Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Searching for the Perfect Homemade Spaghetti and Meat Sauce

There’s nothing like the first real home cooked meal after stomach problems. After a week of worrying if I’m putting too much strain on the digestion, I have a chance to cook food I really want to eat. It’s like a personal homecoming feast. For me that feast is spaghetti with meat sauce. Growing up it was my favorite dish. It was the very first dish I learned how to cook on my own. Living in LA it’s a great money saver. One package of ground meat and two boxes of pasta can be dinner for one for four nights. Over the many, many years I’ve varied my technique and my basic recipe. I’m always on the look out for new variations. I have experimented with virtually every meat sauce recipe I came across. Always on the search for the perfect spaghetti and meat sauce.

I’ve discovered that, authenticity and tradition aside, I like the American version of meat sauce and spaghetti; the pasta cooked al dente and the sauce spooned over. Yes it isn’t as tight as throwing it in the pan and tossing it with the sauce over heat. Yes you almost always end up with liquid weeping from your pile of pasta and sauce. I don’t care. I like sipping the liquid, it’s like a fine consommé. And there’s something just comforting about the ritual of twirling your fork to introduce the pasta to the sauce and cheese on your plate. Mario Batali would object vigorously. Which is too bad because Mario was one of my earliest meat sauce gurus.

Of course Mario doesn’t make meat sauce he makes ragu. Glorious traditional ragus with three different kinds of meat (usually pork, veal and pancetta) and three liquids (wine, milk, and broth) and just a tablespoon of tomato paste for the entire recipe. I’ve admired Mario’s ragu recipes for years now and I always try to emulate them when I can. But three different kinds of meat wrecks the whole budget conscious thing and I like my sauce with a lot more tomato product, generally a whole can on paste plus a whole can of tomatoes blitzed in the blender.

For a long time Mario was my main meat sauce man. I tried others, like the meat gravy recipe from On Top of Spaghetti, but I didn’t really find anything that radically changed my meat sauce thinking until I saw a recent episode of Good Eats. I’m intrigued by the possibilities of using two sauce pans to make the single sauce. In fact when I first started out as a twelve year old cooking for his family that’s what I did, brown the meat separately then add to the tomato sauce. It was a return to my roots that I found comforting. So for my back-from-food-poisoning meal, I charted my own path. I cooked the veggies and meat in the same pan. I got good color on the onions but didn’t worry so much about the meat. I poured the white wine and stock over the meat and let that go at a simmer for several hours. About an hour before eating I got the tomato component ready in a separate sauce pan. Sliced garlic in a little olive oil followed by a can of sliced tomatoes. Simmered until the liquid vanishes then add the tomato paste, a little red wine vinegar and Alton Brown’s secret ingredient, ketchup (I kind of like the sweetness it adds to the sauce.) I threw the tomato mixture in with the meat and let it finish cooking and coming together. The end result? Maybe not the best meat sauce I ever ate, but I ain’t complaining.

The search for the perfect anything is a continuous process. It never ends or at least it never should. The fun is in the search.


  1. Mike shared your blog with me! I look forward to reading your posts!

    I also love my meat sauce sauce! Instead of ketchup, to add sweetness, whole carrots can be cooked in the sauce and then removed prior to serving. It's a trick I learned from my chef brother.

    Here's my recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese:

    And for my favorite Spaghetti all'Amatriciana with Homemade Guanciale:

  2. Thanks

    Just added you to my blog roll