This is the first in a year-long series of Thomas Keller recipes that I'll attempt in my own kitchen and couldn't imagine a more appropriate recipe for my first trial. I could talk for hours on end about this sauce, except that the first aroma and furthermore, the first taste stopped me dead in my tracks. Most of my 'talk for hours on end' would be "Mmmmm!" "Hmmmm… yes!" "Oh, you HAVE to make this yourself!"
If an oven-roasted tomato sauce brings visions of hours upon hours spent in the kitchen, you simply must rearrange your brain cells. An oven-roasted tomato sauce actually FREES you to play soccer in the back yard with your kids or take them to the park for a bit. It FREES you to read chapters of the book you are currently engrossed in and CAN'T.PUT.DOWN! It FREES you to take a jog or to surf the web to your heart's content. It almost makes itself.
If you were going to make pasta sauce, would you think about fennel as an ingredient?
Furthermore, would you consider leeks? And if you were given the instructions to 'mince' them, what would you do?
I had no idea how to 'mince' leeks, so I simply sliced them lengthwise a few times and wielded my chef's knife across them a few more times than I might have normally. My eyes were watering so I think I did a fine job.
Chopping onions finely was the next step and boy, was I ever weeping after that.
As I said, I've never made a tomato sauce in the oven before. I've always made them on the stove top and actually, never conceptualized making one in the oven. Furthermore, I wouldn't have thought of using fennel or leeks in a tomato sauce. Thomas Keller can be trusted though, so I followed instructions and got the fennel, leeks, and onions ready for the oven. I used my stoneware bowl and it worked very well.
The instructions were to let the vegetables cook for 45 minutes, uncovered. The roasting aromas were almost pungent and colors were beautiful.
I ended up doubling the recipe. Partially out of choice. The other out of necessity. The recipe called for 1 cup of chopped fennel and 1 cup of chopped leeks. Only half of what I purchased filled the bill so I started doubling from there on out. I ended up with 8 cups of tomatoes! Besides, I wanted plenty of sauce and got the added benefit of storing some in my freezer.
On the tomato front … Keller suggests using San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. I couldn't agree with him more, but if your market doesn't stock them, I suggest you choose the best canned tomatoes you can find … whole, peeled ones for the best flavor. Then chop half of them and puree the rest for a really nice consistency.
The recipe also calls for a 'sachet' of garlic, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaf. I didn't have cheesecloth or twine so I used a brown coffee filter, twisted the top closed, and pushed it into the sauce. It worked like a charm.
While that roasted, I made the meatballs. I thought it was genius to precook the onion and garlic, then add them to the meat. It ensures there'll be no crunch when you are eating and rounds out the mellow flavors.
Keller's recipe calls for grinding three varieties of beef and one of pork, but in my Home Kitchen, I don't have a meat grinder. Instead, I purchased ground beef and ground pork, then mixed them with the parsley, egg, and breadcrumbs.
It's really a simple recipe.
The special thing about them is that you put a cube of fresh mozzarella cheese in the center of each one.
… one of my favorite things!
Keller says you can roast them in the oven or cook them in a pan. I chose to cook them in a pan because the tomato sauce was still in the oven and I wanted them both done at the same time.
He also makes the suggestion to serve the sauce and meatballs with pappardelle. I found imported Italian pappardelle, but chose to pinch a few pennies and served it over egg noodles which, essentially, is the same pasta.
By the time I pulled the sauce from the oven, the aromas had changed from pungent to mellow and comforting. The first bite brought an unexpected sweet taste from the sauce, coupled with the tender pasta and the meatballs. SO delicious! A little different from the expected Italian flavors, but not disappointing at all. We enjoyed it immensely and I was told that this dish should be part of our regular menu repertoire …
I think it will be!
[I've taken the liberty to rewrite the recipe for my notebook in simplified language and reflecting my own changes. I've uploaded it here for you as well, but please get a copy of Thomas Keller's book for yourself! There'll be things in the original recipe that you'll want to try and there are far more recipes in that book that you'll be tempted to try, too! Such as Homemade Pappardelle! He also makes suggestions for accompaniments that you might prefer.]