Jerri’s Spaghetti Sauce

This is a simple but flavorful spaghetti sauce that Jerri made dozens of times when I was gainfully employed selling recycling equipment and she was a piano teacher and church organist. Since my office was in a western suburb of Minneapolis, and my customers included companies from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Warroad, Minnesota, I usually called to let her know when I thought I would be home for dinner. However, I was sometimes delayed. Anyone who has commuted through the Twin Cities knows what a shower or snow flurries can do to traffic on highways in the Metro area.

Jerri thus became an expert in flexible meal scheduling. Her students began arriving when the school day ended. She usually said goodby to the last one after 6 PM. To accommodate this schedule she assembled a main dish before her first student arrived, put it in the refrigerator and popped it into the oven or put it on the burner at the appropriate time.

She made a lot of wonderful casseroles and soups and learned how to create a spaghetti sauce that seemed to improve the longer she had to wait for me. Her recipe for the sauce reveals her as not just an expert at putting a meal on the table when the family was ready to eat but also as a “make do” cook who was willing to substitute ingredients that she thought would not be rejected by her husband, son and daughter. Her judgment was nearly always good. At least she never had the kinds of disasters I produced from time to time.

Her basic recipe for spaghetti sauce consisted of the first six ingredients listed below. The final seven represent my guesses about quantities of ingredients contained in her note that said something like, “Add some salt and pepper. Anise or fennel seeds and basil if you like them. Thin with water or red wine and smooth it out with some olive oil. If you like the flavor, mushrooms can be added with the garlic.”

As you can see, you can adjust the recipe to whatever is on your spice rack and “make do” with what you have. I think that fennel or anise, basil, wine and olive oil improve the sauce, but it is edible without them.

You can “make do” with whatever you have, so there’s no excuse for not making Jerri’s spaghetti sauce.

INGREDIENTS:

1 lb. Italian sausage
1 or 2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 16 oz. can whole tomatoes
1/2 tsp. anise or fennel seed
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. olive oil
Grated Parmesan cheese to pass (if you have some)

PROCEDURE:

Remove the paper from the garlic and mince it. Clean and chop the onion into a quarter inch dice. Chop the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces, reserving the juice. Brown the sausage in a two or three quart saucepan over moderate heat. Drain the grease if necessary and add the garlic and onion and cook them for about two minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, juice, tomato sauce and paste.

Blend the fennel seed, basil, black pepper and salt in a mortar or cup and stir them into the pan. Stir in the wine and olive oil.

Reduce the heat and simmer for an hour or so. Stir occasionally and add wine, water or tomato juice if the sauce becomes too thick.

NOTES: If you include mushrooms, clean and slice them thinly and add them with the garlic.

I sometimes use a mixture of fennel and anise.

You can take this sauce off the heat when it has simmered long enough to suit your taste, then reheat it while the spaghetti is cooking.

This sauce freezes well and keeps for at least three or four months.H

Paccheri With Mushroom Sauce

I sometimes attribute my fondness for mushrooms to the fact that my father claimed not to like them, a teenage rebellion that I never outgrew. My mother did not always respect his opinion, especially when it came to using cream of mushroom soup in her noodle casserole. He would sit down at the table, mutter something about poisonous mushrooms and dig in with the rest of us.

Mom’s Tuna Noodle Casserole was a popular dish with us kids. It was also one of her favorites, because it was easy to make, and even Dad approved of it, since it was a cheap way of filling up growing kids.

However, none of us would have thought of cooking Paccheri with Mushroom Sauce. We had never heard of paccheri, Mom never cooked with wine and would not have risked a battle with Dad by making a sauce of ground-up and sliced mushrooms that did not come in a can.

If you like pasta, you will probably enjoy Paccheri. They are large tubes cut in inch-long sections. There are many recipes for stuffed paccheri that I am tempted to try sometime, but this recipe for paccheri with a mushroom sauce is a quick and simple way to put a tasty dish on the table to please anyone who likes mushrooms.

As you can tell from the photo, it is not a particularly colorful dish. Most edible mushrooms are white or various shades of brown and gray, and once they are cooked and puréed the result unfortunately looks like fresh concrete.

But the flavor!! If you enjoy mushrooms, I can promise you that you will not be disappointed. You can use white button mushrooms, but I think that crimini (baby bella) mushrooms have more flavor, and you can combine mushrooms if you wish. A good combination is a half and half mixture of crimini and shitake mushrooms.

The basic recipe comes from Ciao Italia, the longest running television cooking program on PBS. I changed it a little to suit our tastes. Here is what I did and what I recommend.

INGREDIENTS:

3/4 lb. mushrooms, divided
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 and 1/4 tsp. salt, divided
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
12 oz. package of paccheri
Water for cooking the pasta
Parsley for garnish

PROCEDURE:

Put two or three quarts of water in a large saucepan over moderate heat.

Wash and slice the mushrooms. Melt the butter in a nine-inch skillet or saucepan over moderate heat. Add a cup of the mushrooms and the pine nuts and cook them for five or six minutes until the mushrooms are soft. Transfer the mixture to a blender cup or food processor and make a nice gray purée.

Mince the garlic while the mushrooms and pine nuts are cooking.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over low heat, add the garlic and cook for about two minutes. Do not brown the garlic. Put the remaining mushrooms into the pan, raise the heat to moderate and cook for about four minutes, stirring often.

The pasta cooking water should be boiling by about this time. Add a teaspoon of salt and the paccheri and cook to al dente, about sixteen minutes.

Stir a quarter teaspoon of salt and a half cup of wine into the mushrooms and garlic in the skillet. Reduce the heat when the mixture comes to a simmer, stir in the purée and keep the sauce warm while the pasta finishes cooking.

Test the paccheri for doneness. Drain the pasta, reserving a half cup of the cooking water.

Add the paccheri and the half cup of cooking water to the sauce in the skillet. Sprinkle a quarter cup of Parmesan cheese and grind about an eighth teaspoon of black pepper over the mixture. Mix thoroughly, taste and adjust the seasoning.

Serve with a garden salad, bread and the same wine used for the sauce. Garnish with parsley and pass the remaining grated cheese.

NOTES: I tend to use sauvignon blanc or Chardonnay wine when a recipe calls for dry white wine, but there are lots of good Italian wines such as Soave that an Italian might prefer.