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How to make a delicious mother sauce—and the dishes you can create from there

The story behind East Side Mario’s® most popular sauces, with Brand Chef Matt Rosen
Chef Matt Photo 1

Italian cooking is known for its deceptive simplicity. It relies on the highest quality ingredients, embraces traditional cooking methods and yields spectacular results.

To learn a bit more about this popular cuisine, we spoke with Brand Chef Matt Rosen, of East Side Mario’s®, about sauces, how easy or difficult they are for a typical home cook to make and his approach to recipes.

Q: What exactly are “mother sauces” and what’s the reason for the name?

A: They are sauces you can use as a base and by adding one or two ingredients, you can get different derivatives. For example, a Béchamel sauce is the mother sauce and if you add cheese to it, you get a Mornay sauce. Depending on what you add to a mother sauce, you get a different sauce as a result.

Q: Are crowd-favourite sauces like Tomato, Rosé, Arrabbiata and Alfredo easy to make from scratch? Are these actually within reach for regular home cooks?

A: For sure! Tomato sauce is a mother sauce and it’s easy to whip up your own. All you need is some garlic and onions, bay leaves and fresh basil, some chile flakes, olive oil and tomatoes, and always salt. Depending on the acidity of your tomatoes, you may need some sugar. A traditional Italian would never add sugar to their sauce because they’re using the sweetest of sweet tomatoes. You hope that’s what you have! And always, a bit of heart in the kitchen never hurts.

At East Side Mario's®, we use our Tomato sauce as our mother sauce and make several others with it, including our Rosé and Arrabbiata.

To make a Rosé sauce, take the Tomato sauce you’ve made and let it cool down. Add a little bit of heavy cream, a bit of finely minced garlic and maybe even a drop of nutmeg. You’ll have a great creamy sauce you can use in multiple ways. You can get that same richness when you’re simmering your Tomato sauce if you add a knob or two of butter at the end; the fattiness battles all of the acidity and rounds out the flavour.

Arrabbiata means mad or angry in Italian—it’s a spicy sauce. You make it by adding chilies into the Tomato base. A lot of the local markets now have that international section. You can find Italian chili paste (they might call it Calabrian chili paste) or Calabrian chili peppers. It’s really about how much of a spice level you enjoy: add a little bit more if you like it really spicy or less, according to your preference.

Alfredo is more similar to a Béchamel sauce. As time goes on, there has been a movement away from the old-school way of cooking where everything was much heavier and flour-based; they had a lot of flour-based sauces. But as cooking has evolved and changed, it’s less about flour and more about a reduction. A typical Alfredo would usually be two-parts butter and one-part flour. You very slowly start cooking that out in your pot, toasting awaythat raw flavour of the flour but without giving it any colour. The idea is that you want to keep the sauce white. It takes a lot of time and is very similar to making the base of a mac n cheese.

I always use a spatula and a whisk—a whisk to make sure I’ve gotten out all of the lumps and a spatula to make sure I’ve cleaned out all my corners. It’s a really long process. I might cook that slowly for 15-20 minutes, then go in with some garlic. Once you’ve slowly cooked your garlic, you can start to slowly drizzle in your heavy cream, adding it in increments.

Get it smooth and gently bring it up to a simmer, let it cook for 5 minutes and shut it down. The seasoning is very simple: salt, white pepper so you don’t see the little black flakes in your sauce and a little bit of nutmeg. Once it’s off the heat, whisk in your Parmesan cheese. It’s easy but time consuming; it takes about an hour and is a labour of love.

Q: What other dishes, beyond pasta, could these sauces be used in?

A: You could do a great Al Forno bake or a Chicken Parmigiana because you have your Tomato sauce. A mother sauce also makes a great base for a soup; that’s easy to make.

You can use the Tomato sauce on pizza. At home, we do a super-easy focaccia dough—it’s a great home-cooked bread anyone can make. You can do it all by hand, it doesn’t require any machine. There’s no forming or intricacy to it, you basically push it onto a tray and let it rise. It sits in the oven with the light on to rise, then we spoon some Tomato sauce over the top, add cheese and bake it for 20 minutes. You end up with a great deep-dish sort of Italian bread. Sometimes we’ll press tomatoes into that and just have some Tomato sauce on the side for dipping.

Another great dish we like to make at home is just pan-roasted sausages with some peppers and broccolini, which we hit with a little bit of Tomato or Arrabbiata sauce. Have that in a bowl with some kale and some bread and you’re in a really good place.

With the Alfredo sauce, which is rich and opulent, you could pan-fry some fish and finish it with a bit of the sauce, some fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs. You could almost gratinee—if you drizzled a tablespoon of Alfredo over your fish and put it under your broiler for a little bit, you’d get a delicious golden brownness.

Q: Do you happen to have a favourite source for sauce recipes that you could share with readers?

A: I’m the kid who went to the library to do projects—there’s so much information out there it’s hard to separate what’s real from what’s not. What I generally do is I’ll look at recipes and find commonalities. I think it’s about finding what’s common in recipes, what’s similar. Classic recipes will always have the same base ingredients and from there you have variations. Just try, then play around with it. If you’re scientific about it, track your results. It’s also a good idea to work through a recipe from start to finish once before you start tinkering; it’s really important that you understand the purposes of things.

Right now, East Side Mario’s® is running their signature Buy One Take One Home FREE® event. Dine-in on one of six entrées including ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT Soup/Salad and Garlic Homeloaf and take home one of three signature pastas including Spaghettini & Meatballs or Fettuccine Alfredo. Learn more about the Buy One Take One Home FREE® event here.

For more information, visit East Side Mario's Guelph or call 519-763-7861.