Monday, October 31, 2011

My Sicilian Table: Preparing the Tomato Sauce Step by Step

My maternal grandmother, Leonarda Bilello, a refined and artistically gifted woman who was born shortly after the reign of Queen Victoria and who passed away this year, four months shy of her 100th birthday, made an unforgettable tomato sauce that everyone in my mother's family emulates.   Mamma Bilello's sauce (I  have always called my grandmothers Mamma and my mother Mammina)  utilizes sautéed onion and garlic in addition to the core ingredients of tomatoes, olive oil and basil.  More distinctively she added sugar resulting in a deliciously sweet and soul-comforting tomato sauce. This is the tomato sauce that I learned to make from my mother and which I have taught my sons to make.  This version is most common in my family as in many Sicilian kitchens.  Other Sicilian kitchens omit the onion and use whole garlic only which is later removed, and they do not add sugar.  In honor of my grandmother Leonarda, the beautiful and gracious matriarch of my maternal family, we will make her version here today.

4 lbs ripe tomatoes
3 large cloves of garlic peeled and whole
1 small red onion very finely sliced
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
a generous handful of fresh basil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 of a small red chili pepper, dried or fresh

You will need a medium covered stock pot for the tomatoes and a large stock pot for the pasta.  You will also need a food mill fitted with the smallest holes.  As the food mill is an important tool in the Sicilian kitchen, it is worthwhile to invest in a high quality one such as the Rosle I use in my kitchen, which is pictures here.

Fill the medium stock pot with water and bring it to a boil.  Add raw tomatoes and par-boil them for about 10 minutes. You'll know they are ready when the skins start to break open.  Transfer the tomatoes to a bowl to drain and discard the cooking water. 

Transfer the tomatoes to the food mill fitted on top of a bowl to capture the sauce, and begin grinding them to a velvety consistency. Occasionally turn the handle counterclockwise to clear the mechanism.


In the same pot that has been cleaned and dried, add the olive oil and heat it, adding the thinly sliced onion first.  Allow the onion to saute gently at a low heat. When it is translucent, add the whole cloves of garlic and continue gently coaxing the flavor with a very low heat for about 2 or 3 more minutes, without allowing them to burn or crisp.
Add the ground tomatoes and raise the heat slightly.  Stir and add salt to taste, followed by a tablespoon of sugar, basil, and about a quarter piece of  the hot pepper (called "peperoncino" in Italian or "cornetto" in Catania).  Add the peperoncino  in one piece as it will be removed when the sauce is cooked. It should  be the milder Italian variety. Never use flakes or cayenne powder in this sauce. The idea is to heighten the flavor, not to add a lot of heat.  Allow the sauce to cook for about a half hour, or until it is thickened, stirring it occasionally and adjusting seasonings.

 As you near the completion of cooking, fill the large stockpot with cold water and bring it to a boil adding a handful of salt to taste. An elegant choice of pasta is a "casareccia"  or hand made pasta. Whether you use a good quality imported dry pasta or a fresh pasta from your local artisan, cook the pasta al dente according to the manufacturer's instructions.  In Italy as in Sicily, it is the mark of authenticity to cook the pasta al dente.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it quickly and divide it into portions in individual plates  Remove the garlic, basil and peperoncino from the sauce so that they don't find their way onto a plate.  Very little sauce is needed on the pasta and Italians never eat their pasta swimming in tomato sauce.  A small ladle of sauce placed on top is more than sufficient.  Basil makes a beautiful and fragrant garnish.  Your pasta can be served with cheese, but I suggest that if you use cheese try something more typically southern such as sheep milk "pecorino" with black peppercorns or "ricotta salata," a dried aged ricotta that has a unique flavor.  At the Sicilian table, cheese is presented whole, and grated directly on the pasta for each guest. 

One final word before we go. Sicilians do not mind the onion in the sauce and many of us rather like it.  If sliced finely the onion will all but disappear.  But if you do not like the onion texture in your sauce or you are feeding children who may not like it, you can make a small modification. Par-boil tomatoes as before and drain them. Add them whole to the onion and garlic saute and cook them for about 20 minutes, crushing them with a fork. Season as usual.  Remove the garlic, basil and peperoncino when done cooking and then run the entire contents through the food mill.
Buon appetito, and....

Ciao a presto!

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