Creating Red Sauce when You’re Not Italian

…which I’m not. I’m about as WASP as you can get.  However, I really like the complex, rich flavors of  “Sunday Gravy” and will NOT buy sauce from jars or cans. I didn’t learn to make sauce at home.  (Note: Mom, I love you dearly, but your ‘spaghetti sauce’ made from a package of American Beauty is not real sauce, and thank goodness for the world’s collective stomachs it is no longer manufactured.)

Cooking up the tomato paste

Cooking up the tomato paste

My sauce recipe was developed after watching several cooking shows, and then cornering a former co-worker whose parents were Italian immigrants to make him go through, step by step, how his mother and grandmother made their sauces. I make this in large batches, and end up freezing it in roughly dinner-sized portions. Nearly all of it gets sent home with my sons, who are in college and working, and have little time for cooking anything that isn’t quick.

I slice up fresh garlic cloves very thin, and brown them slightly in olive oil, in a very large stockpot. Adding good quality tomato paste, I cook the paste for about five minutes, to remove the raw taste from the paste. I add water and simmer this for about 20 minutes. Next, you add tomatoes. The recommendation was to use canned whole peeled tomatoes, that you crush and strain out the seeds. I skip a step by buying crushed tomatoes. (Canned are most consistent than) fresh, unless you happen to grow your own sauce tomatoes).  Water, oregano, salt, pepper, fresh basil, and back on the burner to simmer!

Onions make everything better. Except ice cream.

Onions make everything better. Except ice cream.

Meanwhile, I get all the meats ready!First, I brown a pound of bulk Italian sausage to render some of the fat off. Spicy is best. I get it brown, but don’t cook it all the way. After draining and patting off the excess oil, I put this into the sauce. Then I start the meatballs.

For my polpetti, I used approximately equal parts of lean ground beef, ground pork, and about half as much ground veal. I sautee a large chopped onion, add it to the meat, and then add bread crumbs and good grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese in roughly equal parts – I like a bit more cheese than bread crumbs. (Note: the stuff in the green cans is NOT an acceptable substitute. Do this right. Seasonings, fresh chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley, and some eggs. Mix all this up and form meatballs about the size of an egg. They always say ‘about the size of an egg” but mine always seem larger. This sounds like a lot of meat, but you are making about 8-10 quarts of sauce!

Mixing up the meatballs. I use latex gloves for quicker clean-up.

Mixing up the meatballs. I use latex gloves for quicker clean-up.

I then brown the meatballs. I’ve tried several methods, including browning in a skillet, browning in large batches on my two-burner-sized griddle, baking in the oven on a rack, and once on those George Foreman grills.

Browning the meatballs

Browning the meatballs

You don’t need to cook them thoroughly, as you just want a bit of that nice Maillard reaction going on. As you brown the meatballs, drop them carefully into your sauce. Cover the pot, but leave the lid slightly ajar.

Ready to eat?

Ready to eat?

Simmer for a couple more hours, until the sauce is thicken, the meatballs tender, and your house smells. Wonderful.  Eat! Sometimes I crush some meatballs into a portion of the sauce and use that in lasagna.

I’m Not Italian Red Sauce

Half dozen cloves of garlic, sliced thin

36 oz of tomato paste

fresh oregano


fresh basil (about 8-10 leaves)

crushed red pepper flakes

about 100 oz of canned crushed tomatoes, juice and all


Brown garlic in olive oil until lightly browned, then add tomato paste and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes, stirring. If it burns, throw it out and start over. Add 9 cups of water, and simmer about 20 minutes.

Add tomatoes, another 6 cups of water, and the seasonings. I used about ¼ tsp of the red pepper flakes, and a teaspoon of salt.. Bring to boil, then simmer with lid ajar.

Meanwhile, brown one lb of Italian sausage, preferably spicy, until lightly browned. Drain well and blot with paper towels.  Set aside

For Meatballs:

1 medium onion, chopped fine

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 lb ground beef, lean

1 lb ground veal

½ lb ground pork

 (note: veal is a bit expensive, so if it’s out of your budget, substitute a full pound of pork and make up the remaining ½ lb with beef)

1-1/4 fresh bread crumbs (I sometimes use the packaged ones)

1 cup fresh good quality Pecorino, Parmesan, or Romano cheese, grated

3 eggs

Chopped flat leaf Italian parsley

Salt and pepper as desired


Brown the onion and garlic in olive oil until soft. Let cool slightly, then add to the remaining ingredients and mix well but with a light hand. Form egg-sized meatballs, handling the meat gently and not compacting too much, to keep them tender. Brown in olive oil and add them to the sauce, stirring gently to not break. Add the browned Italian sausage.

Simmer until the meatballs are tender. I usually cook the sauce a total of 3 hours from the time I add the crushed tomatoes. Enjoy on pasta or polenta and some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Categories: Food

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3 replies


  1. The Ultimate Meatball | THE SCARECROW
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