I grew up, like most Americans, eating a tomato meat sauce on my spaghetti which had no real Italian source, except in the imagination. In my neighborhood, it was sometimes called "Jewish spaghetti". I later learned that the same dish, more or less, was called "Irish spaghetti" in my husband's family.This is a dish which has been so assimilated that it is hard to believe it was ever seen as foreign, even exotic. But it truly was. My English grandmother actually refused to try it, and viewed it with deep suspicion, as recently as the 1950's.
Over the years, I have sometimes followed what I remember of the spaghetti rules of my friend's Italian mother (no oregano, just basil and garlic and bay, and a little sugar if the tomatoes are not so great, canned whole tomatoes, no canned sauce), and have also made numerous variants from Italian cookbooks. A favorite among these was a Neopolitan "kitchen sink" Sunday extravaganza, which contained pork bones, rolled stuffed beef and meatballs. It simmered all day, and made the richest sauce ever.
It is safe to say that on an ordinary day, when I want to make a tomato-based meat sauce for pasta or gnocchi, I generally follow a pattern, but not a recipe. So the sauces are never really exactly the same, and change with season and my mood. I expect you do this too, and at any given moment, you will be making this sort of sauce simultaneously with a gazillion other cooks, most of whom don't have a cookbook open either. I think this is a pleasant thing to contemplate, and somehow calming in the midst of frenzies of one sort or another.
In the summer, I use part fresh ripe tomatoes, and part canned, and I like the complexity of flavor this imparts. Also, fresh basil, because it is there, and a sin to ignore. In the beginning of winter, when I still have some (they go fast), I like to use my home canned organic San Marzanos, from an extra bushel of tomatoes I buy from my CSA farmer. I have also taken to adding a few finely chopped chicken livers, along with the ground beef, as I feel it adds some depth and silkiness to the sauce. It's not my own idea-I got it from an Italian cookbook, I'm fairly sure. Most recently, I tasted a sauce with something extra about it, and got my answer- a teensy scraping of fresh nutmeg. I'm putting it in my winter sauce these days.
Here are a couple of ways I have cheated, without too much damage, when I was missing something, and too lazy to run out shopping:
1. This one sounds the worst: Substitued a glop of ketchup for tomato paste. (True Confessions stuff here)
2. Thick sliced peppered bacon for pancetta
3. No wine...extra chicken broth and a dollop of red wine vinegar
4. chopped fennel for celery (I now prefer this option)
5. low on meat- minced portabellas and/or a handfull of chopped dried shitakes
The one thing (besides tomatoes and meat) that is completely indispensible as far as I am concerned, is garlic. Ain't no substitute.It would be my guess that no one who is motivated enough to bother reading a food blog needs to be told how to make a tomato meat sauce for pasta, and that is a nice thought, as far as I'm concerned. And everyone's is just a little different. Tasting the sauce, you can tell when you are home.
In case there is anyone who doesn't know the fundamentals, these are: In a big pot, heat some oil and cook a little bit of pancetta if you like, then add some chopped onion and any other little chopped veg you like, and cook until soft. Crumble in the ground meat of your choice, and brown it. Add the seasonings you like, especially garlic, salt and pepper,a bit of red pepper, but also basil, and parsley and some nutmeg or marjoram and a bay leaf.
Add a whole bunch of very good fresh or canned chopped peeled tomatoes and their juices, mooshed up a bit and some red wine and tomato paste, and cook the whole thing at a low burble for a long time, but at least until it turns a noticeably different sort of color, which seems to happen more or less all at once, after awhile. Add more liquid if it gets too thick in the meantime. You will know the turning color business the first time you see it happen, right ? It's quite obvious- not subtle or difficult to detect. If you were making a summery, fresh tomato sauce, you'd stop well before it happened; it's a depth and richness thing, and the brightness of fresh tomatoes doesn't survive it.
Anyhow, I made some tomato sauce because I've got a friend coming for our annual celebratory pre-Christmas dinner , and we are having spaghetti and presents. I saw a fancy all red holiday dinner in Gourmet Magazine. This is not it. But I liked the idea, and when I saw Julie's cranberry upside down cake at Kitchenography, I had to have it. If you look there you will find not only the recipe, but a picture of what the cake actually looks like. (Mine has a hole in the center, though..I had to use the ring shaped springform, because I haven't picked my other one up yet. Last I saw it, there was still some banana cake in it, so I didn't take it home). This is such a pretty cake. I roasted my last remaining farmbox beets, and made a salad with beets, roasted walnuts, and feta. It's a red Christmas here, complete with some red Christmas crackers.
I'm off to Cleveland for Christmas with the offspring. Be back soon.