Forget truffles. Forget fois gras. Forget filet mignon.
This is my husband’s favorite dish hands-down.
When we were first married (back in the mesozoic era) I could never get it right.
Keep in mind I had a mother-in-law from Central Italy and a mother from Northern Italy. The standards were high.
Both of them made spaghetti and meatballs regularly, and both versions were delicious, and very different from each other. Of course they didn’t use recipes. So I kept trying year after year to duplicate either sauce but it always lacked that little something that they couldn’t quite explain.
“It lacks ‘character,’ ” my husband would tell me time after time.
It took me years to develop that character, but there have been no complaints for a couple of decades now.
My sauce is neither like my mother’s (who used sausage and meatballs) nor my mother-in-law’s (who used braciole and meatballs) but a hybrid that has a “character” of its own.
I always use sausage and meatballs, and add some spareribs too if I’m going to serve it over polenta.
Once in a blue moon I make braciole. I always add hot pepper flakes as my mother-in-law did, but my husband always adds more directly over the pasta. His tolerance for heat is greater than mine.
Oh, and we never called it sauce when we were growing up. It was always “gravy” to us — or the Italian word, “ragu”.
There are plenty of times when I make a light, quick-cooking spaghetti sauce. This is not one of those recipes. This is a rich sauce that needs several hours of slow cooking to develop its flavors. I make it in a huge batch as you’ll see from the list of ingredients and freeze it for later meals. When friends or relatives come by for visits, there’s almost always some I can easily defrost for what has now become my fallback meal. You can adapt it for smaller portions, but be careful not to cut the seasonings too much or your sauce might not have “character” either.
2 1/2 – 3 pounds Italian sausage (hot or sweet)
2 T. olive oil
1 large onion
8 – 10 cloves of garlic
2 stalks of celery
1 large can of tomato sauce (6 pounds, 9 oz.)
1 large can of San Marzano tomatoes (6 pounds, 10 oz.)
(I like a chunkier sauce, so I break up the tomatoes only slightly either by hand or using a food processor)
1 cup dry red wine
1 small can tomato paste
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 T. dried basil
1/4 tsp. dried red pepper
about 3 dozen meatballs (recipe below)
about 3 pounds pork spare ribs (or beef)
Place the sausage in a pot and cook over medium flame until nearly entirely cooked, and most of the fat has been rendered. Remove the sausages from the pot and set aside.
Drain all the fat from the pot and discard. Add the olive oil to the pot. Finely mince the onion and garlic in a food processor and saute in the olive oil. Do the same with the carrot and celery. Cook the vegetables until softened.
Add the remaining ingredients and put the sausage back into the pot with the sauce. Add the meatballs and spare ribs, if desired.
If using spareribs, cook them before adding to the sauce. If they are long, chop them in half with a cleaver. Place them in a covered saucepan over low to medium heat. You don’t need to add any oil to the pot. Let them cook for an hour and much of the fat will be released. Drain the fat and discard. Add the cooked ribs to the tomato sauce. Cook everything together for at least three to four hours on a low flame, stirring periodically.
I used to deep-fry these until several years ago, when I started broiling them to eliminate a lot of the fat. Nobody ever notices any difference and it’s a lot healthier.
2 1-2 – 3 pounds of ground meat (I use a mixture of pork, veal and beef)
about 1/3 of a large loaf of sturdy white Italian bread, preferably a day old
about 1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
Trim the crusts off the bread. Dry the bread in the oven and use to make bread crumbs for another recipe.
Tear the bread into chunks and place into a bowl with the milk. Let the bread soak for at least 15 minutes or until it has absorbed the milk and softened. Squeeze as much milk as possible from the bread and discard the milk (or give to the cat). Squish the bread pieces with your fingers into a bowl with the ground meats until there are no big lumps. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well with your hands. Shape into round balls. Place on a baking sheet or broiling pan and broil or bake at high heat (450 – 500), watching carefully so they don’t burn. When they have a nice brown crust, turn them over and brown on the other side. Drain off the grease and add the meatballs to the sauce.