traditionally (it’s a tradition even though we’ve only been doing it for the 3 months we’ve lived together) involves making a pasta dish for dinner, lots of wine, and chocolate for dessert while we watch old episodes of Top Chef. Oh the exciting lives we lead.
My normal strategy when making this pasta dish is, admittedly, a bit amateurish for someone who considers themselves an above average home cook. To use a few sports analogies, I’d give myself 3-4 WAR, 16-18 PER, and my cooking DVOA would rank outside the top 10 but squarely in the top 20. I use store bought, dried pasta and store bought sauce. I use boneless, skinless chicken breast and pretty much any vegetable that is left over from the week – asparagus, broccoli, bell pepper, onion, mushroom – chop them up and throw them into a skillet. Add some garlic and salt and pepper, maybe some fresh basil and you’ve got a standard Pasta Friday dish.
This week, that all changed. I stumbled across Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce recipe in so many different random blogs that it could only be described as, should you choose to believe is this sorta thing, a sign from God. I wasn’t even going to write about it (hence the picture above being the leftover pasta and not the real, piping hot pasta deliciousness), but then I was reading this article in the New Yorker and not even two paragraphs in and another reference to Marcella Hazan’s recipe. So not only did I have to make it, but I had to write about it now, too.
I have a general philosophy in life that if you aren’t going to do something correctly, then there really is no reason to try and end up half-assing it and then it turns out to be shit and so you think ‘well that’s not as good as its hyped up to be’ but really the reason is because you messed it up because you had no idea what you were doing and actually if you would have done it correctly it would have turned out amazing and you’d be in love with said thing and you’d end up becoming one of the people who evangelized it to you that made you want to try it in the first place. One time I made my own pasta, but because I tried hand-rolling it with a cheap-ass rolling pin I bought at Dahl’s (RIP) instead of an official heavy rolling pin or cheating and using a Kitchenaid mixer, it turned me off from making pasta ever again.
The only ever time I’ve ever made pasta sauce prior to my Marcella Hazan-inspired voyage is with my buddy who has Italian heritage (shoutout to the Massina’s from Messina). I’ve watched so many cooking shows I became convinced that because I don’t have a recipe that is from the Old Country than whatever I make is going to be shit anyway so why not just use this jar of Jamie Oliver sauce – oooh it’s a got a bit of a kick to it! And even though I don’t believe in fate, or signs from God (or anything else that isn’t real), I decided I couldn’t ignore the coincidences any longer, went to the store and made sure my basket had the ingredients the recipe calls for – San Marzano tomatoes, unsalted butter, and an onion (note: I had an onion at home so I didn’t buy another one. I’m not rich.)
While at the store, I came to the realization that I also needed to find something to put in my pasta because only Communists and my three nieces eat just pasta and sauce. At this point, I’m still a bit skeptical that this recipe is going to be any good – where’s the garlic and basil? – so I decide that I need to make sure my ‘fillings’ make up for what could be a disaster of a sauce. After making four separate trips through every aisle in the grocery store in what has to have been the most inefficient shopping trip of all time, I’m ready to go to the checkout line. In addition to the aforementioned sauce ingredients, my basket contains: frozen garlic bread, fresh basil, the old faithful boneless, skinless chicken breast, a red bell pepper, and two bottles of red wine (for drinking, not for cooking).
The sauce is supposed to take an hour to cook, and in all honesty the recipe could not be easier to follow. Normally I would link to it for you but I’m not sure who should get the original credit for it other than Marcella Hazan herself so just Google it and you’ll find it just fine. The plan is to roast the red pepper in the oven, then start the sauce. While the sauce is simmering, prep the rest of the food: chop the chicken, slice the mushrooms (I already had these at home too), peel the garlic, remove the skin and chop the red pepper, and chop the basil. If all works according to my expert calculations, I’ll throw the chicken, mushrooms and garlic into a pan with some olive oil, salt and pepper, then add in the roasted red pepper (at some point, not exactly sure when yet). When the fusilli pasta (gluten free for some reason, also already in the pantry) is done, I’ll add that to the same pan as the chicken and mushrooms and add the pasta sauce, toss it all together and finish with some basil to make it look pretty. Oh and the garlic bread! Gotta make sure that goes in the oven at the right time, too. Don’t forget about that.
If there is one thing I excel at in the kitchen, it’s making sure every thing finishes at exactly the same time. Sure, this sometimes leads to chaos as I’m trying to do 6 things at once as opposed to letting the pasta sit there for an extra two minutes, but it won’t be hot and fresh then! Not this time, though, I’ve got it all worked out. First the red pepper goes in the oven, after about 20 minutes start the sauce (enough time to get the ingredients in and bring it to a simmer before having to remove the red pepper).
Everything goes according to plan for the first 55 minutes of cooking, except for some chili flakes that I added to the chicken and mushrooms – juuuuust enough. The last 5 minutes ended up a bit chaotic as is my usual – I forgot the damn garlic bread in the oven, so it was slightly on the ‘a bit crispy and doesn’t really taste like garlic bread it just tastes more like bread’ side of the doneness continuum.
The sauce though, the sauce is what you came here for and here is my verdict on the sauce – it was a bit disappointing. Now, there is a very real possibility that my pasta sauce palette has been ruined from years of store-bought sauces and the extra sugar and other god-knows-what ‘ingredients’ that get thrown into those jars. I’ve made good use of all the extra choices BIG PASTA SAUCE has given us over the years. It was a bit runnier that I was anticipating – granted, this could have been because I didn’t simmer it on high enough heat, allowing it to reduce properly. There were still chunks from the tomatoes in it, which was nice, but it was still liquid-y. The fusilli pasta did a good enough job of sopping this up, but if using spaghetti you might want to be more careful with your garlic bread so that it can properly do the sopping up – that ultimately might not be a bad thing, as I’m pretty sure that tomato sauce-soaked garlic bread is part of the Seven Wonders of the Culinary World.
Regardless of the recipe you are using, I would highly recommend only using San Marzano tomatoes. I’ve always seen them on the cooking shows, but good lord are they legit. The flame dame-est, as we might say back in Waterloo I-A. They are what makes the sauce more than anything else – with such a basic recipe, high quality ingredients are of utmost importance and those tomatoes are the epitome of the italian-chef-kissing-fingers emoji.