The Whole Recipe — Sugo

Sugo alla South Roanoke Apartment Villages Pool

Every family has a few recipes that are ALWAYS served. For us one of those is a spaghetti sauce that was handed down to my mother almost directly from a buonafide Italian grandmother. It was referenced in a very early Eats article on different kinds of tomato sauces, which even has a comment that echos a very important part of this sauce: you add the tomato paste to the onions and garlic in oil and “fry” the paste a bit to caramelize some of the concentrated sugars before adding the wet tomato sauce and plum tomatoes to simmer.

With this communal nature of recipes in mind I thought it would be interesting to learn more about this “handing down” of food knowledge because the process of teaching cooking has always (and continues to be) one of master-and-apprentice. This model is codified in the culinary world where every serious chef has worked their way up from dishwasher to prep to line, but that’s just a reflection of how humans have always learned to cook: watching someone with more skill, and listening to them explain why they are doing it. Since I knew a bit, but not the whole story, about how this family favorite was acquired, I decided to capture the Whole Recipe for anyone who is interested in it, not just the ingredients and preparation.

As you can see in the photo at the top, I made a batch of this over the weekend — a bit for dinner and mostly to freeze for many easy future dinners. I was inspired to make it because I had defrosted our kitchen freezer and found some frozen spare ribs hiding in the drifts of ice in the back, and I was sure they were dried out, but would still be able to flavor a long cooked dish, and pork-on-the-bone is a critical component of this dish, in my opinion. The great thing about using spare ribs in this sauce is that by hour four or five the meat falls off the bone and pretty much melts into the sauce — you don’t really see chunks of meat in your sauce (unless you add it to the end as Carol recommends) — which I’ve learned is one of the characteristics of a classic Italian sugo.

Another indication of this being a traditional dish, the recipe was never written down. I asked Carol to find the earliest written copy of this recipe (because seeing folds and stains and pencil edits can also tell a story about a dish), but she insists that she never wrote it down, and that the first time she saw it in print was in an informal cookbook I put together just after college that collected many of the recipes I used. However, when I looked at that set of photocopies I realize that I had dumbed it down — it wasn’t the long-cooked version. I also realized, after listening to Carol’s full story, that I have altered the original, or at least the recipe I cooked for myself does not match the recipe she described. It matches the structure — fry the tomato paste, add bony pork, cook all day — but I treat the herbs a bit differently (I fry them with the tomato paste), I like to add sliced carrots and celery (to pump up the veggie body of the sauce), and I rarely add meat at the end. To me, these alterations are a testament to the recipe as inspiration, as opposed to the recipe as rote. A good recipe stimulates the chef’s brain rather than puts the chef to sleep. And the reason you hardly ever hear about chefs suing each other for copying a recipe is because good chefs know that it’s almost impossible for two chefs to use the same recipe and come up with identical dishes. The permutations of technique, skill sets, experience, not to mention measurement and type of ingredients means that outside of an industrial setting (with strict measurements and standardized ingredients) copying a recipe is not the same as copying a dish.

Therefore I will finally set-in-type MY version of my mother’s version of a nameless New Yorker’s version of his grandmother’s gravy:

[You can adjust this recipe infinitely depending on how many places there are at your table, and/or how much space is in your freezer, so this recipe is per pound of the bony starter pork, and even though my mother says “one” big can of plum tomatoes, I *never* saw our stock pot less than half full of this sauce when she cooked it, and I’ve *always* used the one-one-two ratio of paste-sauce-plums. This recipe is terrific to make when you have guests because it’s pretty easy to get going in the morning, and as long as you have a low simmer setting on your range (Viking owners beware) or a Crock Pot you can let it go all day, stirring only occasionally. Then to “make dinner” all that’s necessary is to start a pot of water to boil for making the pasta, picking out the bones from the sugo, and seasoning the sugo with sugar, salt, and pepper. Your guests will give you credit for cooking *all-day* to make an unbelievably good dinner when in reality you spent less than an hour doing stuff, mostly opening cans.]

A note on ingredients:

–Even though I grow my own awesome heirloom paste tomatoes (Amish Paste variety), I would never use those in this recipe because the long simmer drives away the subtle aromatics that make home-grown tomatoes so special. Good quality supermarket canned tomatoes will have the same result — I use Muir Glen brand, but it’s not hard to find real Italian San Marzano canned tomatoes if you prefer. Save the home-grown tomatoes for a fresh tomato sauce (cooked less than an hour) where they DO make a difference.

–My mother prefers to use pork chops to start her sugo, but I prefer spare ribs for the chunky/not chunky reason described above. But any bony piece of uncured pork (shoulder, neck, hock/trotter, etc.) would work. Just remember that an hour before serving you pick the bones out of the sauce because us Westerners don’t like to be reminded of where our meat comes from…

–The garlic listed is the relative amount for this dish, and clove sizes vary greatly. Two cloves will give a “suggestion” of garlic in the background. Normally I use half-a-head of garlic for this recipe. Others might even skip the fresh garlic and sprinkle a little garlic powder in after you add the plum tomatoes…know your audience.

–The same way that heirloom tomatoes might be “wasted” on this long simmering dish, fresh herbs will lose their freshness after a few hours in the pot in my opinion. Plus, frying dried herbs does result in a powerful kick to that flavor component of the finished dish, and frying the same fresh herbs wouldn’t do the same thing. So I recommend using dried herbs even if fresh are in season. And although fresh basil is terrific in a fresh tomato sauce, I find it adds a bitter note when put in long simmering dishes like this — I’ve never felt that dried basil tastes like anything more than confetti, so I skip it. To me this sauce benefits from oregano, marjorum, thyme, and fennel (seeds or ground).

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 onions, sliced
Up to two Tbsp of “Italian Seasoning” dried herbs (the supermarket mix, or one of your own making)
1 pound bony pork
1 small can tomato paste
1 regular can unseasoned tomato sauce
2 big cans whole plum tomatoes
1 Tbsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste
[1 pound sweet or hot Italian sausage — optional]

In a pot big enough to simmer everything add the oil, garlic, and onions and saute a few minutes over medium heat until the onions are translucent.

Add the dried herbs and stir for a minute or so.

Add the can of tomato paste and saute for another few minutes, making sure to break up the pasty blob and mix it with the onions and garlic as much as possible. During this step you must stir constantly or the tomato paste could burn, but what you want to see is the paste evenly darkening a bit, which means the sugars are getting caramelized.

Add the tomato sauce and turn the heat to low.

Dump the plum tomatoes into a big bowl and “crunch” each one of them with your hand, turning them into raggedy bits. Then add them to the pot.

While this is coming to a steady simmer, roast or fry your pork at a high temp until it is nicely brown all over then add it in the pot. Deglaze the roasting/frying pan that it was cooked in with water or white wine or vermouth to scrape all the good bits off the pan, and when the pan bottom is clean dump the deglazing liquid into the pot.

Stir, cover, and set on the lowest flame you have for at least FOUR hours. All day (six to eight hours) would be fine, as long as it never dries out because then it will start to burn.

An hour before serving put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta, remove the bones from the sugo, add sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and if you are adding sausage, fry those up until nicely brown, drop in the sauce to cook mix with the sugo, and deglaze the pan and add that to the sugo as well.

Buon appetito!

2 thoughts on “The Whole Recipe — Sugo

  1. Eric — Must be tomato sauce month. When you called to interview your mom, I had already started writing about my sauce that I made last Friday. I will finish and post, though standing beside your entry, it may pale.


  2. I find that – like Carol’s old friend – it’s important to “fry” the tomato paste. It gives the sauce a kind of smoky flavor. My hint from an old Italian friend of mine and I DO remember his name : Tom Cruciani. Good job recording CheezE.


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