A Good Sauce Simmerin’

Handwritten methods, preserved and passed
Handwritten methods, preserved and passed on

Even on really, really cold days, little dogs have got to go outside. Greta is dancing anxiously. I go shlep my feet into my duckies, zip my purple “Washington DC” hoodie up to my chin, and slip my jacket on over top. I stuff one pocket full of plastic Kroger sacks [read: poop bags], pull on my gloves, and we head outside.

Greta is as dismayed as I am by the cold; she dances around the yard. The snow has a thick crust, and she can’t find a place that feels good. After several fruitless circles, we head out the drive for our normal neighborhood walk.

Pretty soon the dog settles down, ignores the cold, and starts sniffing; there are splashy deer tracks from one yard across the street to another (I came home at moonrise the night before and saw them, our neighborhood deer, seven in all, loping silently across the street; it was eerie and beautiful). Something with a compelling smell must have been dropped near the sidewalk around the corner before the snow fell; Greta doesn’t want to leave one spot, and keeps pawing at the crust and trying to snout something out. I give her a few minutes’ sniffing time and nudge her on.

Eventually, cold or no, we enjoy our usual productive walk around the block, and arrive home energized and feeling a little righteous for having braved the frigid air. And then the big reward: opening the back door and being enveloped in the fragrant scent of spaghetti sauce simmering.

I have been learning to make sauce since, in my early twenties, I realized that my version of red sauce was totally uninspired. Spaghetti sauce could be a wonderful meal, and it was economical for struggling young marrieds; it was the meal of choice for small dinner parties, and the preparation got a little competitive. (I remember friends who served us our spaghetti and meatballs at a coffee table, where we sat on fat, hand sewn pillows, eastern style. The meal was delicious, but our legs fell asleep and we hobbled out to our car afterwards.)

I went looking for kind mentors who would share their sauce-making wisdom, and I was blessed with good ones.

I still have the index card on which Mrs. Louise Pelletter wrote out her method for me. It was the first time I’d ever considered cooking with real garlic bulbs, and Mrs. P., who, with her husband owned the Book Nook, where I worked for joy–and who was the mother of dear friends–took pity on me and wrote notes like, “When using garlic cloves, I usually take them out & discard them when sauce is cooked. You may use garlic powder.”

For a long time, I opted for the powder; the bulbs were just too exotic for my novice cooking skills.

Mrs. P’s recipe involved a 24-ounce can of whole tomatoes, a big can of tomato puree, an equally large can of tomato paste, and a day’s hearty simmering. It was the first time I’d ever known that you might put sugar into spaghetti sauce; Mrs. P’s recipe called for a cup, and she wrote in the margin, “I use MORE!” The secret, I learned, was a long simmer, and to skim the furzy acid off the surface as the tomatoes cooked down and the flavors melded.

In the summer, with my sister-in-law Mary and her sister Marsha, I juiced bushels of tomatoes in Marsha’s backyard, spent long hot hours canning the juice, and put that in my spaghetti sauce as part of the base. I swore you could taste the sunshine.

And then I was lucky enough to marry into a family whose sauce is legendary; I learned tricks like throwing in some fennel when the budget doesn’t stretch to adding Italian sausage. I discovered, too, that there are lots of meats that really enhance a spaghetti sauce–pork is wonderful; chicken is amazing. Simmered all day in the sauce, the meat is tenderly drenched with the robust flavor.

The Zanghis would scoop the meat out and serve it on two platters, put little gravy pitchers of sauce at about three foot intervals down their long dining room table, and set out two big bowls of pasta. The big table, passed down from Angelo’s mother, Mary, always seemed to be crowded; friends of Zanghi offspring were never shy about inviting themselves for dinner.

As food processing got more sophisticated and more really decent, ready-made spaghetti sauce become available on the supermarket shelves, our sauce methods have adapted. We no longer use the jars of whole tomatoes or the tomato puree; instead the bases of our sauces are canned spaghetti sauce, tomato paste, and little jars of tomato sauce. To that we add as seasons and freezer allow.

If we’ve had a pork roast, I’ll save the bone and the leftover meat, which sweeten the sauce in a wonderful way. Boneless chicken breasts cook to tender pieces in the simmering sauce, and in the summer, sautéed zucchini and yellow squash add to the joy. My friend Wendy suggested throwing a carrot in for sweetness; it makes a nice compromise for Mark and me, as I prefer a sauce sweeter than he likes.

But the sauce still simmers for at least three hours.

Along the way, Angelo, my father-in-law, found an incomparable meatball recipe. It was in an interview with Don DeLuise in the Dunkirk (NY) Observer, and we call the wonderful result Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs. First roasted in the oven, then simmered in a bubbling sauce, they are absolutely primo. (Our adaptation follows.)

I have gotten to the point where I know my sauce will be reliably good, but I doubt I’ve finished learning. I look forward to ‘aha!’ moments when friends casually share the secrets that give their sauces that special, unique zing.

And I look forward to the fragrance of the house on a cold winter’s day, when the sauce has been simmering, when the boiling pasta water steams the kitchen, and when a fork slices a meatball in half, releasing an irresistible scent. And when the meal is over, the leftovers tuppered, and we’ve toddled off to watch TV, there’s still more looking forward to be done. Because I know that sauce will make an AWESOME chili the next night. But that, perhaps, is a story for another day.


Our version of Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs

2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork (ground turkey works, too, as does ground chicken…)
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs
4 eggs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or–I often use 1/ cup of dried parsley)
1/2 cup grated cheese–our favorite is a romano/parmesan blend
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 minced onion
***Optional: 1/2 cup pine nuts

Mix all ingredients; let stand for 1/2 hour.

Shape into meatballs.

Fry gently (to brown), or bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Add cooked meatballs to sauce and simmer.

4 thoughts on “A Good Sauce Simmerin’

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