I am part Italian but the meat sauce recipe I’m about to share was not ferried from the mother country by my ancestors.
It is not my Nonna’s recipe, which I suspect was doctored Prego.
It is not my dad’s recipe. He’s Irish Catholic, one of nine children and excels at meat sauce with lots of wine, no garlic and mushrooms that feeds a crowd.
And it is not Sara’s dad Tony’s recipe, with its roots in a 200-year-old Pennsylvania steel town settled by Italian immigrants, which uses tomato sauce, hamburger and one peeled carrot.
This recipe carries shares DNA with of all those recipes, but it is my own, developed over a thousand Sunday night, big-pot family dinners.
We are also all Alaskans, so this sauce has evolved as a way to use wild game. It is great with ground musk ox, venison, or moose. Absent that, I like bison. You can of course also use ground beef, turkey, veal or pork. The key is to mix leaner meat with Italian sausage, the best quality you can find. But this is Alaska, and we all know that sometimes you go to the supermarket on a Sunday and its like a hurricane is in the forecast and you can’t find half the things you need because the shelves are partly empty.
So, if you can’t get Italian sausage, you can cheat. Use a higher fat ground meat and 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, extra salt and a great big pinch of red pepper flakes.
A note on the canned tomatoes: San Marzano tomatoes are, for reasons unknown, usually on the bottom shelf in the tomato aisle. They are a really delicious variety and not too acidic. When I see them, I buy a couple and stick them in my cupboard. But, of course, sometimes you can’t find those. In that case, use regular crushed tomatoes (not tomato sauce). Look at the salt content and go as low as you can find. And, to temper the acidity a little, peel and finely chop a great big carrot and toss it in when you saute the onions and garlic.
A note on pasta: there really is something to cooking pasta correctly. Salt that water! And the pasta should be boiling pretty hard as it cooks. Set a timer. Cook the pasta for the exact minimum time recommended on the box. If you need GF pasta, go with Barilla. Who knows what’s in it, but if you cook it according to the box, it should be acceptable to everybody.
A note on texture: What makes this sauce awesome is texture. It is very uniform and that might be the most Italian thing about it. To do it, you have to use the favorite appliance of all my Italian relatives: the hand blender. It takes 60 seconds and it makes your sauce fantastic. Do it right in the pot. Absent a hand blender, you could use a good quality blender or food processor.
(We’re letting them watch Lion Guard while they eat. Don’t judge.)
Sunday Night Spaghetti Sauce
Serves 8 -10 (or serves 4 and makes a second meal for the freezer)
1 pound ground bison. (You can go with just about any ground meat here. Wild game is great, musk ox, moose venison have all worked well for me.)
1 pound Italian sausage (casings removed)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, finely chopped
2 28-ounce cans crushed San Marzano tomatoes
3/4 cup red wine (this is a great way to use, say, $7 cabernet)
1/4 cup finely chopped basil
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
Splash some olive oil to cover the bottom of a large heavy-bottomed pot. Brown the meat on medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until soft. Pour in the canned tomatoes and the wine. Turn heat down so the sauce is gently simmering. Simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Now, key moment: use the hand blender to blend the sauce and make it a uniform consistency. Taste it and adjust the salt. If it’s too sweet, add a little more wine. If it’s too acidic, add a pinch of sugar and a pinch of baking soda. If it’s too thick, add water mixed with wine. Stir in the chopped herbs and simmer on very low for 30 more minutes. Serve with very hot spaghetti and parmesan cheese.