Good friend and personal Trainer, Natalie Shovelain, asked me to share my spaghetti sauce recipe. But it’s really so much more than just a set of steps.
I come from a family that makes life work through food. We cook when we’re happy. We cook when we’re sad. We cook when we celebrate. We cook when we mourn. We cook just because we don’t want these bananas to go to waste, and they’ll make great banana bread.
But while I have lot of food memories to choose from, spaghetti sauce is probably one of the most vivid from my childhood. It could practically be another member of the family.
I cannot tell you how many days I came home from school or opened the door to my grandparents’ house and inhaled the heavenly perfume of garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes. It makes me smile every time I smell it. The presence of sauce has marked untold birthdays, graduations, Sunday dinners, Christmases, and special events.
You can’t tell from my married name, but I come from a very Italian family. I’m only third generation American through three of my grandparents. (Funnily, my Nana’s family has been here since the Revolution.) That same Nana, the only non-Italian in the mix, lived above her in-laws when she was first married. As a good, very young, new bride, she followed my great grandma Miraldi around the kitchen and became one of the best Italian cooks around, despite her lack of Italian descent. I love to picture Nana towering over my tiny great grandmother, who spoke only the most basic broken-English and used only a giant coffee cup as a measurement. I very much wish I had the chance to know Grandma Miraldi. It is through her that we come to the actual recipe, which is more of a method, which is really Italian for love.
Sauce (Cooking time: at least six hours)
A note before we begin: There is no written recipe. This is truly something you learn by feel and watching your mom do it 500 times. Accordingly, this may be the vaguest recipe ever written. But trust me, it’s worth it.
Tomato Puree (two 15 oz cans)
Tomato Paste (one 12 oz can)
I like to use a 6-quart pot. Brown the garlic in a little olive oil in the bottom on the pot, being careful not to let it burn. You can use one or more cloves of garlic, depending on how you feel about it. I’d recommend at least two. (I’ve been known to use as many as four.)
Once the garlic is brown, pour in the puree. Be careful because it will spit when the tomato hits the hot oil. Add the paste. Fill with water to about two inches below the rim of the pot. You want it thin, but not so watery that it’s just reddish water. Add in a palmful each of dried basil and parsley. (You can, of course, use fresh. In which case, you want a nice handful of each.) You’ll need to stir it around to mix in the paste.
Set the heat to high and wait for it to come to a boil. Once it boils, lower the heat and cover it with a cocked lid. You want it on simmer: just a few little bubbles, not a real boil. The cocked lid is very important to allow some steam, but not all the steam, to escape. You want the sauce to cook down.
I wasn’t kidding about the at least six hour thing. It takes time for tomatoes and water to turn into perfect sauce goodness. My Pop Pop always said that anything less than six hours was “fast sauce,” and he wouldn’t go near it. I have to say I agree. You’ll want to start this after breakfast, mid-morning sometime. As the sauce simmers you’ll want to stir it every couple of hours to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
When you have about four hours to go before you plan to eat, you can add in meat. The meat cooks in the sauce itself, and in turn, adds great flavor. My family puts in whole Italian sausage, both sweet and hot, meatballs, and (my personal favorite) pork chops. You don’t know good until you’ve had a pork chop poached in spaghetti sauce. You can put the meat in frozen (the sausage and pork, at least). The meatballs you can put in either raw or cooked. If you plan to fry or bake them, you don’t have to add them until an hour or less before.
Some extra tips to an Italian pasta meal
Meatballs are the iconic pasta accompaniment. Back before we were more health conscious, these would always be fried. In my house, a freshly fried meatball on a fork was like a meat lollipop. It was a special treat before dinner. When my brother and I would sneak back into the kitchen, forks bare, mouths slightly burnt, and eyes hungry for more, we’d get chased out before we could stab another meatball and leave nothing for dinner.
1lb ground beef
1-2 cloves garlic
Italian flavored bread crumbs
You’re going to want to chop the garlic very fine. Otherwise, you’ll be biting into big chunks of garlic in your meatball, which may or may not be a problem for you.
Combine all the ingredients. You want enough breadcrumbs for everything to come together and not be too wet and slimy.
Form into balls and either poach, bake, or fry them.
While I trust that everyone reading this can boil water, I have run across some people in my life who do not cook pasta on a bi-weekly basis like myself, so I thought I’d throw in a few tips.
- Despite what the box says, almost all pasta takes 8 minutes to cook.
- The water must be boiling and it must remain boiling while you cook it. It’s ok if it has to go back up to a boil after you add the pasta. You can put a lid on it to help it re-boil faster, but don’t go far. You want to take the lid off as soon as it comes up or you’ll have a mess.
- If you have problems with pasta clumping, then your pot is too small. Use at least 4 quarts for a pound of pasta.
- The best way to tell if pasta is done is to taste it. Take a piece out of the pot and run it under cool water so you don’t burn yourself. It should be firm, but not raw. Pasta should never be mushy. “Al dente” means “with bite.” You want it a little firm.
- Do not cook your pasta until you are ready to eat it. Never ever rinse it. You don’t want to remove all the good starch that helps the sauce stick. Just drain it and then immediately add your sauce.
Finally, a word on cheese. The best way to finish off a spaghetti dinner is with really good grated cheese. I swear by Locatelli pecorino romano cheese. You have to get it in the gourmet cheese case in the grocery store. It’s expensive, but totally worth it. It’s salty and sharp and it stands up to the very hearty tomato sauce that you just made.
Once everything is on the table, if you really want to be a good Italian, shout, “Mangia!” to call in the troops. Let’s eat.