Outside of the Box and Into the Pot

Whenever I've heard the expression "thinking outside the box", it's been in some mundane corporate context or I've missed it while sleeping through some meeting. But, in the kitchen, this tired cliche means something. It's hard to go beyond one's usual repertoire to create something new.

This Sunday, it's our turn to cook for the gang (8 adults, 3 children, 2 babies). Every two weeks (or so) 4 families on our street take turns cooking a Sunday dinner for each other; a vegetarian dinner. Vegetarian, I said - therein lies the challenge. One of our favorite meals is simple tomato sauce (or as we call it, gravy) with pasta, bread and salad. Oh, and the tomato sauce usually has a piece of meat, or a bone, or some meat-derived morsel to flavor it and give it depth.

Not this time. So, could we serve up the same meal sans-meat and have it be as comforting as it's always been? I thought I'd try to make the sauce a bit more substantial by incorporating veggies, using a long simmer and maybe going a bit heavier on the spices (and fresher, e.g., fresh basil rather than dry). This sauce would then be served with pasta. Add a couple loaves of sesame semolina, salad a desert and presto, a meal. My fear with a chunky vegetarian sauce is all the veggies would make the sauce too sweet; I always felt the meat countered the sweetness of the tomatoes with a depth of other savory flavors. Here goes another experiment, maybe I shouldn't do this to friends???

Here goes anyway: Chunky Vegetarian Marinara

1. To a large stock pot saute in 1/4 cup ex virgin olive oil the following:
-yellow and red bell pepper finely diced
-red onion, large, finely diced
-1 clove garlic, minced
-finely diced portobello mushrooms, 12 oz.

2. Add to the pot:
-4 28 oz cans tomatoes, plum, whole and crushed (2 cans each)
-finely slivered fresh basil, 1/4 C
-salt (2 t)
-pepper (a lot, coarsely cracked)
-bay leaves, 3
-dried oregano, 1 T
-additional dried basil, 2 T

3. Simmer over low heat for 4 hours (barely simmering).

4. Refrigerate overnight, reheat the next day to a simmer for several hours.
During all this simmering, the sauce probably concentrated to about 3/4 of the starting volume (the amount of concentration will depend on the amount of water in the cans of tomatoes).

I used this to top a whole pile of penne. It was awesome and the guests seemed to enjoy it as well.

The sauce originally tasted really sweet and tart. But over time, I was quite surprised, the sauce mellowed and became much less tart and less sweet. The mellowing of the sauce is usually something that occurs when I slow-cook meat in the sauce. As the fat renders from the meat, the sauce becomes richer and less tart. While this sauce wasn't as good as a sauce using meat as flavoring, it was quite good and we'll have it again.

One other interesting observation. With two bell peppers and nearly a pound of shrooms, I feared the sauce would approximate some kind of bottled "chunky" style mixture. Initially, the sauce was pretty chunky, but by the end of the simmering, the vegetables were not present as huge chunks but small bits. Although this is a poor description, the consistency was very nice. And, it had the obvious benefit of all those extra veggies.

Mushrooms are often used in vegetarian dishes as some sort of meat substitute. Since the shrooms I used didn't interfere with the desired consistency, I might look into trying different kinds and amounts next time.