Here is another comfort-food masterpiece for which I have a strong nostalgia, though it's been decades since I've tasted it. I have seen recipes for marinara sauce that actually take more than one day to make (it's one of those things that improves overnight in the fridge). I have seen a very creditable recipe that can be made in about half an hour (and it only has 8 ingredients). But again, for the all-stops-pulled-out, three-meat family spaghetti dinner, which wants only some garlic bread and a couple of antipasti to rival the Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner as a family feast, my money is on Dad's all-day recipe. Which, I think, is based on what my Mom's Sicilian-American father used to make for the whole clan once a year or so. Without further ado, over to Dad:INGREDIENTS:
- Four small cans of Tomato Paste
- Two medium cans of Tomato Puree
- Four #8 cans of Tomato Sauce
- 12 large cans of Tomato juice
- 1 lb. of Country Style Ribs
- 1 lb. package of really good Italian sausage in the skins
- 1 large garlic, or 6 to 8 good sized cloves, or pre-diced garlic in the jar
- 1 medium onion
- Olive Oil—Extra Virgin (Is there really any other kind?)
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Black Pepper
- 2 lbs (or more) good hamburger
- Pre-packaged Italian Bread Crumbs (Contadina is nice)
- 2 large eggs
Plan to spend the entire day on the sauce. This process takes six to eight hours, but doesn’t require close attention at all times.
Get a large pot—15 quart sauce pot is good—preferably with a good, thick bottom that spreads the heat evenly, reducing the likelihood of scorching the sauce. Heat the pot, coating the bottom of the pot with a thin layer of Olive Oil. When the oil is hot, brown the country-style ribs, then remove them from the pot; brown the Italian sausage and remove it from the pot.
Chop the onion fairly fine and add it to the hot grease. Pour the tomato paste into the hot grease in the bottom of the pot, stir and watch—you want to brown, but not burn or scorch, the tomato paste. That removes the bitterness from the paste. When the paste is lightly browned, add the puree, sauce, and eight to ten cans of juice. Stir, and set the heat to bring the sauce to a simmer—not a rolling boil.
While the sauce heats, peel and chop the garlic, and add it to the heating sauce. Season the sauce with salt (liberally), pepper (sparingly), a considerable amount of Oregano, liberal amounts of garlic powder and onion powder, a teaspoon of sugar, a pinch or two each of the other spices (later you can add more of them to taste), and two or three pinches of fennel; some believe the fennel is optional.
Stir the sauce occasionally, watching the heat so that it does not boil too hard and does not scorch. You will be reducing the tomato juice down, and as the water evaporates out, you will be adding the other cans of juice to the sauce. I have been known to use 15 cans of juice in a good sauce. When the sauce is simmering, put the ribs and the Italian sausage into the sauce to simmer along with the sauce. Taste the sauce occasionally; if it seems to need a spice or two now and then, don’t be afraid to add it.
While the sauce is cooking, mix up the meatballs. Mix the hamburger, two eggs, and a cup or two of Italian breadcrumbs; salt lightly, add a pinch of fennel and any other spices you prefer in your meatballs. Roll the meatballs about golf-ball size and place them on a cookie sheet with a raised lip, or in a cake pan. Brown the meatballs in the oven at 350̊ . Don’t neglect to turn them after about ten minutes to brown them evenly. Set the meatballs aside, covered with foil or a towel until later in the process.
Simmer your sauce for a good four hours. Remove the meat to a platter. Yes, the ribs will be falling apart tender; you can toss the bones if you like. Remove the sauce from the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature, or below if you have a convenient way to chill the sauce. When the sauce is cool, remove the grease (a ladle usually works, or a small coffee cup) from the top of the sauce. If it gets good and cold, the grease will harden and turn white-ish. Then you can just pick the grease off. Make sure you wipe the clinging sauce back into the pot with a spoon, and discard the grease.
Now, slowly reheat the sauce. The cooling process causes the flavors to blend better (you know how spaghetti always seems to taste better left over?). As the sauce heats up, add the meatballs to the sauce to heat up and finish cooking in the sauce. When the sauce is warm, taste it for the final spicing. Add the spices you think it needs to your taste, but be less aggressive than earlier; a little seasoning will go farther now.
Add the ribs and sausage back into the sauce to re-heat, and bring the sauce to a gentle simmer, stirring regularly to keep it from scorching. It should cook for nearly an hour.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Add the dry pasta to hot water. Watch it so that it doesn’t get too mushy. You want it al dente—just a little chewy, but not hard and not real soft. Some Italians will toss a noodle against the wall (or ceiling) and if it sticks, it is ready. I just take a piece when it seems about ready and chew on it. You can feel when it is too hard, and, hopefully, it won’t seem too mushy.
Stir into the water a couple of teaspoons of Olive Oil, and drain the Spaghetti. Do not rinse it. You might like to add a small amount of sauce to the finished noodles and toss them for color and to help them not stick (which is also what the Olive Oil is supposed to do).
Now, when the sauce is simmering well, remove it from the heat. Remove the meat to platters—meatballs to a bowl, the other two meats can share a platter, or not as you please. You can serve the sauce in a tureen or a gravy boat, or from the pan as it pleases you. Some people will also have Parmesan cheese available for those who do not enjoy good spaghetti, but the use of it should be classified as a criminal offense after all the work has gone into making a perfect sauce. The only real debate is whether you put the meatballs on the pasta before you ladle a generous portion of sauce on, or after. The other meats generally are on the side.
Mind you, this isn't your "sauce, meat, and noodles mixed together in one pot" type of spaghetti feast. This is the slow-food, every-dish-in-the-china-cabinet, please-pass-the-boat-of-marinara-sauce type of meal in which that salad with onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers in a dill-flecked brine is served as a side, and so is a lettuce salad in a sweet creamy house-made dressing, and the oven-toasted garlic bread comes from a loaf the size of a baseball bat, and there is a special pleasure in knowing that the tomatoes in the sauce were home-canned, all the herbs home-grown, and the sausage made according to a recipe that remains a strict family secret to this day. To keep your anticipation on edge while the cooking goes on, sample dishes of sauce, sausage, and meatballs go around at discreet intervals. And later, in the living room or on the front porch, while the adults settle their stomach with sips of amaretto, we children suck on cups of lemon-ice. Aaaah.... It's like being back there again.