It’s hard to imagine what spaghetti and meatballs would be without a smothering portion of delectable tomato sauce. But this crushed, diced, or pureéed “salsa di pomodoro” goes well beyond being the perfect companion to pasta. Tomato sauce comes in a variety of types and styles that complement seafood, meat, and poultry. Various versions of sauce also add a delicious and pleasing flavor to preparations of harvested fish and game. From the refined simplicity of a marinara to the intensity of putanesca, there are more variations of tomato sauce than most folks realize. Whether using fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes or canned varieties, the end product will surely tantalize the taste buds. Fortunately, the process of making sauces at home is not difficult. With a modicum of kitchen skills, making homemade tomato sauce and pairing it to your favorite wild foods is well within reach of the outdoor chef. So let’s take a look at seven outstanding Italian sauces that will liven up seafood and wild game dishes and recipes!
Marinara is a basic foundation sauce in Italian cooking. It is typically made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, a pinch of salt, pepperoncino, and some fresh basil. Although there are numerous home-chef variations of this sauce, the fundamental version marries well with many wild fish and seafood dishes. Marinara is an especially fine sauce when prepared with a combination of shrimp, scallops, calamari, and crab. It is also excellent for use with mild-flavored fish species like fluke, flounder, and sole. This sauce is commonly served with pasta, like linguine, spaghetti, fettucine, or penne. Marinara is versatile and easily modified with the addition of other adjuncts like parsley or oregano. In my household, marinara is the sauce of choice for the family’s annual Christmas holiday Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Bolognese is a ragu meat sauce that is most often prepared with ground beef and pork, making it the perfect sauce to pair with game meat like venison. Deer, elk, moose, and even bear meat can all be used for this outdoorsy variation of a classic sauce. The fundamental Bolognese is a thick, rich blend loaded with flavors infused from the meat. In addition to ground beef or venison, other meat proteins like sausage can also be added to a simmering sauce. Venison sausage and venison meatballs are an especially tasty addition. Since wild game is lean, it is beneficial to supplement the meat with an additional fat source like pancetta or bacon. This adds to the savory nature of the sauce. Bolognese is ideally paired to pastas like tagliatelle or pappardelle. The thick sauce clings much better to these broader pastas.
Putanesca is one of my favorite sauces. It is an intensely flavorful sauce, with origins linked to “ladies of the night.” With vibrant aromatics and tantalizing flavors, this red sauce is as vivacious as the red-light district that led to its creation. Putanesca is made with diced or crushed tomatoes, garlic, Italian herbs and spices, capers, crushed red pepper flakes, olives, basil, and anchovies. It takes a medium to strong seafood taste profile to stand up to the concentrated flavors of this sauce. Two favorite fish to pair with this sauce are tuna and swordfish. Putanesca also matches well to small upland game like braised rabbit and the robust flavor of woodcock. The sauce also stands up well against the nutty essence of squirrel flesh. In its traditional form, Putanesca is well-suited for pastas such as spaghetti, vermicelli, and angel hair.
Amatriciana is a time-honored pasta sauce that embraces guanciale (cured pork cheek) as a foundation ingredient, along with tomato, pecorino Romano cheese, and onion. The sauce has deep roots in the town of Amatrice and a strong following throughout Italy. Amatriciana is recognized as one of the most popular pasta sauces, and it is typically served with spaghetti or bucatini. Given the nature of the sauce, it can hold its own with game like wild boar and peccary. Various cuts of those meats can either be an integral part of a simmering sauce, or, when plating, the sauce can be spread over or beneath separately prepared game. Amatriciana also complements some seafood; it works well with calamari, octopus, and ground species of fish like cod.
Pomarola is a traditional and simple Tuscan sauce with a long and distinguished history in Italian kitchens. It can be prepared with either a single variety of tomato or a blended mix of tomato types and is best made with the “holy trinity” of onion, celery. and carrot, as well as garlic, basil. and salt. Canned, crushed tomatoes or peeled, fresh whole tomatoes that have been crushed by hand or diced can be used. Pomarola is an ideal sauce for spaghetti and meatballs, so it can also complement sausages and meatballs made from game meat. Simmer and slow cook the meat in the Pomarola for an aromatic and tasty end product. This sauce also pairs well with mild tasting fish like flounder or fluke and is delightful with shrimp or scallops. As far as upland game, give this sauce try with quail and pheasant dishes.
Arrabbiata is a variation of a basic marinara sauce that has a pumped-up spice content achieved through the addition of red pepper flakes or hot peppers like chilis, habaneros, and jalapenos. Other staple ingredients are tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, garlic, Italian seasoning, and fresh parsley. Literally translated, the word arrabbiata in Italian means “angry,” which, in the case of this sauce, relates to its hot and stimulating taste. Although many pastas are suitable to pair with this sauce, arrabbiata can best be appreciated with a solid helping of penne. The sauce literally embraces the pasta by coating the outside of the penne and flowing within its tubular structure. Arrabbiata and pasta is a nice accompaniment to a variety of smoked meats and sausage. I’ve enjoyed the sauce with braised and grilled breasts of waterfowl, especially Canada goose and puddle ducks. Arrabbiata can also serve as a nice contrast to dishes like planked salmon with a honey glaze.
Pomodoro sauce is also known as Filetto di Pomodoro, literally translated as tomato fillet. It is a very rustic and hardy sauce with aromas and taste that benefit immensely from the addition of prosciutto that has been chopped and braised and umami-rich mushrooms. The sauce is versatile enough for pairing with a variety of pastas, but it goes very well with penne and rigatoni and comfortably matches to a variety of seafood and meat dishes. Over the years I’ve made this sauce often, along with grilled shrimp and scallops that were marinated in olive oil and a blend of Italian seasoning. Pomodoro is also a well-suited sauce for meals that include fin-fish like trout, walleye, porgies and flatfish like flounder, sole, and fluke. While the sauce is most often made with fresh tomatoes, it can also be prepared with hand-crushed, canned plum tomatoes, or tomato purée.
Venison Bolognese with Rigatoni
1lb. ground venison (deer, elk, moose)
4 oz. of pancetta chopped (optional, should you want additional fat content added to the typically lean venison)
2 28-oz. cans of crushed tomatoes or fresh tomatoes, if preferred.
¼ cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
5 oz. mushrooms, chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley
8 to 10 leaves of fresh basil
¼ tsp. fresh oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 lb. of Rigatoni pasta
¼ cup Pecorino Romano cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish
Add olive oil to a 6-quart pot. Add onions and garlic, and sauté on medium heat until onions are soft and translucent. Add celery, carrot, red bell pepper, and mushrooms, and sauté for an additional 5 minutes. Raise heat and add the ground venison. Sauté while stirring frequently to break up any lumping of the venison. Cook approximately 8 minutes or until the meat browns. Next, add tomatoes, basil, parsley and cook over medium heat and until the sauce thickens, about a half hour. Lower heat and continue to simmer for another half hour, and while the pasta cooks. Finish by blending sauce, and pasta and garnish with cheese.
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