Sunday, September 26, 2010

Italians will hate me, but...

I mentioned (and showed you a picture of) watery tomato sauce yesterday. I noted that I should have simmered the sauce at a somewhat higher temperature to reduce it more properly, but failed to talk about what I usually do in such situations: I cheat. I doubt I'm the only American to do this, but if you're Italian or an Italy-loving traditionalist/purist, turn away now, because you don't want to know that I cheat by mixing in a bit of cornstarch as a thickener while the sauce is still boiling. Whoops-- too late. You read it already.

I do this because I'm not a patient man. Simmering is a much better method for achieving non-watery perfection with Italian sauces, but it takes time and a watchful eye. Cornstarch-- the el cheapo, Chinese restaurant solution to all sauce consistency problems-- is a much faster and easier way to achieve the same results as patient simmering. I imagine that a discerning palate might be able to detect the cornstarch in the sauce, but I normally can't, and I usually allow the sauce to cook a few minutes after the cornstarch has been added; this minimizes its flavor, which is already muted. For me, taste-wise, there's no harm in adding cornstarch.

Purists (rightly?) rebel against this because, once you start introducing wheat- or corn-derived reagents into your tomato sauce, you're on your way to converting the sauce into bread. Ever seen what happens to a Chinese sauce when it cools to room temperature? It turns into gelatinous goop. Were you to keep adding cornstarch to such a sauce, you'd eventually end up with a disgusting pancake. The goop is a protocake, an intermediary evolutionary form. By adding cornstarch, you're violating the very concept of a proper Italian tomato sauce.

But we're all about concept-violation here at the Hairy Chasms, so unless a commenter can present a truly persuasive reason for me to desist in my sinful ways, I shall continue to improvise, adapt, and overcome-- the Chinese way.

[I suspect, however, that the Chinese in China don't rely on cornstarch to quite the extent that Chinese-American restaurant cooks do.]



hahnak said...

i hate you

hahnak said...

just off the top of my head.

this fix would not work in your particular situation: cook pasta till just BEFORE al dente and add it to your watery sauce.

or (these will all work w your grits): add spoonfuls of tomato paste from a tube, mix well, let cook a few minutes and add more if necessary.

breadcrumbs work, but that is the kind of nasty trick that ppl who use cornstarch use.

not tried but maybe adding that dried kraft parmesan glitter powder would work. or if you have dried onions add those.

these have to be better than cornstarch.

the best thing of course is just to simmer another 20-30 min. but yeah. sometimes you dont want to wait.

Kevin Kim said...

I like the tomato paste idea. Bread crumbs sound interesting, but I normally don't have many crumbs lying around: I rarely make croutons, and always use up our sandwich bread before it can get stale.

I agree: simmering is probably best. One major problem with adding cornstarch is that it dulls the sheen of the tomato sauce when the sauce cools even a little bit. Not pretty.

Charles said...

I have nothing to add that might convince you to cease and desist (I would personally never do that to my tomato sauces, but I say do what works for you). I will say, though, that I suspect Chinese cooks in China may use cornstarch just as much. These are only my suspicions, but going on what I've seen of Chinese food here, I'm led to believe that the cornstarch is not an American addition.

Sperwer said...

Hey, Ive started cooking again myself. My most recent concoction was coriander stem infused meatloaf with coriander leaf sauce and tomato chutney. Washed it down with a fine Chilean Carmenere.