Exercising my honorary Italian status

3:36 PM

Several weeks ago, I made lasagna for The Beloved's 40th birthday--and apparently, it was fine enough to earn me "honorary Italian status" with the In-Laws (my Mother-in-Law is half Italian). The sauce I use is my own creation, and I didn't provide the recipe at the time because, to be honest, it's a handful of this and a little of that...which can be difficult to translate--particularly since one of the joys of this spaghetti sauce is that I can practically make it in my sleep, making it a wonderful low-stress dinner.

The back story: Spaghetti was probably the first meal I learned to cook. My mother never used sauce from a jar--she always made her own. Which was fine, since it was better than most tomato-based sauces we encountered at local Italian restaurants. (I freely admit bias here--Mom's sauce was good and I'd eaten it my whole life. It seems natural that I'd prefer that to most others.) When the time came for me to start helping in the kitchen (beyond clearing the table and washing the pans), pasta was quick, easy, relatively safe, and thus, the perfect starter meal.

Unfortunately, for my mother, I took to spaghetti (and the sauce) so well that I really never bothered to cook much else. It became a huge family joke that, "Saisquoi's cooking dinner? Oh--must be spaghetti!" And it was really only funny because it was true.

While I've considerably broadened my cooking horizons since then, I still love to make spaghetti sauce. The stuff out of the jar is always a disappointment, and, with very few exceptions, so are tomato-based sauces from most restaurants. My sauce may not be the be-all-end-all of spaghetti sauces (remember, I've been eating this in one form or another for about 30 years), but even my former college roommate (who wasn't a fan of tomato-based sauces at all) digs this stuff.

The recipe is a big one--The Beloved and I certainly do not eat this much in one sitting. But it freezes well. You can also halve it quite easily, which gives proportions for the recipe I used while growing up. It will feed a family of four or five quite easily, and should also allow for leftovers. I've given measurements (because a handful of this and a pinch of that never seems to translate well, as I've learned trying to figure out some of my mother's recipes over the phone)--but consider all seasonings "to taste." I like a spicy, flavorful sauce, so I can be heavy-handed with the seasonings. If you have finicky eaters, you may want to shoot low on the seasonings because the flavors will intensify as the sauce simmers. You can always add more if you desire; it's harder to correct if you've added too much (which I've done more than once).

A final note on ingredients: With very few exceptions, I use dried. Part of this is sheer laziness--I always have them on hand. The other, though, is that "this is how my mother made it." I'd guess that the dried herbs were a) cheaper when she was trying to budget and b) readily available at any time of year in New England. I honestly don't remember seeing fresh herbs in the supermarket--particularly during the winter--when I was a little girl. With the wine--you can take it or leave it. I like it. But The Beloved and I like to drink wine, so we usually have something that I can add. If you don't have any wine in the house and you don't drink, don't worry about it. If you're picking up a bottle of red to have with your Italian dinner, use a bit of that. Do not pick up anything called "cooking wine" and put it in your food. This isn't to say you should go out and buy a $25 bottle of wine to make spaghetti sauce, but a good rule of thumb is to avoid cooking with wine you wouldn't drink. My mother used to use my great-grandmother's homemade cherry wine. My father swears that her sauce hasn't been the same since Boba (my great-grandmother) died. Apparently it was sweet enough to cut the acidity in the tomatoes without needing to add sugar, but tart enough to give a nice "kick" to the sauce. If we ever get fruit-bearing cherry trees, I may have to try my hand at wine-making, if only for the sake of my spaghetti sauce. Enough, though. Time for cooking!

So, without further ado:

Here's what you'll need:

  • 1/2-1 TBS olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic (I used fresh, but you can also use the minced kind that comes in a jar. I've even used garlic powder if that's all I've got on hand.)
  • 1 sweet onion (Again--this is what I had on hand because The Beloved prefers sweet onion. You can also use a large yellow onion, or a white onion, or whatever you like.)
  • 2 lbs ground meat (I used 1 lb ground beef and 1 lb bulk Italian sweet sausage. You can use whatever you and your family like: beef, pork, turkey, whatever makes you happy.)
  • 2 28 oz. cans of tomato (I use crushed or ground--just be sure you're getting canned tomatoes and not tomato sauce.)
  • 1/2 can of water (approx. 14 oz.)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper (fresh ground--to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 TBS dried parsley flakes
  • 1-2 TBS dried oregano
  • 1-2 TBS dried basil
  • 1/4-1/3 C. red wine
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 dried bay leaves
Here's what you'll do:
  • Chop garlic and onion. Saute in olive oil in a large saucepan or stockpot until translucent or lightly browned. Remove from pan.
  • Brown meat in the same pan. I brown in 1 lb batches due to the size of my pan--but you can brown everything together if you have a larger pan if you prefer. Basically, though, you want to make sure you're browning the meat and not boiling it in oil and water. When the meat is browned, drain the fat, and then combine your browned meat and onions and garlic back in the pan.
  • Add canned tomatoes and mix well. Your mixture will be very thick. Using one of the now-empty tomato cans, add about 1/2 can of cold water. You can use more or less depending on what sort of consistency you want from your sauce. Mix well. Heat on low flame.
  • Add salt, black pepper and red pepper. Mix well.
  • Add parsley, oregano and basil. Mix well.
  • Add red wine and sugar. Mix well.
  • Toss in bay leaves and give one last stir. Have a taste of the sauce to see what you think. Remember, the flavor of the dried herbs will intensify as the sauce simmers--but if it's too bland for you, add more spices until you're happy with the result.
  • Cover and simmer. The longer you can simmer, the deeper and richer the flavor will be. However, for some of us, Time really is a magazine--if you can let it simmer for at least a half-hour, you should be OK.
And there you have it! Serve with spaghetti or your favorite pasta (I'm a huge fan of cheese ravioli), garlic bread, salad...whatever.

If you want a meatless sauce, just leave the meat out! Sometimes I like to add the red and black pepper flakes to the onions and garlic at the beginning. The toasted red pepper gives a slightly different flavor. I generally don't like to add salt until the tomatoes have gone in, as the kind I buy has some salt in there already. Read your labels--if you're using unsalted tomatoes, you can go ahead and add a little more salt. My family has some high blood pressure issues, so we tend to be a little careful regarding the amount of salt that goes into our food.

In any event, I hope that you and your family enjoy this as much as me and mine do. Buono appetit!

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