This year I decided to take the cook-at-home option. It has been a while since I have had family over (Christmas to be exact, and if you read this blog, you know all the craziness that happened that day) and I felt it was time to open up our home again and serve a home-cooked meal. I often have a menu planned before I even set a date for a dinner party. This time I was stumped. What would I make that Mom would love?
Although I come from an Italian family, Sunday macaroni dinners were not a given for me growing up (although they were for my mother). My most vivid memories of "Sunday Sauce" were ones I had as an adult. As my grandmother grew older and the Alzheimer's took more of a grip on her brain, we began gathering at her place on Sundays for macaroni every week so we could all be together. As a child my (Irish) grandfather made the meatballs and the sauce on pasta nights. My uncle took over the job when he died. Pasta dinners were never elaborate in my family. There were meatballs and sausage but rarely anything else in the sauce. It was enough.
I remember my grandmother would say all the time, "We don't have to have macaroni all the time. We can have something else if you prefer." We would say we were fine with it. Then we would ask her if she was okay with macaroni. Her reply was always, "I could eat it every day." And so our Sunday evening menu never changed.
I also remember after dinner we would often gather around the TV and watch The Simpsons. Since Grandma didn't see or hear too well, she didn't really understand the show. She would angrily demand to know why we were watching cartoons and snippily say, "We don't have to watch cartoons, you know." It was hard to explain to a 90-year old woman with dementia that we really did want to watch The Simpsons.
Those memories are what finally inspired my Mother's Day menu. My mother inherited that love of Sunday Dinner and that intense love of pasta. We had been discussing for months how much she missed gathering for the traditional macaroni on Sunday. It made no sense to plan some elaborate menu. We needed good old fashioned macaroni with all the trimmings.
Note that I say macaroni. You will find that's a pretty traditional term in Italian families in my neck of the woods. I grew up dividing pasta into two categories. The long strands were spaghetti, but everything else - whether ziti, rigatoni, or shells, or spirals - was simply macaroni. I grew up with other kids who called all of it macaroni regardless.
You will also note that I call it sauce. Italian families around here were just as likely to call it "gravy". I don't know where that term comes from. Even in my family there was no agreement. My mother's side of the family always called it sauce. My father's side of the family called it gravy. I remember telling my maternal grandmother and other members of that side about Grandma Tess's use of the term "gravy" and they said things like, "Gravy is brown." I reported this to Dad who said, "Sauce is brown." He would point out brown sauces like soy sauce. Grandma Carol said that gravy has a thickening agent and that's what separates it from sauce. So what is the purpose of the tomato paste?
Some of my gravy proponent friends and acquaintances have said that you use the term "sauce" for plain sauces like marinara. If you put meat in it, you call it gravy. Bolognese is gravy. The meat-filled stuff you make on Sunday is gravy. That actually makes some sense. What we traditionally think of as meat gravy is a sauce that derives its flavor from meat juices. That could be said of a Sunday sauce filled with meatballs and sausages and whatever other meats are thrown into the pot.
I'm still calling it sauce, regardless. Apologies to my late Grandma Tess, but I will always think of gravy as thickened meat drippings.
My parents and grandparents had their own style for making sauce. I have my own style. Other cooks have their own style. I believe as long as you're not using sauce from a jar, it's all good. I'm not against looking at what other cooks do to see if I can improve upon, or at least add some occasional variety to, my version of tomato sauce. I like to peruse various recipes online and in cookbooks for Sunday Sauce. I considered making some tweaks for the Mother's Day dinner.
My family may traditionally used only meatballs and sausage, but I have seen a hundred variations on Sunday Sauce that go way beyond those meats. I have seen short ribs, spare ribs, pork neck bones, and braciole. I contemplated adding some of these. I worried if I used short ribs, it might take my sauce too close to my short rib ragu. I love spare ribs, but I worried they might make the sauce too fatty (I know that's a rare concern for me). I have made braciole in the past, but I didn't want to deal with the extra work. What else could I add to give a tad more variety to the meat and another flavor dimension to the sauce?
I decided on beef shanks. They have plenty of flavor and their tough, chewy consistency would benefit greatly from a long soak in acidic tomato sauce.
Sunday arrived. I started early. First I assembled my meatball ingredients.
Do I feel a little guilty about adding powdered garlic and onion to my meatball mix? I admit I do, but I also think that with so much other flavor happening in the sauce, the difference in taste will be negligeable. In order to not have the strong taste of raw garlic and onion in your meatballs, you have to really chop it small or cook it ahead of time. Sometimes I'm just too lazy for that.
One thing I did that is the opposite of lazy is I fried my meatballs. Normally I brown them in the oven so they cook evenly all at once. Plus their shapes stays rounder. Today I fried them so the meatball grease would help flavor the sauce.
So here is the first part of the recipe for my Sunday Sauce.
Sunday Meatballs (Sunday Sauce Part 1)
- 1 cup fresh bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup milk
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 Tbl dried onion flakes
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano (or you can use domestic parmesan if you don't want to spend money on D.O.P. cheese)
- 2 Tbl chopped fresh parsley
- 1 Tbl salt
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 pounds ground beef (I use a mixture of chuck and sirloin)
- 2 Tbl olive oil for frying
Add the meat to the bowl and pour the eggs over the top. Use your hands to gently combine all ingredients. Clean your hands and wet them with cold water. Use your wet hands to roll the meatballs. You should have about 15 of them.
Heat oil in a pot over medium high heat. Brown meatballs on all sides. Do just a few at at time to prevent crowding and steaming (5 at a time is about right).
Set aside and make your sauce. When your sauce is ready, cook the meatballs in the sauce for about 20 minutes.
You can also cook these in the oven. 400 degrees for 10 minutes. 20-25 minutes if you're not putting them in the sauce and want to cook them all the way through.
***Next I assembled the bulk of my sauce ingredients. I splurged on D.O.P. Italian tomatoes today.
The other meats were ready to go.
Let's get to the next bit.
After browning off the beef shanks and the sausage, I softened an onion in the pan juices with plenty of garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I don't use a lot of red pepper. I like to use just enough to give the sauce a tiny, subtle bite that you just barely notice.
Once it's all cooked, I deglazed the pan with some red wine. Dig up those brown bits and really get some flavor happening.
Tomatoes, basil and a bay leaf are stirred in and then finally all the meat goes back in. I let that sauce do it's thing for a couple of hours.
Sunday Sauce (Part 2)
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced (you can use more or less according to your preference and the size of the cloves)
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 2 28 oz cans San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 6 oz can tomato paste
- 1 tomato paste can full of water
- 2 bay leaves
- 5 basil leaves, cut in chiffonade
- Salt to taste
- 2-4 beef shanks (depending on size)
- 4 links sweet Italian sausage
- 4 links hot Italian sausage (You can use all hot or all sweet if you prefer)
- 1 recipe Sunday Meatballs
Working in batches, brown the sausages in the same pan. Remove from pan and cut in half (optional step, but I find smaller sausages to be more visually pleasing and less disturbingly phallic, plus you can eat both halves and feel like you ate two sausages). Set aside.
Drain off some of the excess fat in the pan, but leave about 2 tablespoons. Reduce heat to low and add the onions and the red pepper flakes. Cook over low heat until onions are soft. Add the garlic and cook another two minutes. Keep the heat low and watch this carefully. You are forming the major flavor base for your sauce.
Add the wine and stir to bring up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Allow to reduce for a minute or two. Taste and see if it needs salt. Be generous if it seems bland. You need to build this flavor.
Add the canned tomatoes to the pan. If they are whole, break them up with your hands as you add them. Add the tomato paste and the water and stir until smooth. Stir in the basil and the bay leaves. Taste again and make sure the seasoning is right. Add salt if necessary.
Gently add the meat to the pot. Start with the beef shanks and layer the sausage on top. Gently add the meatballs.
Cook at a low simmer until ready to serve. Simmer at least an hour.
I made a salad in the mean time. It contained romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, chick peas, roasted peppers, sundried tomatoes and little bocconccini. Unfortunately, I forgot to snap a photo. You'll have to use your imagination.
After serving the salad I boiled up the macaroni (in this case, ziti rigate) and added it to the sauce. It all went into a big bowl with the meat in another bowl.