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The Fewdsletter: Meat Sauce Without a Recipe
A customizable choose-your-own-adventure framework for pasta sauce
Anna Stockwell’s “How To Make a Breakfast Strata Without a Recipe” is one of my favorite recipes to follow. Not only because strata (basically a cross between a cheesy frittata and bread pudding) is delicious, but because, true to its title, it’s not really a recipe. Recognizing that strata is a flexible canvas that can be easily customized to your tastes (or whatever’s in the fridge), Stockwell presents her method as merely a reference point for the technical details, like the target ratio of eggs to milk and how high to heat your oven. The rest is up to you.
When people ask me for my recipes, my instinct is to describe them in a similarly vague way. I usually cook by eyeballing and improvising, and I rarely document my steps with any precision. I spent much of the preamble to my brisket recipe hedging about potential modifications, and it took a concerted effort for me to record all the measurements for how I make latkes. So today I’m taking a stab at a not-really-a-recipe recipe for the large-scale cooking project I make most-often: meat sauce.
My meat sauce is not the continuation of a family tradition, and I wouldn’t deign to tell an Italian or even a South Philly paesan that my method is authentic. I take influences from the hearty savoriness of ragù alla Bolognese, the slow-simmered tomatoey richness of ragù alla Napoletana, and the layered meat flavor of Sunday gravy, but despite my pretensions it’s best categorized under the generic umbrella of Americanized pasta sauce. Yet I stand by it being easy to make, flexible to accommodate to your tastes, and, most importantly, delicious.
Since I have to give you a little bit of structure, three are three ingredients in my sauce that are non-negotiable.
Yellow onions. Alliums sautéed low and slow in rendered fat are among the most-delicious foods known to humankind, and red and white onions don’t cook quite like yellow ones do. You can supplement with fancier alliums like shallots or leeks, but caramelized yellow onions add invaluable depth of flavor to the sauce. Use at least one good-sized onion for every two cans of tomatoes (rounding up).
Salt. You don’t have to use a lot of salt — a slightly under-salted sauce is actually ideal, as it invites you to add a generous sprinkle of cheese when you serve it — but layering it in gradually as you add each ingredient helps the flavors develop and meld together.
Patience. If there’s a limit to how long a sauce can simmer before it stops getting better over time, I’ve never found it. Technically you could follow these steps to make a cromulent sauce in an hour, but if you want to do it right, start cooking at least four hours before you want to serve supper.
Beyond that, the specific ingredients are fully up to you. The only guidance I’ll offer is that you’ll want some form(s) of:
Ground or chunked meat. If you’re in the United States, your first association with this is likely ground beef, though some may think first of pork or Italian sausage. We typically use a sage-infused turkey sausage from a local butcher. If your main meat is fairly lean or if you want to want to add extra decadence, I recommend augmenting with some diced pancetta or guanciale. (You can make a pretty good vegetarian version by omitting this and replacing all the subsequent references to rendered fat with olive oil, but the title of this post says meat sauce.)
Canned tomatoes. You may think that tomatoes go without saying, but not to Bolognese hardliners! Diced, crushed, puréed, peeled whole — they’re all good, and I usually like to mix and match. Tomato paste also works in small quantities. Depending on how many other veggies you add, my rule of thumb is that one 28-ounce can per pound of meat makes for a thick Bolognese-ish stew, while a two-to-one ratio yields something like what you’d get at your local red-sauce joint. We usually try to split the difference, but go for whatever texture you prefer.
Other vegetables. The world is your oyster here. You can opt for classic mushrooms and garlic. There’s Bolognese-style with carrots and celery. Zucchini and eggplant bring a little brightness to palate. Whatever sounds good to you will probably be delicious.
Deglazing liquid. The tastiest morsels in the pot are the browned bits that get stuck to the bottom as the meat and veggies cook. Have some wine or stock handy so you can deglaze before the tomatoes go in.
Finishers. A high-quality sauce doesn’t need to be jazzed up…but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add some enhancements, both shortly before and as you serve. You can spice things up with chiles, balance out residual raw-tomatoey acidity with a little brown sugar, or add some herbaceous with basil and oregano. Enhance the richness with cream and vodka as the sauce finishes bubbling, or fully embrace inauthenticity and mix in a can of condensed mushroom soup. A sprinkle of red pepper flakes and parsley atop each bowl is always a welcome sight. Swap out the traditional Parmesan topping for umami-rich Pecorino Romano or nutty Asiago, and consider scooping on a dollop of ricotta.
I have no idea how many portions this recipe will yield since all the measurements are deliberately vague. I would ballpark two or three servings per 28-ounce can of tomatoes, depending on how hearty you make your sauce.
Got all that? Then let’s get cooking!
Step 1: Brown and drain the meat
Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot on high. When the bottom is warm (see if a drop of water sizzles), add the meat to the pot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is browned and (if using ground meat) crumbled. When in doubt, let it go a little longer — this is your best chance to add texture and Maillard flavor to the protein, and slightly dried-out meat will be resuscitated over hours of simmering in the sauce.
Once the meat is done, remove it from the pot and drain it, reserving the excess rendered fat. If you are using multiple meats with different cooking times, brown them separately, in descending order of how fatty and strongly flavored they are.
Step 2: Caramelize the onions
Pour a little rendered fat back into the pot on low heat. Add the yellow onions and a hearty pinch of salt. Let cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften and start to pick up some color — at least 10-15 minutes, but ideally 20 minutes or longer.
Step 3: Add the non-tomato ingredients
Add the other vegetables one at a time, in descending order of cooking time needed (i.e., carrots go in before minced garlic). Add a pinch of salt every time you add something to the pot, and more meat drippings as needed (if you run out you can switch to olive oil). Stir frequently as the veggies cook down. Finally, add the drained meat back to the pot and mix it all together.
Step 4: Brown some of the tomatoes
This is your chance to deepen the tomato flavor! Turn the heat up to high. Add your driest (relatively speaking) form of tomato to the pot, meaning paste if you’re using it, and probably strained diced tomatoes (reserving the liquid) if not. Stir constantly until either the paste is just shy of burnt or another form of tomato starts to brown.
Step 5: Deglaze the pot
Add stock or wine into the pot. While the liquid bubbles, scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon, lifting as many of the stuck browned bits back into the sauce as you can.
Step 6: Add the rest of the tomatoes
Turn the heat down to medium and add the rest of the tomatoes (including any liquid reserved earlier) to the pot. Let simmer for as long as possible, at least a couple hours, stirring and scraping occasionally so it doesn’t burn on the bottom.
Step 7: The waiting game
Step 8: Add the finishing touches
About half an hour before serving, taste your sauce. Turn the heat up if it’s too thin, add a pinch or two of salt if it’s bland, and throw in a scoop of brown sugar if the canned-tomato acidity hasn’t fully cooked off. Once the base sauce is in good shape, add any additional spices or liquids to fit your desired flavor profile.
Step 9: Serve
Generously ladle the sauce into a large bowl atop fresh-cooked pasta. Any shape will do (sorry to any Italians reading this), but I like to use thin, hollow pasta like bucatini or fusilli col buco. Top with cheese and other accoutrements. Enjoy!
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