CHIAVARI, Italy - Now that summer is over and I’m starting to think about cooking real food again, I happened to mention to my neighbor that I was thinking about making a fresh tomato sugo. She looked at me and said, “you mean salsa, don’t you?”
|Think of the Possibilities|
I didn’t think so, but then again the whole idea of salsa and sugo has always confused me. According to my neighbor salsa is a sauce, like mayonnaise or Béarnaise, and sugo is juice. “That’s all fine,” I said, “but if it’s true how come they sell sugo di pomodoro in the grocery store with olives and other stuff in it, as ready made pasta sauce? She didn’t know the answer to that. “Some things just are,” she said.
In his cookbook “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” (1891), Pellegrino Artusi wrote that a sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce) is made from tomatoes that are simply cooked and run through a food mill. At the most, he says, you can add a small rib of celery as long as your finger, and a few parsley and basil leaves. Salsa, he claims, is made to accompany food, like the salsa verde (green sauce) often served with boiled meat and the mayonnaise and salsa tonnata (tuna sauce) most often used in veal tonnata, both very popular dishes in Torino and in my house.
While sugo and salsa are often used interchangeably, sugo seems to be reserved for pasta. To add to the confusion there is also ragu', which is a meat based sauce.
When I looked up ragu' recipes on the internet, there was one thing they all had in common besides the fact that they were all made with meat, and that was they all required a very long cooking time, often up to six hours. And then I tuned into an Italian cooking program called Nonna ed Io, (Grandma and I) and watched Chef Adriana Montellanico teach Adriano Rosa, who in my opinion is not her grandson although I may be wrong, how to make ragu'.
|Nonna ed Io|
There were a few things she did that surprised me. The first was after she chopped and cooked her soffrito, which is a mix of celery, onions and carrots, she set it aside. Then, in another pan, she began cooking her meat, which was chopped beef. If she added a little bit of olive oil to the pan before she started cooking the beef, I didn’t see it. When the beef was browned, she added the soffrito and mixed it into the meat. Then she added:
- about ¾ of a cup of white wine
- a couple of whole cloves
- and a bay leaf
In the meantime, the (TV) grandson put a can of whole tomatoes into a food processor and whizzed them. That surprised me but when I read Artrusi’s recipes for tomato based sauces, he also suggests putting the tomatoes through a food mill, which does much the same as a food processor but by hand. When the tomatoes were almost smooth Chef Adriana added them to the meat mix, along with a few basil leaves, saying that the sauce/sugo now had to cook for at least a couple of hours.
I had never heard of cooking the soffrito separately and adding it to the meat after the meat was cooked. I always cooked my meat in the soffrito. Another thing that surprised me was the idea of putting a couple of whole cloves and a bay leaf in tomato sauce, errr, sugo, and adding white wine. I always used red wine, but I was wrong about that. Italians really do use white wine in tomato sauce, not red. But where was the garlic? Where was the oregano? I always thought those two ingredients were the backbone of meat sauce, but I guess I am wrong again.
There were literally hundreds of sugo recipes on the internet, using all kinds of meat including lamb, duck, pork, veal, pancetta (bacon) and, of course, beef. Some recipes added sugar to the sauce, others did not. I think it depends on how sweet your tomatoes are. And some recipes called for a few tablespoons of tomato paste, something my Grandmother always did and she always used beef and pork, something Artrusi also recommends.
But Chef Adriana used plain old ground beef with no sugar, no tomato paste, no olive oil, no oregano and no garlic. Her (TV) grandson said it smelled yummy. I have my doubts about that but who am I to judge. And so once again I end up more confused than when I started.