Italian Food, Life in Italy

Fresh Herbs and the Authentic Italian Sauce

When I first moved to Italy in January I was sort of an apprentice as I was living with my fiance’s parents. I lived with them for seven full months, day in and day out, and had the fabulous opportunity to observe his Italian mother cook two meals each day.  One of the first things I learned to make was a basic Italian sauce which they call il sugo.  I was amazed at how simple it was and how far Americans are from the authentic style.  I realized while watching her that we have misconstrued many Italian dishes into something of our own, not just sauce! I will be writing about these other misconstrued dishes along the way in future posts. Before I begin with the sauce though, I would like to show some photos of the fresh herbs we have at our villa that we all share as a family. The first pic is of sage. I learned while working in the restaurant business for years that you are supposed to rub sage before you add it to anything. Sage has a soft, fuzzy feel.Image

Above is fresh basil, it’s a smooth leaf with a sweet smell

Above is fresh (Italian) parsley, a.k.a. flat leaf parsley in America. When I first moved to Italy I was searching for cilantro everywhere and even had a translation for the word online. However, cilantro does not exist in Italy. Cilantro is from Mexico and Italy just doesn’t import from everywhere.

Above we have rosemary. Rosemary grows like crazy. As you can see, I will have plenty of rosemary to garnish my food with for the next millennium!

Last, we have mint. Mint is extremely aromatic and there is no way you could miss this in the store if you smell it! I like to use fresh mint on grilled zucchini and eggplant.

Anyway, let’s talk about sauce. The authentic Italian tomato sauce must include this: fresh basil leaves, garlic, onion, carrot, celery, and of course just plain tomato sauce.  In the States, looking for plain tomato sauce can actually be quite confusing as many people think it is the pre-made sauce from companies like Ragu, but it comes in a rather small can and is labeled tomato sauce/plain tomato sauce.  This requires there to be nothing added to the tomato pulp. You need to make sure you grab the right can of tomato sauce with no herbs and no nothing added to it. Why? Because you want to make your own fresh style that’s why! Now, if you want to make your own tomato pulp and just skip this whole confusing mess at the store, then you need to cook tomatoes whole.  You first cook them whole, then skin them, seed them, and throw them in a food processor until liquid-like.  If you make your own tomato pulp you will notice that your sauce will come out with a much lighter color, this is normal because the tomatoes are fresh.

So, I’ll explain the simple Italian process of making the sauce.  It is simple, but many cooks simply can not cook correctly without experience because cooking is a trial and error (in other words people can do a sauce with ingredients but prepare it the wrong way and come out with different results) Because of this, I’ll spell this process all out in honor of some of my friends who have implied their needs.

Step 1. Finely grate a small onion, one carrot, and one stick of celery. This should be grated to smooth pulp. Note* I added zucchini once because I had some, and it was a mistake! It made my sauce too sweet. If you want to add stuff then make sure to adjust with salt.

Step 2. Take one clove of garlic and remove the skin.  Do not cut it, just take your chef’s knife and smash it to allow the aroma to come through. Italians rarely ever chop up garlic and add it to food, instead they cook the garlic whole with the dish and then remove it before serving.  I’ve seen this at several people’s houses.  You have to remember that they are romantic people, and garlic is not a romantic smell on a person! So, smash it.

Step 3. Use fresh basil as your herb in your sauce.  Basil is sweet, and fresh basil is on another level in comparison to dried basil.  If you look around, you should be able to buy a fresh plant instead of just the leaves from the store.  It is well worth having a plant instead of constantly buying the leaves. I have a plant so I have to just wash off my leaves.Note* I added oregano to my sauce today and was quickly told that they never add oregano to tomato sauce for pasta – only for pizza. I guess this is because both oregano and basil are sweet so it’s just too much of one taste.

Step 4. First put a good amount of oil in your pot and lightly saute your veggies. Then put about three cups of tomato sauce in a pot (the amounts of veggies suffice for 3 cups).  Add 3/4 c. of water and the basil.  Bring to a boil and add a generous amount of fine salt.  Stir it together and boil this for 10-15 minutes over medium heat in order to combine the flavors and cook the sauce (tomato sauce in a bottle is raw, not pre-cooked!).

Step 5. Now, take out the basil and the garlic. Always taste your food, and adjust your salt if you need to.  Your sauce should be velvety smooth. If you want to, you can add parmesan cheese at this point and mix it in.  When you plate, you first mix a ladle full of sauce with the pasta to coat.  Plate the pasta, then cover the pasta with sauce and top with parmesan.  This is the method of plating for tomato based sauces not for cream based or oil based sauces. Make sure before you add sauce to your pasta that you DO NOT coat your pasta with oil.  This is a bad idea because your sauce will then not stick to the pasta! Back to adjusting with salt, I’ve learned that Italians are crazy about salt.  Many times my husband’s mother would ask me “did you add salt?” And I would tell her “yes” and then she would check it and say “no you didn’t” and would add more! Another thing, I know that salt and pepper are always together, but I noticed while doing my apprenticeship that they do not use pepper very often like we do. I have seen them add pepper only to meat and pasta fagioli! Maybe it’s just his family.

So, some ingredients you did not see in the classic tomato sauce were wine, bell peppers, meat, and paste.  If you add meat to your sauce then this becomes a Bolognese sauce.  You can add whatever you feel like, but the classic sauce is so simple and tastes amazing the way it is that you don’t have to go all out. The Italian women cook simple without the bells and whistles on a daily basis because they cook two meals every single day. It’s practical and economical.  Julia Child criticized Italian cooking by saying it was too simple and boring, but I think it’s much more practical than buying these French creams that you can’t spell and top of the line ingredients that you probably can’t find. Not to say French cooking isn’t fabulous, but it definitely isn’t practical and fast like Italian.

5 thoughts on “Fresh Herbs and the Authentic Italian Sauce”

  1. Hi there fellow adoptee to Italy. Interesting post. Interesting for me because I’m in the North West of Italy, and believe it or not, the recipes are not quite the same as yours. Nevertheless, much of it is similar, and isn’t fresh basil just divine? I’ll never forget walking behind someone in Turin who had just bought a bunch of basil. As he walked, his leg brushed the leaves, and the street was filled with that heavenly scent!
    Pop in and visit me sometime. Regards, Margaret

    1. Hi Margaret, ya I’ve heard that the North does differ in cooking style. I’m living in the heal of Italy so I can’t get any more south 🙂 I will visit your blog, thanks for commenting. ~Jessica

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