There are few aromas that stick out more in my mind than going to my Grandma’s house and smelling her simmering pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove. I can still see that big, yellow pot sitting on her electric stove which contained the sauce that could make my mouth water. It was comforting, cozy, and familiar. Many good times were shared around the dinner table, while the sauce stayed warm over on the stove.
Before it was time to eat and I knew the coast would be clear, I’d take a spoon and have just a nibble to get a preview of what was to come. The taste was consistent every single time. There was never a bad batch. You could taste the warmth that she poured into the sauce with each lovingly selected ingredient. As I grew older, I was determined to learn her secrets to making the most delicious and flavorful spaghetti sauce. I still don’t claim to have worked out all of the details, because nobody can do it quite like Grandma. Regardless, here’s my attempt at recreating a classic meat sauce that will ever so deliciously adorn any pasta on this planet.
First, gather your ingredients. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
1 bell pepper
1 yellow onion
1 pound of ground beef (could substitute with ground turkey for a healthier option, or omit for a vegetarian sauce)
2 jars of whole button mushrooms (yes, from a jar – not fresh)
12-ounce can of tomato paste
29-ounce can of tomato sauce
5 or 6 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of ground cloves
5 or 6 cloves of fresh garlic
salt and pepper
pinch of sugar
To get started, take your pound of ground beef and add it to a skillet over medium heat, stirring and breaking it apart with a spatula.
It’ll take several minutes for the beef to cook up and get browned, so while that’s going, turn your attention to your peppers and onions. You’ll want to dice them into cubes. I choose to go with a rough chop here, just because I like for the peppers and onions to be able to hold their shape and texture when they being to simmer. If you dice them too small, they’ll simply disintegrate into the sauce while they cook. After dicing the peppers and onions, give your garlic cloves a nice mince, using as many as you like in order to attain a wonderful garlicky goodness.
Once you have gotten your peppers and onions diced up, your ground beef should be cooked perfectly. When it’s all done, it should look like this:
Take your cooked ground beef and drain off the fat that was rendered out during cooking. Draining the grease is an important step because you don’t want your beautiful sauce to look like it has an oil slick on top of it! Put the strained ground beef aside and turn your attention to those veggies you have so diligently diced. Add a big splash of oil to a large pot. This pot will ultimately contain your finished sauce, so make sure it’s large enough to handle all of the ingredients and liquid that you’ll be adding. To the heated oil, add your diced peppers and onions.
Let them cook over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. After a few moments, add in your minced garlic and allow the mixture to continue cooking. After about 10 minutes, the vegetables should be starting to brown nicely and they’ll look like this:
As everything begins to brown, it’ll develop a more intense flavor and trust me, it’s worth the wait! Now it’s time to bring this sauce together. Turn the heat down low and add your cooked beef to the peppers, onions, and garlic. Then take your can of tomato paste and add this to the vegetables and beef. This will add a deep, rich tomato flavor that will permeate the entire sauce.
While we are on the topic of tomato paste, do you ever have trouble getting all of the contents out of the can? Here’s a trick! Take a can opener and use it on the top AND the bottom of the can. Then just push down on the lid and ALL of the tomato paste will slide right out into the pot, without having to scrape endlessly with a spatula or a spoon. Here’s the proof of just how handy this trick is:
Cool, huh? Now dump in your 2 jars of mushrooms and the 29-ounce can of tomato sauce. Finally, take the empty can of tomato sauce and fill it all the way up to the top with water and add that to your mixture. Then fill it once more, about halfway this time. Add the additional water to the sauce as well. This liquid will thin things out quite a bit and give you some room to let your sauce simmer and reduce, which will allow the flavors to really mingle and concentrate.
Then it’s time to add a few seasonings to give this sauce some zip and personality. I like to add a few bay leaves (remember to remove these later, because they are most certainly NOT edible!) and a teaspoon or so of ground cloves. The cloves will bring a warmth and coziness to your sauce and keep people guessing about what exactly is in the sauce they’re eating! As with nearly every dish, add some salt and pepper to suit your personal taste and then a pinch of sugar to balance out some of the acidity that the tomatoes naturally contain.
Now, all of the ingredients are in the pot and your sauce is ready to simmer! Partially cover the pot with a lid, but allow some room for steam to escape as the liquid evaporates and the sauce thickens. Crank up the heat until it comes to a low boil, then turn the heat back down to low so it simmers gently.
Stir the sauce every 20-30 minutes, to prevent any sticking on the bottom of the pan. The longer you let this sauce simmer, the more it will thicken and the better it will taste. I recommend a good two hours of simmer time to get things just right. Your home will be perfumed with the delightful smells of the spices as the sauce’s flavor continues to intensify. When my kitchen starts to smell like Grandma’s house, that’s how I know it’s ready to go! When it has thickened to your liking, just ladle some on top of your cooked pasta and enjoy! Here’s a look at my final product that was served with some toasted garlic bread.
You can see how thick the sauce has become after all of the simmering. It will cling to your pasta and your bread as you sop up what is left over on the plate. The sauce freezes beautifully, or it can easily be transformed into another meal the following day. Take any remaining sauce and add some beans and chili spices and you have a quick and easy meal! Not only is this meal inexpensive and easy to make, it brings back some terrific memories for me. I am transported back to my Grandma’s kitchen on a cool autumn day, when leaves are piling up in the backyard. As I smell this sauce cooking in my own kitchen, I can close my eyes and go back to those moments from my childhood. This sauce reminds me that although time continues to march along and things change all around me, some things will always stay the same – just like a Grandma’s love.
The Taste Bud