Pastafarians Rejoice! We have a new Meat Sauce!
Unfortunately, my pasta sauce is an ever-moving target. There are so many variables – meat or no meat, my mood, what I’m serving it on… So, what I’ve decided on is to take a ‘snapshot’ and talk about some of the variables for a meat sauce. I’ll do a similar one down the road next time I do a meatless variety.
Given my desire to have an easier meal tomorrow, this recipe is really a double. If you save the store-bought sauce jars and put the leftovers in them while hot, the extra sauce will keep for a week or two easily in the refrigerator.
So, as I was saying, pasta sauce is a “mood” thing. It’s perfectly acceptable to tweak it based on the desire du jour. So, there’s really two central ingredients – tomatoes and basil – and everything else can be brought in or left out as desired.
It sounds complicated, I know, but really it isn’t. One key to making a good pasta sauce is adding things sparingly, and letting them incorporate before you add more – put some stuff in, give it a stir, simmer for a couple of minutes, taste, adjust as necessary. The other main key is time – cook it slower, longer. I think a minimum simmer is 1/2 hour. An hour would be far more preferable, but like the rest of this sauce, work with what you’ve got.
Anyway, time to get cooking. The first variable is onions. I like ’em, because they sweeten the sauce the way I add them in, and the also add some bulk (some people add sugar for a sweeter sauce, but it’s really not necessary). So, dice up a large-ish onion, and about 5-6 cloves of garlic. In a really large skillet, add a little olive oil and cook them until the onion yellows and starts to soften. Add the ground beef and brown. Meanwhile it’s time to talk about tomatoes.
There are very few things I have brand loyalty about, and most of them are food-related. In this case, I’m a huge fan of Cento’s Italian Peeled Tomatoes – not the ‘Italian-style’ ones, mind you, because there’s a difference. The Italian ones are actually imported, and come packed in sauce rather than juice like most tomatoes. This makes for a thicker, richer sauce.
While the meat is browning, dump the tomatoes in a large bowl and gish them up to a nice texture. What you’ll end up with is a sauce that has tomato ‘chunks’ but not in the defined in-your-face attitude that diced tomatoes way (if you don’t want to gish tomatoes for personal reasons, use one can sauce, and one can diced tomatoes). And protip: When you’re gishing tomatoes, gish with one hand, and use your other hand as a shield, so you don’t wear too much of the sauce.
Once the meat is done, drain the fat from the pan, return to heat and add the tomatoes. Lower the heat until it’s a low simmer.
Now, it’s time for seasoning. Everything here-on-forward is “to taste”, by the way.
The other most important thing in a pasta sauce (in my opinion) is basil. It’s the seasoning foundation upon which the sauce is built. Start with about 1/4C fresh basil, or 1tbsp dried basil. With a meat sauce, there isn’t an appreciable difference in flavor between the two, honestly. Use what you have on hand. Add a pinch of salt, and a sprinkling of pepper.
Let that work it’s way in for a minute or two, and then add seasonings as desired. I generally add around 1tbsp parsley, 1/2tsp sage, 1/2tsp rosemary, 1/2tsp thyme (just like the song!) and 1/2tsp red pepper flakes.
Let all that simmer for 5-10 minutes, and give it a good stir, followed by a sniff and a taste. Tweak the seasonings as necessary (this is admittedly the hard part, but by this time you’ll know where the sauce is going).
Keep it simmering, giving an occasional smell and taste check, for at least 1/2 hour before serving. What kind of pasta is up to you…
Shopping List (all the herbs can be dried):
- Large-ish onion
- Olive oil
- garlic (5-6 cloves at least)
- 2lbs ground beef
- 2 35oz cans of tomatoes – whole, peeled preferred, or 1 can sauce, one can diced
- red pepper flakes