The Italian Grandmother in My Head
I do not have a particularly ethnic background. Basic Anglo-Scots stock. Okay, a WASP. I cherish my Southern heritage and all the great culinary traditions I have enjoyed, inherited, and try to preserve. But I’ve never had a Bubbe teach me to make latkes or an Abuela to show me how to roll tamales. No Greek uncle schooling me on spit-roasted lamb or Czech relative mastering the technique for kolaches. But I have often wished that I could pick up some of those traditions – draft on the experience of my more diverse friends. I developed this deep desire to make Italian gravy – real meat sauce, what I would call Bolognese. The kind that someone’s Nonna used to make. So I asked a friend from a large, widespread Italian- American family if she could show me how to make a good sauce. Alas, her family lived next door to the city’s great Italian restaurant family, so they just bought theirs from the neighbors. Another friend of Italian heritage held more promise. She assured me her grandmother made fantastic sauce – really easy, but authentic and she sent me the recipe. It wasn’t what I had expected. Cheap, fatty beef, canned tomato sauce, canned tomato paste, dried Italian seasoning, powdered garlic and onions. Now, it was a good sauce, but not really what I had in mind. I could imagine her grandmother explaining the recipe. What a joy it had been to create a sauce that didn’t require hours of chopping and mincing and peeling. But my desire was really for something a little more traditional – or at least how I envisioned traditional.
So I went to work, researching and testing, tasting and starting over. I read old Italian cookbooks and new Italian cookbooks. I flipped through community cookbooks looking for any remotely Italian names as contributors. I tried many, and failed often. So I just sat back and thought about all I’d read, all I’d tried and what I imagined the finished product would taste like. Then I got to chopping. First off, I do use quality canned tomatoes, because they are packed at peak freshness and do cut down on the amount of work. Other than that it’s all me.
Having a good meat sauce recipe up your sleeve is a real blessing. Make a huge batch, it will keep in the fridge for several days and can be frozen in whatever quantity you are likely to use (one family-sized bag and several single-serves maybe). Use straight over noodles, as a layer in lasagna, stuffed into manicotti, or any way you can imagine. The best thing about making your own meat sauce is that you know exactly what’s in it – no preservatives, unnecessary chemicals, you can limit the salt and fat amounts.
Italian Meat Sauce
This recipe makes a huge batch, which is fabulous because it freezes beautifully and has a wealth of uses. By all means half the recipe, but I can’t imagine why you would!
1 large yellow onion
2 celery ribs
3 Tablespoons olive oil
5 cloves garlic
1 pound ground chuck
1 pound mild Italian sausage, bulk or casings removed
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef broth
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup chopped fresh oregano
½ cup chopped fresh basil
Finely chop the onion, celery and carrot – you really want small pieces here and you can use the food processor in a few pulses if you’d like. Finely mince the garlic seperately. Pour the oil into a large Dutch oven. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the celery and the carrots and continue to sauté until soft and slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a further minute. Add the beef and sausage, breaking the meat up with a spoon. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is no longer pink and beginning to brown. Make sure all the meat is nicely crumbled. Drain off any accumulated fat.
Add the tomatoes, wine, broth, sugar and nutmeg. Stir to blend then bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the chopped oregano and basil. Cover the pot and simmer over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom of the pan. Remove from the heat to cool if not serving immediately
Scoop the cooled sauce into freezer bags or rigid freezer containers. Refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for up to 3 months. When ready to use, thaw overnight in the fridge or for an hour submerged in a bowl of cold water. Pour into a saucepan and reheat over medium until bubbling and heated through. Serve over noodles.