Mamma Mia............That's a Spicy Meatball!
In my inaugural post, I mentioned my grandmother's Sunday meat sauce. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. I decided that such a noble dish deserved more than just a passing mention. After all, this sauce (we always called it gravy), was an integral part of our family life when I was growing up. It wasn't so much about the sauce itself (though it was delicious), but what it represented. Family. Security. Love. In today's transient society, so many of the traditions and rituals we followed as kids have fallen by the wayside. Marriages, careers, births, deaths and other life-altering events chip away at them, a little at a time. Before we know it, they are gone. It saddens me to think that my daughter will never have many of these experiences that have formed and shaped me into the person I am. All is not lost, though. I can give her new experiences. I can recreate some traditions. I can make the Sunday sauce!
An Italian woman's Sunday meat sauce is usually her signature dish. Each recipe is as individual and unique as a set of fingerprints. No two are exactly the same. My mother's wasn't exactly like Grandma's, nor is mine exactly like Mom's. While the basic ingredients are somewhat universal, the ratios, proportions and methodology of preparation can be vastly different. Whole tomatoes or crushed? Fresh herbs or dried? Red wine, white wine or no wine? See what I mean? Ever heard the expression "You are what you eat."? Well, the Italian equivalent of that is, "You are your sauce!".
I think that there are two main reasons for this wide disparity. The first is that most Italian home cooks view cooking as as form of self-expression. The character of their food directly relates to how they're feeling while they're cooking it. Feeling feisty? Add more garlic. Feeling angry? Add more hot red pepper flakes. Feeling daring? Grind a bit of cinnamon into the pot. PMS-ing? Don't ask! The second reason is that most Italians cook almost entirely from memory and by instinct. They hardly ever write out their recipes, and the once in a great while that they do, the measurements are usually too cryptic to follow. If you've ever seen one, you know what I mean. A "half a glass" of this and "bunch" of that is not exactly culinary science.
When I was first married, I used to ask my mother and various aunts, cousins and other relatives how to make certain dishes. They were only too willing to share their expertise with me. With paper and pencil (or laptop) in hand, poised to take down every detail, the exchange would go something like this:
Me: Okay, so how much salt/pepper/flour/oil do I add?
Them: Well, you know.....until it's enough.
Me: How do I know when it's enough?
Them: When it looks/feels/smells/tastes right.
Me: Yeah...but how do I know?
Them: You just know.
Me: (whining a little) BUT HOW???
Them: (getting snippy) I don't know! When it looks/feels/smells/tastes right!
Eventually, I just accepted it and learned to go with the flow. The funny thing is, that when I finally freed myself from the confines of the written page, I became a much better cook. Now, when someone asks me for one of my recipes, I often find myself on the other side of the above conversation.
With ingredients in hand, I set out to make my version of the Sunday sauce and post the results for you. I immediately realized that there was a little problem. I didn't have a written recipe for it either! I haven't ever measured out how much of each thing I put in. So, I will attempt to write it down, step-by-step, as I go. Bear with me!
The guts of this, as with any tomato sauce is, of course, the tomatoes. You should use the best quality canned tomatoes that you can find and afford, otherwise, you run the risk of ending up with a bitter and acidic sauce. Not good! In my opinion, San Marzano tomatoes are the best. They have a deep, rich and naturally sweet tomato-ey taste. They are imported from Italy and are named for the region near Naples in which they are grown. You can find them in some supermarkets and in virtually all Italian specialty stores. They are pricey, though, costing upwards of $4.50 a can. What I often do is mix a can or two of San Marzano tomatoes with another good quality brand. You will still get that mellow sweetness you want in your sauce, without the sticker shock. If you can't find San Marzano tomatoes, here is a little trick you can use to sweeten up your sauce. Add a little grated carrot in when you saute your onion and garlic. The natural sugar in the carrot imparts a sweetness to the dish. I always do this anyway.
In order to get the perfect consistency in my sauce, I often combine both whole tomatoes and crushed tomatoes in the mix. My favorite brand of crushed tomatoes is by Cento. They have a product called Passata, which is basically San Marzano tomatoes that have been run through a food mill. They come in tall glass jars instead of cans and they taste like fresh tomatoes. I can only find them at my local Italian specialty store, but depending on where you live, you may be lucky enough to find them at your supermarket. If you do find them - grab them! They really make a difference.
The beauty of this dish is that you can use any variety of meats that you want. The only non-negotiable elements are the meatballs. You have to have meatballs. Since I didn't do much advance planning, I am only using meatballs and Italian sausage this time, but chicken and pork ribs work really well too. If you are lucky enough to find brasciole (or attempt to make your own), you should brown it first, in a separate skillet coated with a little olive oil. I usually bake my meatballs and sausage, rather than frying them. I know that frying is the traditional way, but it is also a lot messier. Once the meats are in the sauce, you really can't tell the difference.
Susan's Sunday Meat Sauce (Wow, that has a nice ring to it!)
For the meatballs:
1 lb. ground chuck
1 lb. ground veal
1 medium sweet onion, coarsely grated
1/2 c. flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 c. bread crumbs
1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese
1 lg. egg, beaten
2 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp salt
For the sauce:
3-4 tbsp olive oil
1 lg onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. shredded carrot
1/2 c. fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 28 oz cans peeled, whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
1 jar Cento Passata diced tomatoes (optional)
3-4 tbsp tomato paste
1 batch meatballs
6 Italian sausage links
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
salt to taste
1-2 lbs. of the cooked pasta of your choice
parmesan or romano cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix all of the meatball ingredients in a large bowl until combined. Do not overhandle or the meatballs will be tough. The mixture should be moist, but hold together. If the mixture appears too wet, add more bread crumbs, a little at a time. If it is too dry, add a little more milk.
Form into balls, about 2 inches in diameter. You should get 18-20 meatballs out of this recipe.
Place meatballs and sausages in a shallow baking sheet and bake until they start to get browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Put whole tomatoes into a large bowl. With your (clean) hands, squish and mush them until they are all broken up. Then add the crushed tomatoes to the bowl with them. Set aside.
In a large stock pot or dutch oven, heat the olive oil on medium high heat. When the oil is hot, reduce heat to medium and add the onion, carrots and thyme. Saute about 6 minutes or until onion is soft and translucent.
Add the garlic and saute a few minutes more, until it becomes fragrant. Be careful not to burn it.
Add the tomato paste and gently incorporate it into the saute. Let it cook for a minute or two.
Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir, mixing everything together.
Add the red pepper flakes and half of the basil. I usually like to add a little salt at this point as well.
Stir again, cover the pot and wait for the sauce to begin to bubble.
Gently lower the meatballs and sausages into the sauce.
Cover and gently simmer for about 90 minutes, stirring frequently. If the sauce is bubbling too much, you may need to adjust the heat.
Uncover the pot and let the sauce simmer for about 30 minutes more.
Fill another large pot with water and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain
Add the rest of the basil and more salt to taste.
Place the pasta on a large serving platter and ladle the sauce on top. Toss well. Top it off with the meatballs and sausages.
Sprinkle some grated cheese on top.
Serve and enjoy!