62 Years of Sauce

This year, my mother-in-law Pat gathered her grown children around her Thanksgiving table. They came from small cities and villages within her western New York county; they came from the west coast and from the Midwest.  They came to eat the first Thanksgiving dinner not cooked up and served up under the discerning eye of their father Angelo; he died in the dawning of 2015.

Ironically, Pat and Ang’s 62nd anniversary fell on Thanksgiving day itself this year.  The marriage spanned 61 years of growth and change, war and détente, peace, turmoil and resolution, births and nurturing, work and respite, loss and renewal–in the world, and in their lives.

That’s a lot of years together.

That’s a lot of spaghetti sauce.

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I ate spaghetti, growing up, and I liked it, but my Scottish mother’s version was not like ‘regular’ spaghetti. The sauce was thin enough to be translucent. Early on, she rebelled against shaping meatballs; instead she’d brown a big chunk of burger in the sauce pot.  One of my brothers had an aversion to the texture and sight of any kind of stewed veggies, so Mom would clamp the big metal grinder to the countertop and run an onion through it.  The grinding reduced the onion to mush; Mom would stir that into the cooking beef.  (She always cleaned out the grinder by running stale bread through it, behind the onion; often there’d be ground bread in the sauce, too, which didn’t bother anyone.)
She would pour cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste into the pot.  She would double the bulk with water, and stir in oregano and basil flakes.  She would simmer it all together and cook up two pounds of thin spaghetti.
We ate it all with no complaints; it was hot, flavorful, and filling.

It wasn’t, though, traditional Italian spaghetti sauce. When I married Mark, I would really begin to learn the intricacies and variations involved with cooking a wonderful, thick, bubbling pot of what his family called, in Italian, “soukup.”

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Angelo was the son of Sicilian immigrants Joseph and Mary–called Ma and Pa by their children and extended family. They married in the States in the early part of the twentieth century; they built a life in western New York, where they had seven children and Pa worked on the railroad. Ma was a stay-at-home mom; on Saturdays, Ang recalled, she would cook up a huge pot of sauce and bake enough bread for a week. Ang was always interested in cooking; he learned the secrets of sauce by watching Ma and helping her.

He brought those secrets, those tasty techniques, into his marriage with Pat, who was not Italian, but quickly learned the ins and outs of Italian cooking.

Sundays were family dinner days.  In the early years of their marriage, Ang and Pat lived in an apartment above Ma and Pa, and, after church, they would gather downstairs around a huge and groaning dining table. Several of Ang’s siblings would arrive with spouses and kids; a special table would be set up for the young ones.  Bowls and platters of pasta and sauce would emerge steaming from Ma’s kitchen, and the family would dig in with gusto.

When Ang and Pat bought their own home, that big table came to roost in their dining room, and the tradition of Sunday pasta dinners moved with them, too.  They had five children in all, four active boys, and then, ten years after Thomas, the youngest, was born, the lovely surprise of a baby girl.  Mark and his brothers brought friends home on Sundays; leaves extended the table to its utmost. Extended family might drop in. When the boys began marrying and grandchildren arrived, the practice of the children’s table had to be reinstated.

But the wonderful quality of the sauce never wavered.  When I first knew Pat–I was in college and we worked together at a bookstore–she canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, and the pasta sauce was simmered from ingredients mostly home-grown and hand-preserved.  A long simmer, the right seasonings, a little sweetness to cut the acid…attention to detail and patience were the most important qualities.  Spaghetti sauce was a delicious and inexpensive way to feed a hungry mob.

The sauce that Pat simmered up in the kitchen of her lovely hundred-year-old home was far different from my Scottish mother’s.  Pat and Ang served sauce that was thick, rich, and fragrant.  (Their sauce was to my mother’s what robust stew juices are to thin soups–both valid, of course, but mightily different.  I understood after first tasting Ang and Pat’s pasta why some Italian families call their red sauce ‘gravy’.)

Unless it was a Friday, or Lent, the sauce could contain many different kinds of meat–usually an abundance of meatballs, often Italian sausage, and sometimes pork or chicken.  My father-in-law was partial to putting pig trotters into his red sauce; I didn’t doubt that they sweetened the sauce. Those seemed, though, blatantly anatomical steaming on the plate of meat which Ang would strain from the sauce and place in the middle of the table. He and Pat would put little bowls of sauce at intervals; there would be grated cheese and crusty bread and greens to make a salad.  And two huge bowls of pasta with scoops could be easily reached from all seats.

A lot of sauce was ladled at that table; the sauce fueled conversation, discussion, and camaraderie.  As years went by, Pat’s methods changed; the proliferation of good, economical, high-quality canned sauce made the hard work of handpicking, peeling, juicing, and canning tomatoes unnecessary.  But the canned sauce was only a base for the magic that Pat and Ang worked in their kitchen.

Along the way, Ang discovered a recipe in his local newspaper; it was Dom Deluise’s mother’s meatball recipe, it was darned good, and we use our adaptation of it to this day. I imagine the sauce being shared around tables for generations to come–feeding hungry families, complementing joy and struggle.

So here, in honor of Ang and Pat’s long partnership, and of the first anniversary, just past, they’ve spent apart, here is the method for that long simmered sauce….

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We use (to feed 4-6 people):
–one 6-ounce can tomato paste
–one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
–one 24-ounce can of spaghetti sauce, traditional or meat flavored
–a portion of a recipe of Dom’s Mom’s meatballs
–three links of Italian sausage
–one onion
–one clove of garlic
–olive oil
–oregano
–basil
–rosemary
–a bay leaf

–one quarter cup of sugar

Coat the bottom of a heavy stock pot with olive oil, and heat that over a medium flame. In it, sauté chopped onion until almost translucent, then add the garlic clove, crushed.  Stir until the veggies are sweated and soft, then add the tomato paste and sauce and spaghetti sauce.  Fill the empty sauce jar with water, twice, and stir into the pot.  Add the spices and sugar and bring to a simmer.  We cook and stir, simmer and steep, for at least three hours.

Meanwhile, bake the meatballs (recipe follows) and parboil the sausage. At least an hour and a half before serving–and you can do this well before then–add the meat to the pot and let everything simmer so the flavors will meld and blend.

As the acid bubbles to the top of the sauce during the early simmer, skim with a flat spoon.  You can sweeten the sauce in several ways.  We usually add at least a quarter cup of sugar; I know people who add a cup or more. We have a good friend who peels a carrot and halves it and throws both halves into a steaming sauce pot. Pork bones also seem to add sweetness and cut the acid; we save the bones and leftover meat from a roast, and in they go.

Chicken, also, cooks down into tender strands in the sauce and adds a wonderful flavor; I don’t recommend putting pieces of chicken in the pot with bone intact, though.  The tiny bones come unglued and separate into the sauce, and unsuspecting diners crunch down on bits of hard bone.  Much better to remove the flesh from the bones and throw just the tender meat into that simmering brew.

We like to serve this with a tossed green salad, grated parmesan, and a loaf of crusty bread.  Of course, a bold red wine goes nicely too.

It’s easy to double or triple this method for a crowd, and you can be daring with add in’s.  We love the sauce with fresh zucchini cooked into it, for instance. And in Lent, Mark’s dad always omitted meat and added sardines and chopped hard-boiled egg.  In those times, instead of topping the sauce with cheese, Ang would heat olive oil in his cast iron skillet, and brown up  a big batch of bread crumbs. The family would use them in place of parmesan, and Mark still loves his sauce topped that way.  And of course, vegetarian possibilities are endless, too. A neat trick Pat taught me was to add dried fennel to the sauce; its taste evokes Italian sausage, even when there’s none to be found in the freezer.

Leftover, this sauce makes a dynamite base for a thick, spicy chili.

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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 1/4 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.

Hang-Ga-Burner Gravy (Over Bashed Boos)

Hamburger Grav y

An on-the-road weekend brings lovely food, indulgent food—like a big farmer’s breakfast at the family restaurant,  with never ending mugs of coffee and long, lazy conversation with dearly-missed loved ones.  Then, that afternoon, I scoop from a delightful fruit bowl and nosh on light, fresh salads at the women-only  “A baby is coming!” gathering.  A quick stop on the road home yields grilled meat and bread from the flat-top, and a cola, full-out, all the caffeine, all the sugar.

A quick trip–a blazing quick trip: almost more hours on road than hours to visit,–and it is wonderful to be home and have a Monday off, with time to clean and straighten, throw the laundry in and run the errands, catch up on the weekend’s events.  And then, time to plan a family dinner.

It doesn’t take much planning, really–my big old yellow Corningware bowl is full of fresh potatoes from Hutch Haven’s farm, and there are seven neatly Tupperwared blocks of ground meat in the chest freezer. So there you have it: we will have an American staple of weeknight family dining.  I will make hamburger gravy and mashed potatoes.

We don’t call it that, of course; it is, and always will be, hang-ga-burner gravy and bashed boos, a musical reminiscence of some kid’s wonderful mispronunciation.  I can’t remember which kid–I can’t even remember whose kid, or which generation that kid was part of, but that child has the dubious honor of forever renaming a family favorite meal.

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My frugal Scottish heart leaps up, alarmed, and falls back, flattened, when I go to the supermarket and find that ground chuck is on sale–on SALE, mind you!–for three dollars and ninety-nine cents a pound.  Oh no, I swear; oh no, I will NOT pay steak prices for bargain meat!

So I buy chicken.  I buy pork.

But.  We miss our meatloaves, our meatballs long-simmered in sauce; sometimes we want to throw a patty on the grill or brown up a base for chili. So I compromise: I buy the damned ground chuck, using a coupon; but I also buy ground pork and ground turkey.  I do some quick calculations, and all discounts considered, I figure my ground meat is now costing me 2.49 a pound.  THAT, I can live with.

At home, I dump the meat all together in that workhorse Corningware bowl, roll up my sleeves and plunge my hands in to the elbow, squishing the cold, mushy meat with my clean, de-ringed hands.  Jim comes in mid-mash. What is THAT? he asks.  When I explain, he gets that look, chin dropped, eyebrows raised; he peers disapprovingly at me over his glasses, and he hastily leaves the room.

These days, everyone’s a Guy Fieri.  I go back to my ground meat mashing.

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So, “What’s for dinner?” Jim asks on Monday afternoon, and I tell him, enthusiastically, hang-ga-burner gravy and bashed boos.  His face does not light up.

“With your…new…burger?” he asks.

When I say yes, he says he thinks he might throw some pizza bites in the microwave.  In fact, he does that, that very minute, 60 minutes before dinner is due to hit the table.

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My mother had five ravenous kids to feed, each more voracious than the last, and a husband who voted for meat and potatoes at every meal. So we ate thin-cut fried pork chops; the chops came in packages of eight, we came in a package of seven, and someone would always eat fast with an eye to nabbing that last chop.  I put my wrist at risk, reaching for it; a fork’s tines pierce child-skin just as easily as they pierce tough fried pork.

“Ow!” I would scream, and my mother would slap the table.

“Put it back,” she would say to one brother or another. “That’s for your father’s lunch.”

The pork chop would be dumped gracelessly back on the serving plate.

Chicken was another trouble-starter: we almost all liked the breast meat, and of course, there were only two pieces that qualified.  The odds were not good of being the lucky, plucky explorer who dove in and came out the white-meat winner.  The ensuing meal would be eaten to the tune of extreme martyrdom, melancholy munching, theatrical sighs.  Unfortunately, it never bothered the breast-contest winner; in fact, I think the triumph added zest. He savored his dinner with overt glee.

Roast beef was a once-in-a-blue-moon treat; at least with that meal, everyone got the same cut.

And hamburger gravy was another equal opportunity feeder–no best cuts to reward the fleetest of hand and most intrepid, just a giant bowl of consistent ground beef floating in its flour and water gravy.  In lean weeks, there might be a lot more gravy than there was meat, but the Kitchen Bouquet made it dark and fragrant, and we would usually scrape the pot clean.  And you could have a huge mountain of mashed potatoes if you liked–my Depression-kid mother bought her potatoes in 50 pound burlap sacks; she cut away anything icky, and, to my father’s delight, we ate mounds of potatoes at most every meal. They might be fried or boiled, but on hamburger gravy nights, they were always mashed, always fluffy, whipped to extremity by my mother’s cheap little hand mixer.

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James, who is on the autism spectrum, has very real aversions to certain textures.  This makes him suspicious of one pot wonder meals; if he spies a shard of sautéed onion, he runs gagging from the table.  I like the flavor of onion in my hamburger gravy. So here is what I do this Monday night:

I upside the tub of frozen meat under a cold running faucet until the whole chunk of meat fwacks away from the plastic bottom; then I place that frozen burger-brick in a cast iron skillet. I fill the skillet halfway with water, and cover the pan.  I put it on the stove top, I let  the water come to a simmer, and slowly, the outer meat defrosts. I pull the cooked edges away from the brick until I have a nicely sizzling pan of chunky ground meat.  I sprinkle the meat with onion powder, garlic powder, sea salt, and pepper; I add a little more water and adjust the temp to a mellow simmer.

I peel potatoes.  I chop them into cubes and throw them in a little pot of clear cold water.  When the right number of potatoes are all chopped, I rinse them three times.  I don’t know why I rinse them three times; someone in authority once told me I MUST do that, so evermore, I do. It certainly does no harm.

I put the potatoes on to boil and lift the lid on the skillet. A rich, meaty steam billows out; Jim, who chooses that minute to walk through the kitchen, breathes deeply.

“Well,” he says, with more than a hint of dubious in his tone, “it SMELLS good.”

It needs something, though, I decide.  I squirt in a dollop of catsup, liking the red tinge that adds to the broth.  I put the catsup back in its place on the refrigerator door, right next to the hot sauce.  Hmm, I think; then: Oh, what the heck.  I shaker in a teaspoon or so of hot sauce.  And then–Honor thy mother!–I unleash a blurp of Kitchen Bouquet into the mix.  I stir it all together and put the lid back on.  I go to read my book.

But I’m meal-planning in my under-conscious.  Corn, I think–corn would be perfect as a side.  And what about bread…a meal like this begs for some sort of starchy soaker.

I know: biscuits!  I have baking mix in the cupboard and a recipe from the College’s culinary department for cheddar cheese biscuits.  They are rumored to taste just like those from that famous seafood chain.  I’ll give them a try.

I upside-down-tent my book on the table, and I go to grate cheese and measure baking mix, pour milk and shake in garlic salt.  I grease a heavy baking sheet; I drop cheesy biscuit dough dollops onto it, pop the tray into the oven.

My potatoes are soft and yielding now. I grab my oven mitt and drain them, leaving a little bit of the boil water for whipping.  I chop Velveeta cheese into cubes, and drop the cubes (a Julia Child moment this is NOT, but I don’t care) in with the hot potatoes.  A little bit of butter; I put the lid back on so all that’s meltable will melt, and then I mash it all together before shlurping the whole mess into the Mixmaster bowl and turning on the mixer, to whip the potatoes until there are no lumps,–none, not one, not anywhere.

I open a bag of frozen corn and shake the niblets into a saucepan, add some water, throw in a blop of butter. I put the saucepan on the simmer burner, lit low.

And then Mark is home, and the biscuits are out of the oven.  I brush their cheesy tops with melted butter, sprinkle them with parsley and a bit more garlic powder.  Jim allows as how they smell just like the ones at that seafood palace; he will, he says, join us at the table, but he will eat only hot buttered biscuits.

I scrape down the potato bowl and let the mixer keep doing its job.  Mark runs up to change, and I beat a quarter cup of water and a couple tablespoons of flour to a frothy paste in a mixing cup. I drizzle the pasty mix into the bubbling meat juice, and stir it into a thick rich gravy, deep reddish brown, simmering.  Jim sets the table–dinner plates for Mark and me, a dessert plate for himself.

And the dad comes down and we say a quick grace, and Mark and I dollop mashed potatoes onto our plates, we create deep potato moats with the serving spoon’s backside, and we ladle in the steaming, fragrant burger gravy.  Scoops of corn with butter melting.  Biscuits that crumble just a little when cracked, steam rising.

“Ummmmmmm,” says Jim.  “GOOD biscuits.”

Mark and I, tucking in, respond thoughtfully: “Mmmmmrrrfrgll.”

Oh, it’s good; it tastes like comfort and growing up and knowing someone’s got your back.  It tastes like being home. We eat everything.  We scrape our plates.  Mark gets up for more and brings a second steamy mound of meaty gravy and potatoes back to the table.  Jim says, a  little plaintively, “Are there any potatoes left?”

There are, of course; Jim goes to help himself, and then we hear him mutter, “Oh, what the heck,” and he comes back with potatoes covered with the meat concoction. He forks some up, tastes it, and nods emphatically.

“Hang-ga-burner gravy,” he says, dreamily.

We nod back.  “Hang-ga-burner gravy,” we agree.

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Jim allows as how the meat mixture maybe tastes BETTER than plain old ground chuck.  We all pat our tummies.  Comfort food, we say.  Home cookin’.

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Ah, tomorrow: tomorrow night we will eat soup–soup with kale in it!–, and then on Wednesday, we’ll sauté fresh veggies.  Later this week we will have lean chicken breasts, baked, no skin.  We will have, one night, a big crisp lettuce salad.  Those will be healthy meals; they will be wise meals; they will be tasty meals, too.

But tonight, tonight, tonight on this home-again Monday,–tonight I had hang-ga-burner gravy, tumbled onto bashed boos.