Reinventing the Spaghetti Feed

| January 28, 2010
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When I started working on the Journal's calendar about 10 years ago, I was given a rule: We don't list pancake breakfasts -- and no spaghetti feeds. The thought was that there were just too many of them. I eventually changed the policy. It turned out that there weren't all that many pancakes being flipped, and lately, spaghetti feeds seem to have become a rarity. Perhaps because they're seen as too boring, they've been supplanted by "gourmet" dinners offering more exotic fare.

But parents of children attending Redwood Coast Montessori, a one-room, 17-student charter school in Cooper's Gulch, are set on changing that rep. They're reinventing the spaghetti feed -- adding a gourmet twist by turning it into a cooking contest they call "I'm Feeling Saucy!"

"When we were talking about what to do for a fundraiser someone suggested a spaghetti feed," said Carole Crossley, one of the R.C. Montessori parents organizing the event. "My husband and I have been doing fundraising for different organizations for decades and we know, if you just make a couple of hundred dollars, that's a failure. Even if you make $500, that's a failure because of all the hours you put in. I thought, how can we make this different and make it so that there are more dollars coming in the door?" Thus the contest with 30 cooks, each supplying two quarts of sauce (not just red sauce) and paying $20 to enter. (They also get two tickets, which would cost $20.) Crossley figures, "If someone enters, that's two quarts of sauce we didn't have to make."

The sauciers will compete for cash prizes this Saturday, with $100 for first place. Among the judges is Yvette Troyna of Sweet Basil Catering, a business she runs out of Loleta cooking for events all over the county offering, she promises, "great service, great food and no drama."

Her judging criteria? "I know what people look for in the food I prepare, so I'll be looking for complexity in flavors and creativity, you know -- something different."

As far as her own pasta preparation, she likes to keep it simple. "I made up this sauce; I don't even have a name for it. You start with butter and olive oil, add some fresh garlic, deglaze with wine, toss in your [cooked] pasta, add some cheese -- pecorino or Romano -- on top, and of course I always like to use fresh sweet basil."

The contestants who have registered so far seem a varied lot. Among them is Eureka City Councilman Jeff Leonard, whose wife Michelle is a parent volunteer helping to organize the contest. She said she's not sure what sauce Jeff will prepare. "Knowing Jeff, he'll probably wait 'til the night before," she said.

Chef Jon Hoeschen from Cher-Ae Heights Casino's Sunset Restaurant plans on preparing a classic Italian Bolognaise-style sauce. "I'll feature some local grass-fed beef for the ground beef part and I'll fancy it up with some sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic," he said, noting that it's not a dish he typically makes at the restaurant, although they do a pasta marinara dish on the kids menu, "and I'll sometimes run that as a dinner special."

They call Rich Lucas, "The Man from M.A.R.S." which is to say he runs a "mobile appearance restoration service" doing cosmetic repairs on cars and trucks, mostly for car dealers. He's also an accomplished home cook.

"I'll be doing a meat sauce that I've been making for 30 years or so," he said. "I use it for everything from spaghetti to lasagna and people seem to like it. It's one of those things where you find a basic recipe in a cookbook somewhere, then you find, if you add more of this, that's better, and if you use a better tomato sauce that's better." His preferred sauce is Muir Glen, "a nice organic sauce that seems to have a bright fresh flavor."

The meat base is ground beef, "really lean -- then you have your oregano, garlic and onions -- all the standard Italian stuff. And I use nice Italian olives -- Niçoise -- not the canned black olives." (Note, Niçoise olives are actually French.) His secret? "Use fresh spices, no dried oregano. And cook it the day before -- it allows the spices to really marry and bloom."

Nim Mason will be cooking a traditional marinara, a family recipe -- with an emphasis on family. "I grew up in a very large Italian family that owned an Italian family restaurant in Sonoma County," she said, explaining that Frediani's Inn in Forestville was founded by her grandparents (Clara Frediani was her Italian grandmother's maiden name). "As a small girl I was always in the kitchen with my dad. I loved the kitchen."

She says she chose marinara because not everyone will want a meat sauce. "I start with an onion and garlic base cooked in olive oil, with some of the onions diced bigger for a chunkier constancy, then a combination of organic stewed tomatoes and fresh Roma tomatoes. I use a little bit of Parmesan and little red wine, and of course all the Italian herbs, but most prominently fresh basil. I use sea salt -- I think salt brings out the richness of the tomatoes."

John Ford, morning show host for All-Hits KZCC, is one cook who's planning something different -- a culture jamming sauce. "I'm going to have a Mexican flare to my spaghetti sauce," he said. "I'm not going to divulge any secrets, but you will definitely taste the Mexican spices with cilantro and fresh tomatoes. I'll try to get as much fresh stuff as possible from the Co-op and Wildberries."

He says he'll tone his sauce down a notch from the way he makes it at home, but he's still planning on using fiery habanero chili peppers. "Just a little bit; I can't say how much, but it will have a really good flavor."

Jessica Baker from Jade Dragon Medical Spa is thinking Chinese-Italian. "I believe I'll do a tomato-based sauce with some Chinese medicinal herbs to help digestion, things like dazao and either American ginseng of something we call dang shen. You probably won't be able to taste them, but you'll feel their benefit. I'll use tradition Italian herbs too. I'm a vegetarian so it will not have meat in it." Food as medicine? "With Chinese medicine they use medicinal herbs a lot in soup stock, rice and so forth. Food is medicine, at least it should be. It has to taste good too, but we need our herbs to keep us healthy."

Bryan Little, a teacher at North Coast Prep, freely admits that he's more of a baker than sauce maker, but it was pretty much a given that he'd make some sauce. His wife, Terri Vroman Little, is the sole teacher and director at Redwood Coast Montessori.

Bryan is not quite certain what he'll make -- "I don't really have a written recipe," he said -- all he knows is it will include fresh basil and sundried tomatoes. He figures he will use the Montessori method to come up with something. "The method involves self-motivation and learning through experience and interest -- that's the Montessori way."

The Redwood Coast Montessori I'm Feeling Saucy! fundraising dinner starts at 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, at the Odd Fellows Hall, 239 Buhne St., Eureka. Tickets are $10, $8 for children 6-12, kids 5 and under free. Call 443-5409 for more information.

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