There are a lot of reasons that people cook for themselves. Some are utilitarian: to live, to adhere to a diet, to save money. Some cook to impress, to attract, to seduce. Sometimes when you get in the kitchen, cooking becomes a source of comfort. Every family with any Italian roots has a basic meat sauce. Some call it a Sunday sauce, but I never heard that term until I saw it on a restaurant menu. This is the sauce that is made to maximize flavor and minimize cost. Fresh herbs always impress, but unless you have a green thumb, they are expensive. This is for the family. Dried herbs are fine. Soon, the budget concerns are forgotten and the inexpensive way is preffered. Family can do that.
I first made a meat sauce in or around the time I was in kindergarten. My mother showed me step by step, how to chop the onion, brown the meat, what combination of tomato products to use, and when, which, and in what quantities to add the spices. She was as consistent as you can be with something you taste and correct as often as meat sauce.
First in the pan, and it was always done in a large frying pan, 2lbs. ground chuck, a dash of salt, a dash of pepper, and then brown. Next, add the onion, one half, loosely diced (she may have been a very good dicer but I liked to help so in my memory, “loosely” hides childhood incompetence). When the onion softens add a 28 oz. can of tomato puree, a 14 oz. can of tomato sauce, and one of those tiny cans, the ones that a tea spoon barely fit into and I can’t remember the ounce count of, of tomato paste. When the tomato products have agreed on a single consistency, add a heaping table spoon of dried basil, one and a half that amount of dried oregano, a bay leaf, then garlic salt, then pepper. I have no idea why she did it in that order, but she was insistent. That the spices were merely poured on top of each other before being mixed into the sauce was secondary. That was the order. She would correct for seasoning as she went and was adamant that you never add sugar to tomato sauce. Though I have developed my own sauce over the years, I still put spices in in that order and I still don’t know why.
Once, while on vacation at my grandparents home just on the Maryland side of D.C., I was left alone in the kitchen with my grandfather’s sauce. He was cooking for whatever immense number of his ten children, their spouses, and my cousins were at the house that evening. I couldn’t have been but twelve years old. In my memory I could have fit in the pot of sauce it was so big. By that time I was a veteran of my mother’s kitchen and as such an authority on all things spaghetti related. I tasted Grandpa’s sauce. It was too watery for one and not properly spiced for another. I “fixed” it. The simmering that probably should have taken a few hours was expedited algorithmically and, given the size of the pot, the remainder of the basil jar was pressed to duty. My grandfather, “The Doc” as his sons called him behind his back, may have been raised by Italian immigrants in New York, but that man didn’t grasp the twelve year old’s sense of flavor. With the exception of one uncle giving me the eye and saying “Someone went a little heavy on the basil,” no one said anything. No one got seconds either.
The next day, I made tomato sauce with my grandfather. He walked me through a process similar to, but divergent on many steps, my mother’s recipe like the scientist he was, explaining the whys of each step. It was strange and familiar. I can’t remember how to make his recipe. I only remember that it was different, and that was okay. That’s not exactly true. I remember that it was delicious without bieng better or worse than the sauce we had weekly at home. When I had dinner at my friend’s houses and spaghetti was on the menu, it was invariably a store bought jar of misery reheated and poured on overcooked noodles. I had never known there was a third way. Grandpa never hinted that he knew who tried to out-chef him the night before.
Over time, I have put my own stamp on the sauce my mother taught me to make, much as she put a stamp on the sauce she learned from my grandfather. I start with five or six garlic cloves, minced and slowly warmed in olive oil. Unlike the large frying pan Mom used, I have a big red Dutch oven. Next I add half an onion, diced, and then add an amount equal to the onion of diced carrot and again diced celery when the onion is translucent. Five or so minutes later I put in 1 to 1 1/2 lb. ground chuck with a pinch of salt and brown. Next, I take the Dutch oven off the heat and tilt, pushing all the meat to the high side with a spatula, letting the grease drain and then sopping up with paper towels. I can see some wondering why I would use a fatty blend of beef and then drain it. I feel that the onions, celery, and carrots soak up some of the flavor of the fats and hold it. You get fatty richness without bits of cloying grease. I also adhere to the “no sugar” rule that Mom enforced, but feel that the sauce needs some sweetness. Carrots fill the void. Next, I put two 28 oz. cans of whole tomatoes into a bowl, shred them with my hands, pour them with their juices to the Dutch oven and return it to the heat. Why not a puree? Because I like the tendrils of torn tomato. Rather than coat the pasta, which the juice still does, the strands get caught in the pasta and your fork. It’s more rustic to me. When the sauce starts to simmer, add dried basil, dried oregano, no bay leaf, then salt and pepper. I’ve long since stopped measuring. I know our tastes. I added to Mom’s lessons a pinch of red pepper flakes. Admittedly, the pinch is getting bigger over time. I let it go for twenty or so minutes at med-low and them drop it to a simmer before I heavily salt some water for the pasta and boil. Correct for seasoning before serving with Parmeggiano-Regiano, Pecorino-Romano, or Asiago. If you shop at Whole Foods, ask for Grana Padana, and watch them try to upsell.
This works with spaghetti, bucatini, penne, tagliatelle, but I am convinced that rigatoni, with it’s large round tubes that allows young boys and girls to make meat stuffed missiles is the highest and best expression of this sauce – needs many napkins.
My son, he’s five, likes to help me make sauce, although he will not breach anything but olive oil on his pasta thus far. Courtesy of my sister and her husband, he has a porceline knife with ridged edges, deadly to garlic and carrots, but harmless to small boy skin. He dices loosely. His favorite part of the entire enterprise is opening the cans of tomatoes. He does it with something resembling precision, leaving just enough of the top connected to the jar (usually) to allow us to pour out the contents while keeping the tin whole. I wonder what his sauce will eventually taste like.
I haven’t had Mom’s sauce since the summer of 2008. That was the last time I knew her to make it, and then, by direction. Chemotherapy messed with her sense of taste. She ate for utilitarian reasons after that. I hadn’t thought of her recipe in quite a while. I didn’t mean to be maudlin when I started this post, but I think that sometime soon, I’m going to make her recipe for my family.