If I were a juror in a mob trial, I would share my recipe for spaghetti sauce with my fellow jury-sufferers. This recipe was inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (and I’ve always assumed the recipe Clemenza uses is really the director’s), but the one below is my own. After a post-college tour of Italy, back home where I could never find pasta “red” sauce that tasted authentic, I spent years developing this ambrosia.
Catherine Mambretti’s Authentic Northern Italian Spaghetti Sauce (not to be confused with Sicilian or Roman—see below)
Ingredients (amounts don’t count—use your intuition)
- Italian sausage (turkey is best IMHO, but pork works well, too)
- “some” olive oil
- 1 small can of tomato paste
- 1 large can of peeled, chopped tomatoes
- 1 medium chopped white or yellow onion
- 1 large squashed, diced clove of garlic
- 1 cup Chianti (or your favorite dry red)
- 1 tbl sugar (this from The Godfather—sugar cuts the acidity of the tomatoes and enhances the flavors)
- herbs: heavy on the oregano, basil, and anise seed (relative proportions are your choice, but I favor the basil and anise)
- minimal salt (it isn’t healthy or necessary with all these spices)
- minimal black pepper—if you like a bite to what you bite, use red pepper flakes to taste
Sicilian foods tend to include black olives. Avoid them in sauce—they end up like little bits of rubber. Roman and other more-Frankish sauces might include mushrooms. I’ve included mushrooms in this sauce, but after years of production, I’ve decided the texture just isn’t right.
Start at least 2 hours before meal time, or make a huge batch and freeze it. This recipe improves with age.
- Relieve the sausages of their “casings,” aka “skins” (disgusting). Crumble the sausage. Try not to think of the movie Fargo.
- In a large skillet, heat olive oil (extra virgin, in honor of the Corleone business).
- Smash and dice the garlic—throw it gracefully into the hot oil.
- Dice the onion—avoid gruesome amputations of your pinkies at this point. Throw the onion gracefully into the hot oil BEFORE the garlic browns.
- Add the crumbled Italian sausage to the hot pan. “Gray” the meat (as opposed to browning it—seared meat won’t absorb the flavors of the garlic and onion).
- The sausage shouldn’t produce much grease, especially if it’s turkey sausage, but even well-made pork sausage won’t be greasy. If your skillet seems to be greasy (in lieu of abandoning the effort) drain the excess grease. Spaghetti sauce IS NOT GREASY.
- Add the herbs NOW. Do not wait for the tomatoes and fluids. First add the anise seed. Let it sizzle awhile to release its oil. Then add oregano and basil “to taste.” (Don’t you hate that phrase? What I mean is add about a tablespoon of both to start—dried form. Add more if fresh.) Stir and distribute the aromatic flavors. Do NOT actually taste the sauce at this pointl.
- Add a tad of sea salt and few shakes of red pepper. Stir and sauté briefly.
- Diced, watery tomatoes go next. Schmush them around.
- The tomato paste goes next. Clean the can by pouring in some of the Chianti and stirring. Then pour the mixture into the sauce.
- Stir thoroughly.
- Add the rest of the Chianti—or even more, if you wish. The alcohol burns off.
- Use a fork to break up the largest bits of sausage. (I think a real Italian cook might actually process the sauce in a food-processor at the end of this, but I’m lazy and I don’t mind a moderately chunky, slightly chewy sauce. Furthermore, the smaller the chunks of meat, the more apt they are to absorb the many flavors you’ve added.)
- Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover.
- Periodically break up the sausage chunks and add your favorite flavorings: wine, herbs, spices.
As Alton Brown says, “Just walk away.” (Good advice for all prospective jurors, too.)
I would let this sauce simmer for at least an hour. During this hour, check it often. Taste it by dipping a chunk of bread into it. Add salt, sugar, and herbs if you long for some flavor that you aren’t detecting in the sauce. Add more wine—“to taste.”
Don’t let the liquid level fall too low. This isn’t “sausage on spaghetti,” it’s a sauce. You need a fair amount of “red sauce” to coat the spaghetti noodles when you serve the dish. You can simply add water occasionally and stir.
The sauce (throughout this process) should remain thick. If it gets watery, raise the heat and boil off the liquid. Do NOT add any thickener, such as corn starch or flour. No! Just say No.
This is tricky. The noodles MUST be “al dente.” That doesn’t mean “crunchy.” It means “not mushy.” Test frequently. The time required for cooking depends on the diameter of the spaghetti noodles. If you’re not Italian (or a novice), check the noodles after 4 minutes, 5 minutes, and no later than 8 minutes.
Add olive oil to the water pot before it boils, in order to coat the noodles and prevent them from clumping together. Also add salt to lower the boiling point and to flavor the noodles—but only a little. (Stop consuming so much salt! You’d be surprised how much better things taste with less than 2000 milligrams of salt per day.)
If you serve the noodles as soon as they are done, drain them. If you have to wait a few minutes, run cold water over them to cool them and prevent them from continuing to cook (the hot sauce will warm the servings). Some people feel compelled to toss the noodles in butter. OK, but the Italians don’t.
Spaghetti sauce is like an aria. Everyone sings it differently. My only advice is that you avoid the temptation to make the sauce taste like tomatoes or the noodles to “crunch” like worms. My mother made wormy spaghetti. I had to relearn what it means to eat spaghetti.
Twirl or Slurp?
The Roman style of spaghetti eating is to twirl the noodles on a fork and then consume the neat package. The rest of Italy lets it all hang out. They even slurp like the Asians. Both are “proper.” Just don’t break up the noodles with your fork and try to stab them. Why? My bias.
Slurping is good. Dangling the noodles into your mouth from on high is good. Laughing at yourself as you do it is best.