Sometimes, a letter arrives on my desk with a big surprise inside. That happened last week when Diane Hamilton, of Smithton, sent me a recipe for Ravioli Charlie's Red Sauce.
I thought I had reached a dead end with the search for this red sauce from a long-shuttered restaurant that last existed on the west end of Belleville.
Reader Jim Finley had sent me on a search for the recipe during the summer, hoping someone would remember it.
The last I'd heard, St. Henry's Church in Belleville was using the sauce for its spaghetti dinners served during Lenten fish fries. But, the parish wasn't giving out the recipe.
Then Diane's letter hit my desk and I did a little fist pump. She'd gotten the recipe while working at Scott Air Force Base. A woman who worked in the same building she did gave the recipe to her and several other people. Diane didn't mention her name, but said her husband was Jim Jisondi, the final owner of Ravioli Charlie's. They were moving and closing the business, which she thought at that time, in the 1980s, was solely a carry-out operation.
Diane never made the recipe and never ate at Ravioli Charlie's, so she didn't know if it was the original sauce that provoked a lot of mouth-watering memories from readers.
I sent the recipe to Jim Finley last week, and over the weekend, he made it and declared it a winner: "I think it is authentic and tastes as I remember it."
While I see nothing in the recipe that would make it such a standout, we all have memories of dishes we love and hope to re-create. I'm always glad to solve these little culinary mysteries that sometimes come my way and help readers.
So, here is the recipe, with a few added directions and changes for the sake of clarification from Jim and me.
Ravioli Charlie's Red Sauce
2 pounds ground pork or beef
1 small onion, diced
8-10 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 (12-ounce) cans tomato paste
3/4 tablespoon oregano
3/4 tablespoon onion powder
1/4 tablespoon garlic powder
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1/4 tablespoon black pepper
1/8 tablespoon red pepper, optional
1 tablespoon sugar
1 bay leaf
2 (28-ounce) cans Italian tomatoes with liquid
In a large pot, brown meat and onion to a fine texture.
Add tomato paste, sauce and all spices. Save cans; do not rinse.
In a blender or food processor, process cans of tomatoes and add to pot. Save cans.
Fill each empty can with water and add to pot. (Sauce may seem thin, but will cook down.)
Simmer either 10 to 12 hours on low heat for a day, especially if you intend to freeze, or cook 8 hours the first day and 2 hours the second day. (If using this method, after first day cool and put in refrigerator overnight.)
Finished sauce should be reddish brown.
Note: Skim oil/meat residue from finished sauce.
Sweet fall treat
The scent of caramel corn reminds me of my grandmother. We would buy a small bag to share when we went shopping together.
I was reading Linda Cicero's food column for the Miami Herald and she had a recipe from "Classic Candy" by Abigail Gehring (Skyhorse, $14.95), which she called "a fun book of intriguing recipes for treats that are rarely made from scratch anymore, such as taffy, gumdrops, candy corn and rock candy. Another plus: Many recipes don't require special equipment or expertise."
To make this caramel corn recipe, for example, you don't need a candy thermometer or a working knowledge of sugar-syrup cooking stages -- a huge plus!
OLD-FASHIONED CARAMEL CORN
6 cups popped popcorn (from 1 cup unpopped)
1 cup butter
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons vanilla
Heat oven to 250 degrees. Grease a large baking sheet with a lip.
Pour popped popcorn onto sheet.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add brown sugar, water and salt. When the mixture begins to bubble, set a timer and boil for 5 minutes without stirring. Remove from heat, add the baking soda and vanilla, and stir until the mixture foams. Pour the mixture over the popcorn in a thin stream, stirring with a wooden spoon to coat.
Bake 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Store up to a month in an airtight container. Makes 20 servings, each with 156 calories, 11 grams fat, 24 mg cholesterol, 16 grams carbohydrates, 300 mg sodium.
Slow cooker soup
And finally, I made this soup last week for a potluck luncheon.
I experimented by using red potatoes instead of Idaho. Brown potatoes always get mealy and mushy when cooked for an extended time and also when reheated. I wanted to be able to use my slow cooker and then freeze the leftovers. One caveat about making any soup with red potatoes: They take a long time to soften up, so they should be used in a long-cooking recipe and cut into small, even-sized cubes.
Cheesy Potato & Corn Chowder
8 ounces bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 medium yellow onion, diced
Butter for sauteing
3 cups chicken broth
3 cups half and half from a 26-ounce container (reserve remainder)
2 large cans creamed corn
2 large cans corn, drained
1 can cream of celery soup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
5-7 cups red potatoes, cubed (skin can be removed or left on)
1/4 cup flour (more may be needed)
4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
In a skillet, cook bacon; remove and blot. Cool and crumble.
Saute onion in bacon grease. Add onion, bacon and drippings to 6-quart slow cooker.
Add broth, half and half, corn, soup, salt, pepper and a healthy dose of hot sauce. Combine.
Add potatoes. Combine, cover and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 1/2 hours. Test for potato doneness.
An hour or two before serving, combine flour and rest of cold half and half, stir well to get rid of lumps and slowly add to chowder. Depending on how thick you want chowder to be, repeat.
Add cheese; combine. Cover and cook remainder of time. Serves 12.
Here's how to reach me: Phone, 239-2664; e-mail, email@example.com; or write, Suzanne Boyle, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.