Good old fashioned red sauce is the dish most people will ask me about, assuming that because I’m Italian-American, I know how to do it right.
And it’s true: if there’s one thing I am supremely confident about, it’s my ability to make a delicious red sauce. It’s my go-to comfort food, the thing I make on chilly nights, and what I’ll cook for company on Sunday afternoons.
Most of all, I love the process. It all begins by slowly sautéing garlic in extra virgin olive oil, which perfumes the house and draws people into the kitchen to see what’s cooking.
Red pepper flakes go in next, and then the crushed tomatoes. I put it on a slow simmer while browning sausages in a separate pan. When they are just barely seared, they are dumped into the sauce to slowly cook.
Then I curl up on the couch to read a magazine or watch a movie I’ve seen before, periodically getting up to stir the sauce, taste it, add a bit more salt or oregano.
I know when it’s done when dark lines appear on the surface. I only know that because I’ve made it about a hundred times.
Growing up, Sundays were reserved for pasta and red sauce, which we called gravy.
Many are puzzled by why it’s often referred to this way, but I can only assume it’s because it was far more than just a sauce, but a great stew of meatballs, sausage, and braciole, which were then served as a second course.
I have always thought that the quintessential Italian-American experience was sneaking over to the gravy pot, slathering a piece of sliced white bread with sauce, and burning your tongue every time.
The trouble with red sauce is that it’s impossible to determine the perfect recipe. I once observed a friend who is a professional chef making red sauce the way he was taught in culinary school. I was horrified.
There was something so mechanical about the way he measured all the dried herbs and I angrily protested the way he added grated carrots directly to the pureed tomatoes. “This is the way Mario Batali does it,” he said defending himself.
I’ve seen carrots added to the chopped onions and garlic that start a sauce, but that’s not the way my grandparents did it, so I never will.
I asked Erica De Mane, a woman who grew up with gravy on the stove, but also a professional chef and expert on Southern Italian cuisine, about her red sauce. She writes:
“My mother and grandmother always made a fairly classic Sunday sauce, with braciole, sausages, chunks of pork, sometimes meatballs, very Campanian style.
As much as I loved this, I find I never make this anymore. It’s not the work required, but more a reflection of how my tastes in Southern Italian cooking have evolved. What I’m more likely to cook now is a streamlined version, using one type of meat.
Lately I’ve been into lamb shank, simmering it with a soffrito of carrots, celery leaves, leeks, thyme or rosemary, sometimes shallots, adding wine (I’m into dry Marsala at the moment), a little stock, tomatoes, maybe a pinch of cinnamon, and let the thing simmer away for a few hours until it ‘comes together’.
I can tell by the lightly thickened texture and the aroma when it’s right, and of course, the meat has to be falling off the bone tender.
At the end I’ll add fresh herbs such as flat leaf parsley, basil, or mint. The resulting sauce I use on pasta and I serve the lamb as a second course, usually with a veggie or a salad.
I make similar red sauce using pork shoulder or duck legs, varying the herbs and spices, but always reserving the tender meat for the secondo.
It is a personal dish for me too, one with no set recipe, just something that, in a way, creates itself, depending on what flavors I want to taste at the moment.”
The more I consider it, the more I realize that my red sauce is a direct reflection of my background—with pork sausage, which is distinctly Southern Italian, and Calabrese hot pepper flakes that only my Calabrian grandfather loved.
Sometimes I’ll do a puttanesca with anchovies and capers, and other times I’ll use meatballs, but to me, a good red sauce absolutely must have pork fat.
If ever you’ve had sauce that was smooth and velvety, you can bet the farm that it was cooked with a piece of pork.
So without further ado, here is my recipe for perfect Sunday afternoon red sauce. Well, my own very personal version of perfect.
- extra virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 small shallot
- red pepper flakes
- 4 links hot Italian sausage (the better the sausage, the better the sauce)
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- Turkish oregano or wild Calabrian oregano (never ever the Mexican oregano sold in those McCormick tins)
- Cover the bottom of your pot with a quarter of an inch of olive oil.
- Chop the garlic and shallot and add them to the pot with a pinch of red pepper flakes, cooking very slowly on a low flame until they soften.
- Meanwhile, lightly brown the sausage in a separate pan.
- Once the garlic is fragrant and glistening, add the crushed tomatoes.
- Stir slowly and add a generous pinch of oregano.
- Once warm, add the sausage and turn flame down as low as possible. Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
- When the sauce is bubbling with ribbons of oil forming at the top, remove from heat.
- Stir well and add the pasta of your choice. Sausage serves as a second course.