2009 January: Crystal Ball

2009 January: Crystal BallTo keep you ahead of the curve, here is the way I see the sauce ladle being used in the year ahead for both pasta and pizza. However, as the song goes, you can’t have one without the other. For example, if the trend in pizza is toward a thinner, lighter crust (and it is headed that way), then the sauce going on that pizza needs to be lighter as well.

If the trend in pasta is toward smaller portions (and it is headed that way), then the sauce has to be in harmony with the amount of pasta. What’s the point of loading a small portion of pasta with an enormous amount of sauce (which is what some of the chain restaurants do to the point of absurdity).

So as I look into my crystal ball, I see . . . I see . . .

When it comes to pizza sauce these days, Less is better. Far too long we have been drowning that pizza crust with too much sauce. Here’s the deal: use better tomatoes and you don’t have to use as much. My approach is to use only as much sauce as it takes to get the flavor balance needed for that perfect pizza. For example, a classic Neapolitan-style pizza requires but a light smear of sauce (the reference I am using here as it pertains to sauce is, more than likely, tomatoes — all purpose ground, plum, chopped, puréed — right out of the can without any advance cooking or preparation other than, possibly, some seasonings).

Having said that, tomatoes out of the can are no sauce at all (or at least sauce as we broadly defi ne it). For example, I was looking at a menu from a new Italian restaurant in Chicago. The menu is complete from antipasti to dolci, but there are as many pizza listed on the menu as there are pasta dishes. One pizza that caught my eye and ultimately my taste buds was the “Quattro Formaggi e Polo.” This pizza — thin crust — sported four cheeses, chunks of grilled chicken and thinly cut cherry tomatoes. No tomato sauce at all. Excellent pizza.

Don’t get me wrong. The Queen, as in Margherita, still prevails. Margherita pizza is still one of the most popular pizzas out there, and it will continue to reign in the year ahead (but, please, use good tomatoes; don’t sully the Queen with bad tomatoes).

Also, think light — but at the same time, think flavor, think texture as you address the sauce issue for pizza. Another example that comes to mind is a white pizza. A white pizza might be a clam pizza, which means that the crust gets nothing more than a brush of garlic-infused olive oil. That’s the “sauce.”

On the other hand, a white pizza in the true sense of the word would start with a bechamel or white sauce. The sauce is brushed or ladled on the crust (lightly) and then any number of topping possibilities can be used: A cheese or two (grated Parmesan, mozzarella), red bell peppers (grilled or not), shrimp, chicken, prosciutto . . . the possibilities are endless.

To recap, the sauce trends for pizza in 2009: less is more. Quality over quantity. Focus on: Spicy tomato sauce, a true white sauce, pesto sauce (especially in conjunction with chicken), a Latin influence (Mexican pizza that uses salsa as the sauce).

When it comes to pasta, the sauce possibilities are off the chart. I repeat, less is more. Make a sauce that explodes with flavor and you can use less and still wow the customer. One thing to be aware of: creamy-rich sauces will not be as popular as they once were. The implication is heavy and rich, so don’t go overboard on offering cream sauces.

What do I see in the year ahead? Zippy, as in spicy, will be a major trend, whether it has to do with a basic arrabbiata sauce or a spicy Italian sausage added to the dish.

Meatballs will be big in the year ahead, but veal meatballs will generate even more interest. So pair those veal meatballs with spaghetti and a light marinara sauce (see recipe to the left) and watch what happens.

Sauces with depth of flavor will be important. Add that depth of flavor in any number of ways. For example, swirling some heavy cream into a marinara sauce will give the sauce a luxurious flavor profile. If you really want to push the taste of luxury to another level altogether, swirl in some mascarpone.

Slow, long-cooked sauces will be another trend that has to do with depth of flavor, especially a meat sauce that starts off with braised pork ribs.

Vegetable sauces (as in meatless) will be important as lifestyles demand a healthier approach to sauces. Customers will continue to indulge in pasta dishes, but you need to offer lighter, healthier alternatives. For example, cooked pasta with an oil and garlic sauce along with sauteed zucchini and broccoli or red bell pepper and some crushed red pepper . . . Ecco! A fine pasta dish. ?

Veal Meatballs in Marinara Sauce

Once you have cooked these meatballs, keep them warm in some marinara sauce.

Yield: about 18 meatballs, each about 2 inches in diameter (scale up in direct proportion)

1 cup cubed day-old Italian or French bread

½ cup milk

1½ pounds ground veal

1 teaspoon each dried oregano and basil

1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper ¼ cup minced fl at-leaf parsley

¼ cup grated Romano cheese

1 large egg, lightly beaten

In a small bowl, soak the bread in the milk until saturated. Squeeze the bread to drain the excess milk. Break the bread into small pieces.

In a large mixing bowl combine the bread with the veal, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, parsley, Romano cheese and egg. Mix thoroughly. Form the meatballs by rolling a portion between your palms.

Arrange the meatballs on a broiling pan or sheet pan. Bake the meatballs in the oven, turning them once, until they are cooked through and brown on all sides (about 15-18 minutes at 425 F.).

Can be held in the cooler or put in marinara or any other red sauce.

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.