This Old-School Tool Is the Secret Behind the Silkiest Pasta Sauce
A low-tech option with high reward.
Published May 30, 2020 12:00 AM
When my mom and I met up in Italy this time last year, we had no idea what the world had in store for us—that a great accelerator pedal would soon transform our existence at dizzying speeds. Instead, we spent our oddly romantic days—seriously, every time we booked a room for two, it seemed to come with the honeymoon treatment—lingering over bowls of pasta with amatriciana, alla Norma, or puttanesca sauce. And during each candlelit meal, one glass beyond tipsy, pants unbuttoned, we’d beg the same question: How is this sauce so damn smooth?
Lucky for me (and you!), right when I thought there simply must not be a single phallic statue left to see in Rome, my mom booked us a cooking class in Tuscany, where we learned the silkiest red sauces had one very simple, very old-school tool in common: a food mill. It’s essentially a manual blender-meets-strainer, in that, as you wind it, the food is forced through a perforated disc, which also sieves out any seeds, pith, and skin.
Nonna Ester, our chef-teacher, had a twinkle in her eye when she nudged me toward the bench, where the concave steel contraption sat atop an empty saucepan. She poured the fragrant mix of garlic, onions, fresh tomatoes, and basil we’d been confiting for hours into the top of the mill and pointed at the handle. Each rotation sent a burst of velvety liquid into the pan below—not a single rogue chunk of tomato in sight—until bit by bit it filled: Presto! While the pasta boiled, we ate the leftover pulp on bruschetta.
At the end of our trip, I placated the sadness I felt by purchasing my own (newer) food mill online, and I’ve used the device for a whole host of things since it arrived: mashing potatoes, pureeing stewed fruit, and grating hard-boiled eggs for salads. Unlike immersion blenders or food processors, the result is always light, airy, and textured, rather than dense and one-note. But these days I’ve mostly been making Italian red sauce by the quart container.
In all of this high-velocity uncertainty, making sauce from scratch is a grounding, all-day activity: Onions are chopped, garlic is carefully peeled, tomatoes are stewed, and sauce manifests crank-by-crank. It’s a slow and deliberate process that anchors me. I know I don’t have the power to slow our current events, but thanks to the mill, I can at least take my sweet time in the kitchen.
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