On In My Kitchen
Originally appeared in Arthur (2005)
and Southern California desert denizen Chris Goss, a true
three-stripes rock vet and part-time Master of Reality,
takes a weirder than usual deep-career turn with his
involvement in the pan-prog-burn-one trio Goon Moon (with
Hella drummer Zach Hill and ex-M.Manson bassist Twiggy
Ramirez), whose inexplicably wonderful debut EP release,
I Got A Brand New Egg Layin' Machine, is out now on
Suicide Squeeze. For this ish's Kitchen column, Goss
gives us a recipe for Italian-American pasta sauce sans
garlic. It figures. Watch out for this guy on the
freeway, he'll signal a change to a lane you didn't know
1988:Newly arrived in Los Angeles, it becomes obvious within a few months that I am not going to encounter the style of Italian-American cooking so easy to find in my former stomping grounds of Upstate New York, or for that matter, all of the Italian American communities that stretch from the Jersey Shore to Chicago. Under further investigation, I find this had been a favorite L.A.-gripe among displanted New Yorkers since the Rat Pack days. Every so often, a new tip: there's a place in Brentwood, or, there's a place in Silver Lake." Mythical stories of truckloads of New Jersey water brought in for bread and pizza dough.
Whatever. Today, we're talking about pork sauce. And the theory: It's the economy, Stupidon! And the weather. And the soil.
1920: Shiploads of poor Southern Italian immigrants like Mr. and Mrs. Anthony and Rose Modafferi hit Ellis Island and spin off to any Northeastern industrial city that may have a brother, a cousin, or best yet, a cherished factory job waiting. In most cases, the poorer they are, the less West, or South they travel. To this day I wonder, "Jesus, Tony! Why did you stop at Syracuse?" It turns out, food aesthetic-wise, I'm really glad he did.
1950: Plain and simple: The men's asses having been worked off holding down two shifts at the iron foundry and for the first time in their lives they can afford to buy meat. From the beloved family butcher to the dinner table in their own two-story duplex in the Italian part of town with a new flock of grandchildren and expanded family living upstairs. Oh yeah, and just enough room for a backyard garden with the Eastern clay soil and sticky, humid summers that tomatoes seem to love. (You can smell a sweet Jersey/NY/PA tomato in August from 20 feet away. Serious.) So the nonas have a ball with their expanded food budgets, gardens and neighborhood import delis. Remember, they had just survived TWO world wars, a depression, and a disease-ridden trip across the ocean. Death and starvation spawn amazing cooks. Holds true for ALL of the world's cultures. My nona and her friends are foragers in the summertime: wild dandelions, rhubarb, onions from the empty lots down the street wrapped in their aprons. Trading homegrown tomatoes for backyard pears or handmade pasta. Always making do for a large family with very little and wasting nothing. The thought of their strength and perseverance still gives me hope for this world today. "Get together, one more time" - Jim Morrison
1965: Everyday at 5pm in my newly built Upstate suburban neighborhood, the air smells like sausage and peppers frying. Tomato and basil simmering. Eggplant and zucchini baking. Every family's sauce is slightly different from the next. The Modafferi meat sauce didn't have garlic in it, so the myriad of possible side courses - meatballs, braciolla (stuffed steak rolls usually included on Sunday) and sauteed greens with lots of garlic really stood out against the sweet sauce. Store-bought canned tomatoes are allowed, sometimes even admired, for their sweetness and convenience when the home canned tomatoes ran out in springtime. Every nona (now in their 70s) thinks she is the best cook around. And actually they ALL are the best cooks around. Unbelievably good food. Pass it on.
2005: Here is a simplified, reasonable facsimile of Rose's rich, meat and fat laden sauce. Give yourself a full day's time to do this properly. It needs constant tending. Your kitchen will most likely end up being a greasy, tomato splattered mess. If you live in Southern California like me, keep in mind the brutally cold East Coast winters can almost stretch to six months long, and it's hard to eat like this as often in the warm climate where I live now. The same holds true for the Northern European cuisine that my German dad cooked so well. But that's for another page in another issue...
In a heavy, large saucepan that you know won't burn easily (at least 10 qt. to give you lots of room for stirring and meat), thoroughly brown the pork meat and sausage on medium heat. Remove the cooked meat and sausage. Set aside. Leave the fat and browned renderings on the bottom of the pot.
Add chopped onions and olive oil. This process will deglaze the bottom of the pot and turn the onions brown quickly. Sauté until onions soften and go transparent.
Add tomato paste and a few tablespoons of water. This mixture of paste, onions,fat and renderings needs to be constantly stirred. It will spit and glop like lava. It's alive. Don't let it stick. In about 10 minutes the paste will seem to change from it's original dark red color to a lighter orange. Apparently, this is a sign from St. Anthony (patron saint of big eaters) that the sugar and acidity levels in the tomato paste have reached their perfect balance. When Mario Batali mentioned the color change a few years ago on Molto Mario, that's the moment I knew he was for real. This is secret knowledge of the Southern Italian Ragu Illuminati. (Now formerly secret knowledge.) This is food alchemy.
Now add the two large cans of tomato puree and 2/3 can of water. Stir in thoroughly. Lower heat to a very low simmer. Cover. Take a breath. The grease and paste splattering battle of the last hour has calmed. Clean up the stove and kitchen a few minutes. Keep an eye on the sauce. "Feel" the bottom with your spoon to always make sure no sticking is happening.
Add pork meat and sausage back to sauce.
Add basil, salt, peppers, sugar.
Play your fave CDs, put Leave It To Beaver on TVLand in the background. Gently stir and feel every 10 minutes and cook covered at a very low simmer boil for about five hours. During all of this period lots of the water will start to evaporate. Fat will rise to the top. The sauce will thicken.
Start to skim. We wanted all of the fat to start with, but now we don't want it too greasy. The once-empty can will now be about a third full of skimmed fat.
By now, the pork meat and sausage will be almost tenderly falling apart and infiltrated with the sweet tomato sauce. Boil your pasta water.
Lordy. Cook your favorite pasta shape.
This was served on Thursday and Sunday at nona's house. The men usually liked the heavier Rigatoni, Rotelle ('springs') and homemade Gnocchi shapes. And always a platter of spaghetti too. Always topped with grated Locatelli romano. (Available at the Monte Carlo/Pinnochio Italian Deli in Burbank on Magnolia. Go there.)
Eat. Have a heart attack. Enjoy.
Note: I had promised Jay Babcock a meatball recipe and the world's best pineapple upside-down cake recipe. But alas, I'm going back to sleep now. Hope I'm invited back. Bye.