Travel

My Time-Traveling Bowl of Spaghetti & Meat Sauce

On the transporting powers of a simple dish my mother made every week of my childhood.

July 17, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

It always starts the same. I slick the bottom of my biggest enameled cast iron pot with a glug of olive oil then, thwap! I plop in a brick of fatty ground beef or pork, reveling in the crackling applause as its edges start to caramelize. I sprinkle the browned meat with salt before scooping it out and tipping in a heap of diced onions, their familiar sizzle and aroma wrapping me in a warm embrace.

From there, the meat sauce I’ve cooked faithfully throughout my adulthood can take up a hundred tiny variations before I toss it with pasta and shove comforting heaps of it in my face. Most often, it involves plenty of chopped garlic, pureed tomatoes, a handful of torn herbs, and maybe a splash of last night’s red wine.

But now that a pandemic has largely confined me within the walls of my Chicago apartment, with nary a dinner reservation or far-flung trip on the horizon, meat sauce, in its endless comfy guises, carries a weightier load—of transporting me somewhere else until I reach the bottom of the bowl.

Maybe instead I build a rich ragù from a base of minced celery, carrots, onion, and garlic and a trio of pork, beef, and lean veal. It's tinged with wine and a wad of rust-colored tomato paste, then slowly stewed for hours until each element melds and concentrates into a burnished paste.

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Top Comment:
“And, like you, a simple dish of pasta or the much more home made Bolognese satisfies the soul. So thank you for this sweet essay!! ”
— dmader48
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Thinning it with starchy pasta water and tossing a few modest spoonfuls with al dente rigatoni and a velvety drizzle of olive oil takes me to the airy, serene dining rooms of Chicago’s finer-dining Italian restaurants, where the elegant handmade pastas glisten with just enough sauce to coat each noodle.

Then again, if I spoon a thick layer of that same meaty paste over a plate of oil-glossed spaghetti noodles, I’m teleported to the candlelit dining room with frescoed walls of Italian Village, my favorite century-old, Italian-American eatery in Chicago, where I’ve ordered the same $16 spaghetti with (extra) meat sauce since age seven.

Meat sauce, in its endless comfy guises, carries a weightier load—of transporting me somewhere else until I reach the bottom of the bowl.

If, perhaps, I make a batch using just ground pork with its sausagey essence, and up the tomato quota, sprinkle in dried fennel, and drop in a cinnamon stick, I am suddenly whisked to a long, wood communal table opposite a bustling, pint-sized Chicago food stall called Thattu, which slings soothing curries from the south Indian state of Kerala. My spicy facsimile almost channels Thattu’s warming winter stew known as pork peralan, with hunks of tender pork in cumin-scented tomato curry—whose reddish oil slick stains my fingers as I scoop it up with lacey appam, a tangy fermented rice crepe.

From time to time, I’ll instead form the ground beef into fat meatballs studded with minced garlic and bread crumbs, and brown them before plunking them into an herby red gravy equally scented with garlic. On those special days, my meatballs and gravy take me far beyond the confines of my hometown, to the swampy Louisiana town of Westwego that dips down along the Mississippi River coastline just south of New Orleans.

There, a creaking, 74-year-old roadhouse called Mosca’s comforts me with fat Gulf oysters broiled beneath thick, golden bread crumb roofs, and piles of spaghetti with tender meatballs doused in that same garlicky red sauce. Even after I leave, I can still smell the aroma of garlic sizzling in oil, hanging thick in the humid air above Highway 90.

Rarer still, I procure a couple of pork or beef bones from the butcher and make stock to lay the foundation for the mother of all meat sauces: Bolognese. I render pancetta and fatty ground beef with mirepoix in a decadent bath of sizzling butter before adding tomato puree and a few cupfuls of my homemade stock. After hours of weakly bubbling, the mixture gets stained orange with whole milk then showered with grated Parmesan.

The buttery, rich sauce clings to the eggy pappardelle ribbons I twirl around my fork, while meanwhile I flit to lovely Bologna, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. After a winter’s afternoon wending through the old town beneath its many arched porticos bathed in slanting, golden light, my companions and I stumble upon a little trattoria down a narrow street. In the slim dining room lined with shelves full of wine bottles, we pass around a shallow bowl of gramigna Bolognese, which is mostly hidden beneath an avalanche of shaved Parmesan.


Lately though, as the long sequestered weeks wear on, I’ve been longing for a return trip to a very specific meat sauce. It's the sauce that stirred in me a lifelong appetite for this dish, which my mom made every week when I was a kid.

She always began hers the same way, too. “Start with chopped onion in butter then 80 percent ground beef,” she writes, not 30 seconds after I texted requesting the method. Her version, born in Sudbury, Massachusetts some time in the mid ‘80s, always included a can of Hunt’s tomato sauce, a few teaspoons of garlic powder, and a sprinkling each of dried basil and oregano—its sweet peppery and minty notes recall the jarred Pregos and Ragús of so many American childhoods.

Midway through my first bite, I’m suddenly four years old, with sauce on my face and splattered like polka dots all over the front of my one-piece bathing suit. I’ve just taken a break from swimming in the plastic wading pool in the backyard to eat spaghetti with Mom’s meat sauce on a sagging paper plate, as the August sun dips behind the tops of the towering oak trees.

I haven’t really traveled anywhere yet, but the world feels wide open. And all the joy I need sits before me, waiting to be twirled onto my fork.


Pasta with Mom-Daughter Hybrid Meat Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Serves 3

Ingredients

  • Olive oil, as needed
  • 1 pound 80% lean ground beef
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 medium yellow onion, small diced
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 fat cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • One 28-ounce can strained or crushed tomatoes
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method

  1. Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high with a few teaspoons of olive oil. When oil slides easily around the pan, plop in ground beef. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until caramelized and no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn off heat, and stir in oregano, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Transfer beef to a plate, and set aside.

  2. Wipe out any moisture from pot, turn heat back on medium, and add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Tip in the chopped onions, a large pinch of salt and the red pepper flakes; sauté, stirring occasionally until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and sauté for another minute. Add browned beef, stir in tomato paste, and cook for 2-3 minutes, until mixture turns rust-colored. Add tomatoes and another pinch of salt. Add water about ¼ the way up the tomato can, swirl it around, and add that to the sauce, too, scraping any brown bits off the bottom with a wooden spoon. Bring heat up to medium high, cover pot and let sauce come to a boil. Turn heat down to simmering (a steady bubble), and cook, partially covered, for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. During final minutes of cooking, swirl in butter, check seasoning, and adjust with salt and pepper.

  3. When sauce is nearly done, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. With a measuring cup, steal ⅓ or so cup of starchy pasta water. With tongs add cooked pasta to meat sauce, tossing feverishly until well coated. Thin with pasta water if needed. Cut the heat, add half the basil and Parmesan, and toss again. Plate, and garnish with remaining basil and cheese.

Is there a dish you cook that helps transport you all over the world? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ruins
    Ruins
  • angel1205
    angel1205
  • Angela Hoffman
    Angela Hoffman
  • Debra
    Debra
  • Nicholas Amigoni
    Nicholas Amigoni
Chicago-based food critic & freelance writer

59 Comments

Ruins November 14, 2020
First off, I haven't made the recipe (yet!) but the elephant in the room for me is the misleading lead in to the article: Inspired by the hearty, buttery spaghetti from her early childhood, one writer discovered a whole world of variations on a theme—each one like an escape to a new locale.

Which then shows the picture of the big pot of Bolognese and the two smaller plates. The smaller plates are gorgeous but the big pot? Ummm..it looks likere's about a cup of tomato infused olive oil just in the ladle. It looks inedible. I read the recipe, scanned the text, read the comments and none of it jived so I'll give the recipe a go.

It was just a weird disconnect for me. I almost expected a recipe like the Marcella Hazan butter tomato sauce. But maybe your Mom just put a lot more butter in and you just lightened things up.
 
angel1205 November 11, 2020
Hi Maggie - I watched food52 on TV and I like Emma Laperruque segment 'Big Little Recipes' I had to signed up online. I love looking at the recipes I already made several. This current recipe shown I'm a pasta lover and this looks so good and the story behind it. I like to read the story behind a recipe it's just good conversation. Thank You
 
Angela H. November 10, 2020
Can I use a can of whole peeled tomatoes instead of the strained or crushed tomatoes the recipe calls for?
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. November 10, 2020
Of course, and the liquid! I'd crush them up a bit with your hands before adding them, or smoosh them up a bit with your wooden spoon once you add them.
 
Angela H. November 10, 2020
Thank you!!
 
Barcham November 10, 2020
Or run them through a food processor if you have one, that's an easy way of saving the time it would take to cook whole tomatoes down to the consistency you want. Not that there is anything wrong with a chunkier consistency if that is something you enjoy!
 
Angela H. November 11, 2020
Thank you for the recipe, the family just loved it! I did add too much water but let it simmer down and it was fantastic!
 
Debra November 10, 2020
I made this for dinner last night!! It was amazing. I love how simple the recipe was and included everyday ingredients. Will definitely be making again! Just one question: why cook the onions separately from the hamburger meat? Does it make a difference in taste or just preference?
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. November 10, 2020
Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed! I find the beef browns better without introducing additional moisture sources (onions give off a lot, for instance). And caramelization equals flavor! ❤️
 
Nicholas A. November 9, 2020
This is the same sauce many of us have been making for years....nothing new here and seriously where is the difference in a sauce we all know....nothing new
 
Barcham November 9, 2020
And for every one of us who have been making this or a similar sauce, there are 100 who have problems boiling water. This site is not only for experienced cooks, it is also for beginners and others who are starting out and need this advice and help. If you don't need this article, great, good for you. I've been cooking for around 50 years and I still enjoyed reading it and commenting on it, hopefully helping a few people myself. Why post such a critical post that adds nothing to the discussion? Better off not posting at all.
 
Nicholas A. November 9, 2020
I have a right to comment as you do...I was making a simple comment that give us something new here and not the same standard that is posted on many many other sites....we both have a right to make a comment on any post that is created- I did not know that only you can comment or make a critical view on something...go look and the mirror and chill out
 
Barcham November 9, 2020
If you don't like the article, don't read it. Move on to something else. Why dump on someone who is trying to help others and bring a smile to their day? Every one of your comments here is a complaint about something and you have added nothing of value to the discussion. There are plenty of food and cooking sites on the web, I am sure you can find one that suits your tastes better than this one if you just took a look around.
 
dmader48 November 9, 2020
You obviously missed the point. It's not about being the "best" recipe!! It's about nostalgia and the fact that the Pandemic has robbed us of too many of our favorite things. So being able to reproduce a dish that takes you back to your childhood and the love of family takes on a whole greater meaning. That's so sweet and special and I, loved this essay and probably will try the recipe too!!
 
Barcham November 9, 2020
Exactly. I agree with you 100%.
 
Bobbie November 9, 2020
Whoa! Nicholas A. - our sauce from our Italian kitchen is never "the same sauce ... years". I never follow a recipe; it's all from the heart and instinct and it's always different in some way.
 
dmader48 November 8, 2020
Just wanted to say your thoughts about pasta & Italy really hit a sweet spot for me. This Pandemic robbed us of 10 days in London in April with our two sons and their families. And our oldest was supposed to get married in a Castle, an hour out of Rome in August. Those trips, particularly in Italy, over the years have added endless joy to our lives. And one of favorite places here, that has great Carbonara and Bolognese had had to close its doors.
So I try to live like an Italian who lives in Ohio, even though I have no Italian DNA. And it all has to take place in my kitchen. Shots of espresso & capacinnos every day. And, like you, a simple dish of pasta or the much more home made Bolognese satisfies the soul.
So thank you for this sweet essay!!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. November 9, 2020
Thank you for these incredibly kind words! I know exactly how you feel on so many levels. Food has such wonderful transportive power. And I, too, want to believe I have Italian DNA as well. :) We can cook our way (almost) there, right? 🙏🏻❤️
 
dmader48 November 9, 2020
Maggie, I did it tonite and it all revolved around a bottle of Prego. Lots of additions; balsamic, oregano, basil, little sugar, onions, carrots, garlic, some left over cauliflower cheese sauce and cream cheese. Toss with spaghetti, a drizzle of EVO and lots of parmigiano. A little bit of Heaven!! Yes we can cook our way to Italy!!
 
Sandy November 8, 2020
Why is this recipe not printable????????????????????????????
 
Barcham November 8, 2020
You can print the entire page or simply highlight the text and copy and paste it into your favourite notepad application and print it from there. Very simple and easy to do.
 
Sandy November 9, 2020
duh
 
phil E. November 8, 2020
hello:
please honor your mother for her versatile sauce.
i honor you for your ability to use enlightened comprehensive text.
just ate garden grown pesto with homemade thicker trenette pasta.
keep splaining for us all. thanks.
 
laurel November 8, 2020
This is great, but I also want the recipe for that pork peralan dish and the appam bread!!
 
Janet V. November 8, 2020
Hi,Julie, A bolognese sauce can be made using white wine and some chicken or beef stock!store bought is fine. There are many recipes for a white bolognese...Marcella Hazan ,Julia Child...and any that you can find via research...I happen to be anIPad user with Safari...Even just asking the question on the site bar will get an answer.
 
JULIE R. November 8, 2020
How can I make delicious Bolognese without using tomatoes? I have a good friend who cannot eat them.
 
Barcham November 8, 2020
You can't. You can certainly make a meat sauce without any tomato product, but it will not be a Bolognese sauce.
 
Janet V. November 8, 2020
Hi,once again...Yes,there are meat sauces of many tastes...however,please accept the remark here, meat sauce does not have anchovynor green pepper..in fact generally Italians do not use red or green peppers in sauces...Sicilians do.In my opinion the simplest of vegetables,onion,carrot and celery to which garlic..not in exaggeration can be added..along with your choice of meat...surely not ground chicken or turkey...and the best of hand crumpled tomatoes...I am sometimes stunned at what is put into an Italian pasta sauce ...always an adaptation or suggestion..to be accepted..but excuse me, not Italian..and of course,red wine in the sauce and to enjoy with your pasta dish.It is grand to share experiences and ideas...whether Italian and every other ethnicity.
 
MaryMary November 8, 2020
Green pepper is a distinctive ingredient in a brothy meat sauce recipe given to me by an Italian in Utica, NY. Also includes some hot Italian sausage and fennel. Glorious.
 
Barcham November 8, 2020
I have friends from Sicily who would not look kindly on anyone who claimed they were not Italian. Put whatever vegetables you wish in your sauce, red, green, yellow, orange or even purple peppers, carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, etc... There is no rule that states what can or cannot go into YOUR pasta sauce. Anchovy is added for the umami flavour it brings, you would most likely not even know it was in there, you would simply enjoy the taste it brings. Don't want it in YOUR sauce? Simple, do not add it.
 
Nicholas A. November 9, 2020
very well said- sometimes they try to take an Italian sauce and make it not Italian- don't try to mess up the basic sauce that true Italians grew up with....
 
Barcham November 9, 2020
Not all Italians grew up with the same sauce. There are parts of Italy where they do not use tomatoes at all in their food. If any Italians have objections to this sauce or how some of us like to make our own sauce, they are free to come here and comment.
 
Barcham November 8, 2020
Great article! I make my basic sauce in a very similar manner but I make a minimum double batch with at least two pounds of ground meat. I add green pepper and celery to my sauce, never make it without it, and anchovy fillets along with a couple bay leaves. Then I freeze the sauce in various serving sizes, from single to 1 litre containers. I won't go into the spices and herbs I add to my sauce as that is something everyone should determine on their own. Often I will freeze a quantity with no additional spices and use that as a base for everything from a quick chili to a Michigan hot dog sauce depending on what spices I add to it.

A basic meat sauce is something I always have in my freezer and when I don't know what to have for dinner or lunch, I just empty a container into a small sauce pot and let it heat up from frozen. By the time I boil water and cook my pasta, the sauce is ready to go.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. November 9, 2020
Love this! Love a little anchovy in meat sauce, too. Thank you for this ❤️
 
Nicholas A. November 9, 2020
no true Italian would put Anchovy it a meat sauce. Period
 
Barcham November 9, 2020
Really? Maybe you could come to Montreal and I will introduce you to some of my Italian friends, the ones who told me to use anchovies in my tomato sauces, meat or no meat, as well as my beef stew and other dishes. Who made you the spokesperson for all Italians in the world?
 
Barcham November 9, 2020
By the way... I never claimed to be Italian. I'm French Canadian, not that it is any of your business really.
 
Janet V. November 8, 2020
Hi,How well I remember,for my mother who was American from Polish background...no spices except salt and pepper were used...and Fridays,being meatless meant spaghetti,Muellers with small can of Hunt's tomato sauce..no cheese .Now, imagine all I came to learn in an Italian marriage with a Neapolitan influence and many visits to Italy and Sicily...tastes that are glorious beyond belief...so unless one is "lazy" excuse the expression ,making a simple marinara sauce with little effort,far outweighs a jar of Prego or some such imitation.Thanks for your column...it is delightful...Janet
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. November 9, 2020
You're so right, making it from scratch is always worth it. Thank you for reading, sharing a bit of your own story, and for these kind words! ❤️
 
Becky W. November 8, 2020
Thank you for such a wonderful story! It is so versatile and love how a little change transports this recipe in another direction!
I learned to cook at my Mother’s side. She was a scratch cook always. She grew up during the Depression. Your article takes me back to my home kitchen at her side! Thank you! This is an instant SAVE button! Please write again!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. November 9, 2020
Thank you, Becky for these incredibly kind words! You made my whole week. Learning resourceful scratch cooking is so, so valuable. Not to mention it creates the loveliest memories. Thanks again for reading, and for sharing a bit of your story, too. ❤️
 
Cryptic October 27, 2020
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Bobbie July 26, 2020
I learned how to prepare my Noni's sauce in her farmhouse kitchen on the wood stove 60 years ago. Nothing was "canned". Tomatoes were from her enormous garden as was her garlic, oregano, and all the essential herbs. The ground beef was delivered by a local cattle farmer weekly. BUT! My Noni had a secret ingredient she would not share that made the neighbours drool as the aromas wafted from her windows. It is now my secret.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 27, 2020
Noni's sauce sounds like pure heaven! I can almost taste it. And you always need to hang onto at least one secret. :)
 
Chef J. July 28, 2020
What fun is a new recipe if the writer doesn't include the secret ingredient?
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 28, 2020
I haven't withheld any secrets here!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 28, 2020
But I support keeping certain things for you and yours in the kitchen.
 
Bobbie July 28, 2020
It stimulates experiment in your kitchen! You'd be amazed when a "secret ingredient" in a dish offers the challenge to exude bragging rights and who knows where that can lead?!
 
Barcham November 8, 2020
The best 'secret' ingredient to add to just about any tomato meat sauce, or any tomato sauce period, is to chop up a few anchovy fillets and let them melt away in the olive oil before cooking your garlic and onions.
 
MaryMary November 8, 2020
Oh but please share so we also can carry the memory of her in our hearts and share her deft hand at our tables with our families.
 
Val2929 November 8, 2020
Not fair 😂😂👍🏻
 
alexisfromtexas July 26, 2020
I'm missing Italian Village so much. It's only across the river, but seems so much futher away....
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 27, 2020
It is a true hug of a restaurant! And it's always there for you. <3
 
Rebecca M. July 26, 2020
What a lovely piece of writing. I grew up in NOLA and it's such a delight to encounter writing that talks about food like this. Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 27, 2020
Rebecca, I can't thank you enough for these kind words! I can't really imagine a better city to grow up in--so rich. Thank you for reading. <3
 
goatini July 22, 2020
You have made my (isolated) morning with your memory of Mosca's. A great NOLA night way back in the day was dinner at Mosca's, and then a good show at Ole Man Rivers. I am pleased to find such good food writing here.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. July 22, 2020
Oh, Mosca's! There's no place like it, you know/ I'm beyond thrilled that this stirred up some lovely memories for you, and thank you for the kind words. They mean so much.