When I make my spaghetti, all is right with the world.
I started refining the dish decades ago, after my mother wrote it down on a now stained and much used index card.
But like most folks who are comfortable in an apron, her recipe was more of a suggestion than an instruction. So, I’ve experimented and finessed with the ingredients and assemblage for a long time, which also means that the sauce is a little different every time.
Like many housewives of the 1950s on a budget, my mother’s recipe was both simple and cheap.
The basic ingredients were a pound or so of hamburger, celery and an onion; tomato sauce and tomato paste, and some green bell pepper (but only if there was some left over in the frig). Water was added, along with a bit of cut up pepperoni, table salt and pepper, and dried spices (I knew nothing about fresh herbs until I was an adult).
The sauce was spooned over whatever spaghetti noodles—pasta was a word no one had ever heard of—on sale. And
given the times, it was topped with the only parmesan cheese any of us knew about, powdered and in a green
It was delicious.
My jollying up begins with the meat. I use ground chuck because it has a sweeter profile than plain hamburger meat, as well as more fat. I also buy three quarters of a pound of not-in-casing Italian sausage because that’s what The Hubster likes. But sometimes I’ll substitute pepperoni, cut in thin nickel shapes, just as my mom liked to do. However, I add more than she did, up to one heaping cup.
My mom only used one pot, which is where I make my initial big turn.
I do brown the chuck and sausage with a tiny bit of olive oil (if using pepperoni, that’s added later) in her Dutch oven. But once that’s going, I heat a large frying pan with more olive oil. Setting the burner to medium, I’ll sauté one large chopped yellow onion, an entire chopped green bell pepper, three coarsely chopped stalks of celery, and 10 sliced, fresh mushrooms, all sprinkled with a bit of kosher salt. I won’t completely cook this, so the flame goes off after five minutes.
At this time, preheat the oven at 375 degrees, because another ingredient will go into the Dutch oven soon.
Once the meat has cooked, the veggie mix and its juices are poured in. Then I’ll add a 15 ounce can of good tomato sauce and a six ounce can of tomato paste (I like Contadina). Next I’ll fill the empty tomato sauce can with water, then put that water in the pot. I’ll do this two more times, then add one small can of chopped black olives and if using pepperoni, that as well. Stir completely while bringing the mixture to a slow boil.
The oven should be up to temperature by now, so it’s time for roasted garlic.
Take one large garlic bulb and with a serrated knife, cut off the top, and even a little of the sides, to ensure that all of the cloves are showing a bit. Place the bulb top up in tin foil with a bay leaf and a bit of olive oil, wrap well and put in the oven for 40 minutes or so.
Once the sauce comes to a boil, turn the heat down so it’s barely bubbling. Now is also the time to add fresh herbs: two heaping tablespoons each of chopped basil and oregano, and a little kosher salt. Let it cook for about 45 minutes, then take the garlic bulb out to cool.
Next, I add an ingredient that sounds odd, but works—a heaping tablespoon of honey. It won’t make the sauce sweet, but does takes away any taste of acidity. Squeezing the cooked garlic cloves into the pot also happens now.
Keep simmering for a few hours, making sure to stir and add water as needed. It’s a good time for more salt to taste, too. I’m also grating some fresh parmesan cheese about now.
Once the sauce has bubbled for two and half hours, make your pasta. The Hubster and I like thin spaghetti cooked al dente. My mom always poured cold water over the done pasta, but I won’t do this step because the sauce sticks much better without it.
Five minutes before serving, I turn the burner off the pot and let it sit. Then I put sauce and pasta together in a family style bowl. But I always place the pot of sauce on the table, too, because some folks like extra. The parmesan cheese sits next to both.
This sauce isn’t nearly as cost effective as my mom’s. But it can be made for about $15—with plenty left over for another meal or a few lunches. In fact, this recipe tastes even better the second and third time around.
Someday, I hope my daughter will want to learn how to make my spaghetti.
I can’t know how it will taste.
But I do know that a lot of room for improvisation—as it was for my mom and me—will be encouraged.