The Secret Sauce

Start with at least 35 cloves of garlic. That will get you into the club, at least through the front door. For the longest time because for so many decades I’ve been on the road touring, there was not enough space or kitchen equipment to scratch make my own tomato sauce.

It isn’t complicated, but you do want to work with a time tested recipe and you do want to follow the expert guidance to the letter. In this instance I’m following the much admired Missy Robbins recipe. In 2018 Robbins was recognized as Best Chef New York City by the James Beard Foundation, and was also awarded Esquire Chef of the Year.

To solve my unattainable ingredients problem, I landed at the Berkeley Bowl where whatever had been missing is at this location found. To make the Diavola sauce you’ll need olive oil, garlic, double concentrate tomato paste, crushed Calabrian chiles, chili flakes, fennel seeds, and two big cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes.

We begin by simmering a colossal quantity of garlic in the olive oil. Once soft and slightly browned we’ll mash the 30-50 cloves with a fork, add the crushed Calabrian chiles, heaping tablespoons of chili flakes, fennel seeds and then blend all of the ingredients with the double concentrated tomato paste. You’ll take a few minutes until everything turns dark and is combined into a luscious batter like consistency that is then drown in the San Marzano tomatoes. You mash the tomatoes until broken apart while mixing all and then simmer on stovetop for something less than an hour. Robbins directs the budding cooks following her recipes to add just enough salt, in the recipe it is denoted as QB, quanto basta (just enough).

This is a punchy red sauce and of the three in Pasta, it is the beginning without end to making scratch made tomato sauce. I use Ms. Robbins recipe on my cornmeal pizza dough and have also used it on my fettucine scratch made with semolina dough.

Best not to dilute or distract from the purity of this dish, best to not add a single thing more. Missy Robbins and her tomato sauce recipes are the result of what she describes as simplifying, we are instructed to trust the austerity of her ingredients and for this we will be rewarded with a more tantalizing tomato sauce. Someone give this girl an award.

The semolina dough is the only in her book that doesn’t use egg. That is fine, it is unbound and there are no limits to how it may be used. Pasta is worth every penny just for the tomato sauce recipes.

I’ve got my eye on one dish, chickpea pappardelle with chickpeas, rosemary and garlic. Chickpea pasta is made with Tipo 00 flour, a scant amount of chickpea flour and─ get this─ two dozen egg yolks. Al I can hear is the Sondheim line, “Isn’t it rich, aren’t we a pair, me here at last, you in mid-air─”.

My life on the road in part ran through the county fair circuit where chow wagons were referred to in the trade as either a salt or sugar wagon, that was it, you had two choices. Making scratch made pasta is a world I’ve only recently encountered and would fit squarely into the salt wagon carnival food concession business. After a few tries my third effort at making fettucine was a success. This was the eggless semolina dough, a guiltless, egg-less pleasure, and once properly prepared made the perfect elemental companion with the Diavola sauce.

The recipe calls for parmigiana to finish before serving. Next time I’ll get some vegan parmigiana, if you are curious, it comes close, certainly not what is specified but you get the idea, paying homage to our arteries lands square upon the tempting fats used in Italian dishes.

Imagine living in a city of 9 million souls and that of all that are there it is your recipes, restaurants and dishes that are recognized as the best of the best.

I’ve made these grand red sauces a number of times now. I’ve almost got them memorized. Best of all you get the knack for how each step follows the next step and where you are trying to land the dish on the plate, the final destination by this cookbook is home cooked sublime.

I’ll do the Diavola sauce recipe, make scratch made semolina dough pasta and serve with a simple side salad, perhaps no more than lettuce, red onions and tomatoes with olive oil and vinegar dressing.

Missy Robbins dishes feature discipline, attention to detail and precision. You’ll want a scale and measure each ingredient exactly as the recipe instructs. You want to improvise, and you’ll be making one of a thousand previous errors that this book has by time and testing eliminated.

Because of the pandemic we’ve been cooking here at home where we feel safest. We have loved our time out on the town dining here and there, making the scene where we can see and be seen. To placate our enjoying getting out and about working through Pasta has provided us a mortal alternative and a safe one too.

To put the finishing touches on the endeavor I stopped in at Kermit Lynch’s Berkeley wine shop. Kermit has been importing wines from Europe for decades, most of his inventory is out of my price range but we’ve a good supply of his affordable Italian reds on our wine rack now, and even at the lower end the wines will not disappoint. Next door I’ll dip into the Acme Bread Company’s bakery and we’re all but ready.

There will be a next time, we will go to New York City, we will go to Williamsburg, and with some persistence we will feast upon the clever delights of Missy Robbins dishes.

That would be a fitting celebration to the end of this pandemic.

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1 year ago

Berkeley Bowl, so many fond memories…the mushrooms!

1 year ago

Yum! Thanks so much for the recipe!