Where we live, there is a local Italian-American restaurant chain that serves truly excellent food. True, you can pretty much tell from ingesting it that it isn’t a paragon of health food, but it’s far from other national chains I could mention, but won’t. This particular local joint serves up tasty pizzas, salads (the caesar salad alone is incredible), and a variety of pasta dishes, many of which come with this savory, unctuous meaty sauce. This is by far the most delicious pasta sauce I’ve ever had, seriously.
On your plate, this sauce settles between your noodles with a minimum of orangey grease like you see in some places, but a few shiny puddles here and there tell you that there’s definitely some fat, and you can taste it – in a good way. Everything is minced up so finely that you’re never really sure what’s in it, whether there’s actually a carrot stashed away in there, or if it’s just the onions you are pretty sure are there. This, oh parents, is a place where you could very easily chop up some extra veggies finely and stuff it in the sauce, as long as you are able to mince finely.
All of my homemade sauces pretty much paled in comparison, so I wanted to try a little harder to figure out exactly what makes their sauce so delicious, and replicate it. The recipe is relatively simple, and I relied on these three principles:
- Fat is flavor: I’ve read several places recently about an almost ethereal marinara sauce made with an entire stick of butter. I’ve never tried it, partly because I just can’t countenance using that much butter in something that isn’t even supposed to taste like butter. I compromised by using slightly less than that amount, and using half butter, half olive oil.
- If the best mix of meats for meatballs is pork, veal, and beef, then why not also in a spaghetti sauce? The local Whole Foods has started to stock veal products (humanely raised – this was really important to me, and I made sure to ask them in detail to be sure), and so I was actually able to get all three meats.
- When I’d gotten a fairly decent sauce, it still felt like it was missing something, some depth of flavor. On a whim, I dropped in some homemade beef stock reduction (homemade beef stock that you reduce until it is somewhat syrupy and then store in the fridge – note that if you do this, the reduction turns into a rather hard and bouncy gelatin and is a bit difficult to get out of the jars). That was the magic key for me.
So, I still don’t know how this particular restaurant makes their sauce, but I know how I’m making mine from now on. Sure, it’s a little exacting, and it takes a while, but it’s definitely the best meat sauce I’ve ever made.
Best Meaty Spaghetti Sauce (makes one big pot, or about 12 cups)
We made this sauce and then froze it in 2-cup portions, perfect for two to defrost and enjoy any weeknight.
- 3 tbsp. butter
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 8 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 lb. ground beef
- 1/2 lb. ground veal
- 1/2 lb. ground pork
- 2 28-oz. cans low-sodium crushed tomatoes
- 1 c. concentrated beef broth (low-sodium), or 1 c. water and low-sodium beef base/bouillon
- Melt butter in olive oil, in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add minced onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion has softened, becoming translucent. Add minced garlic, and cook another minute or two, until very fragrant.
- Add beef, veal, and pork to the pot, and cook them, breaking up the meat into very small pieces, essentially making crumbs out of it, so that there are no chunks. This ensures that the meat and tomato will mingle as much as possible, and that the different meats are evenly distributed.
- Add the canned tomatoes, stir until thoroughly combined, and simmer. This step can take as little as 20 minutes, or for maximum depth of flavor, four hours, or more. What you really want to see is the sauce getting to the texture you like for your spaghetti sauce. In this case, I wanted something very loose and fluid that would coat each spaghetti noodle without clumping up, as meat sauces often do. I believe I simmered for two or three hours with the lid on, and then another hour with it off, stirring occasionally.
- Add the beef broth/bouillon/whatever-you’re-using, and again, simmer until your sauce reaches the desired consistency, probably about another hour or so, if you leave the lid off. Taste for seasoning, and if the sauce tastes unbalanced, try simmering a little longer.