My friend Carol says that New York Italians don’t call that rich, red-and-meaty pasta topper, “spaghetti sauce.” They call it “gravy.” Ooookay…whatever the semantics, I make a mean spaghetti gravy-sauce. However, the Resident Carpenter-Blacksmith makes an even meaner one, probably the best I’ve ever eaten, and in the last three years he’s evolved it into quite a dish.
Nathan says he learned to cook thanks to his childhood work avoidance plan; in his family, whoever cooks gets OUT of doing the dishes, so he learned to cook. Since his mom’s an excellent cook, that was a wise choice. Chef Nate is a little unexpected, given his whole manly-mountain-man ethos, but we’ve had a lot of fun crafting, testing, and improving our cooking sessions.
The spaghetti, however, is his own special dish, and he’s very picky about the ingredients. He’s also constantly experimenting; last year he discovered that it’s better NOT to saute all the onions and add them to the sauce; the raw onion adds a more complex flavor.
- Olive oil (get the good stuff)
- 1 large onion, diced and split into two portions
- 3/4 head of garlic, crushed (if you can’t get fresh, the squeeze bottle/jar stuff is OK–you’ll be doing this to taste, so amounts are approximate)
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 lb hot Italian sausage links, cut into half-inch “coins” (it’s easier to do this if the sausage is very slightly frozen, and if you can’t find links, use ground)
- A note on that Italian sausage: If you’ve never used your selection before, fry up a slice and taste it before putting it into the sauce. The definition of “hot” can vary widely; the expensive artisan sausage I bought from the farmer’s market once wasn’t hot at all, and had enough syrupy sweetness to absolutely ruin the sauce.
- 2 large cans (16 oz) diced, stewed tomatoes WITHOUT sugar and only minimal seasoning (check the label)
- 1 small can tomato paste
- 1 half-pound package of storebought mushrooms, sliced thin and sauteed in butter (if you have wild mushrooms–see below–so much the better)
- 2 tablespoons dried mushroom powder
- 1 can Campbells Tomato soup or 1/2 cup ketchup (yeah, I know, but it adds body and a little sweetness to the sauce. Leave it out if you find it offensive, and add another can of tomatoes and tomato paste)
- 1 cup water (if it were ME cooking this, half of that water would be a light red wine. But this is Nathan’s recipe)
- 1 teaspoon each dried marjoram, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper (if you have the fresh herbs, double the amount–you’ll be adjusting to taste, anyway)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
- 1/4 teaspoon each fennel and celery seeds (watch on the fennel seeds–if your sausage has a lot of fennel you’ll want to adjust the amount; fennel can quickly overwhelm the dish)
- Fresh unsalted butter
- Salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste
Optional good stuff
He puts any of the following into the sauce, just depends on his mood and whatever’s in the fridge.
- Wild fresh mushrooms, sliced or shredded and sweated with a little salt and pepper until most of the water is gone. How you do this depends on which mushrooms you’re using; you want to season, sweat, and/or saute until the flavor is concentrated, but if you’ve actually found morels or truffles, don’t overdo it.
- 1 lb bacon, chopped into quarter-inch cubes and fried until crisp
- 1 bottle GOOD meaty marinara sauce in place of the ketchup/soup (primarily to shortcut seasoning to taste and add volume)
- Flank or other flavorful pork or beef, left over from some other meal or cut into small cubes and sauteed until tender. Make sure to add the fond from the bottom of the pan as well.
- Fresh tomatoes from the garden, peeled and cubed
- Bell peppers, roasted and sliced
- Hot stuff–cayenne pepper, tobasco or other hot sauce, to taste (before you add this, TASTE the sausage–it will add quite a bit of spice, so this may not be needed)
- Seafood. This was my idea; I keep asking if we want to try this. All I get from Nathan is The Look, so we haven’t actually tried it (yet). If you happen to have some clams, crab, tuna, etc…give it a shot
- 1 tablespoon sugar. OK, this one’s mine; the very thought of adding–ewwwww–sugar to his precious sauce sends Nathan into a tailspin. However, if you don’t use a commercial tomato sauce in your base, you may need a tiny bit of sugar to overcome the acidity of the tomatoes. Just taste first before you add (and don’t tell Nathan).
The sauce is mostly about assembling ingredients and simmering until done, but all of that must be prepped. For that, you’re going to need:
- Very large (at least 6 quart) heavy pan. We have a beautiful enameled cast iron dutch oven from Le Creuset that does a marvelous job; if you’re using a traditional spaghetti pot, make sure it has a nice, thick bottom. Otherwise, you may scorch your sauce.
- Large skillet or saucier sweating mushrooms–having two pans just saves time
- Very good knives, because you’re going to be chopping and cooking a lot.
- At least one colander. I tend to be the prep cook on this recipe, and Nathan’s doing the actual meats/sauce/pasta, so two come in handy.
- Cover the bottom of the dutch oven with olive oil. Dump in half the onion, salt, and pepper, and saute until the onions are soft.
- In the second pan, add a few drops of olive oil and the mushrooms. Lightly salt, and then saute on medium low-heat, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have released all their water. Drain.
- Add in a third of the garlic and the ground beef, with a generous pinch of the oregano, and saute until the hamburger loses its pink color. Drain off the fat and set aside in a separate pan.
- Add the sausage and any other protein next, and cook until done. Again, drain off the fat.
- Pour in the juice from the tomatoes and the water, and heat, scraping the bottom to remove the fond and incorporate it into the liquid.
- Now add in the tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato soup (or pasta sauce). Mix thoroughly, bring to a boil, and simmer on medium-low heat for at least 15 minutes.
- Add in the meats, mushroom, spices, and the rest of the onions. Stir thoroughly and let it come back to a simmer for another 15 minutes.
- Taste and adjust the seasoning, then let it simmer, covered, on low heat for anywhere from a half hour to two hours, depending on your patience level.
Serve over your favorite pasta. One tip: You can add a quarter to a half-cup of the water you’re cooking the pasta in. Makes the sauce a little creamier and it also sticks better.
This makes an excellent, if lumpy, lasagne sauce, although if I’m using it for that I either let it reduce a bit or just don’t add the water. It also freezes really well…or at least I THINK it does. A fresh pot of spaghetti sauce pretty much becomes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for Nathan, so it’s never really lasted long enough to find out.