Life in Maison Gezellig,  Recipes

Love, (Italian-)American Style

During my (very brief) stint as a classic poor college student, I would head over to my grandparents’ house about once a month, to be fed and/or do some laundry. My grandmother, in ever-declining health, wasn’t up to cooking the foods she used to make when I was a kid (a subject that richly deserves its own post), so we’d usually get some kind of take-out.

There was, however, one time (I think I had stopped by to pick up some things I’d left in the dryer last time ) she felt up to the task of making spaghetti sauce. And, just as she did every time I’d ever left her house, she loaded me up with food, including a plastic tub full of sauce, straight off the stove. Seeing as it was still warm when I got it home, it seemed a waste to put it in the fridge right away, so…

I probably polished off a pound of this rich, meaty sauce before I had the good sense to save the rest for later. I don’t think it was the last time she made spaghetti sauce, but it was certainly the last time I remember getting to eat it: standing in the dim pantry of the run-down apartment I shared with no less than five roommates, eating sauce right out of the container with a spoon I’d had to wash before using. Maybe it was just from living on ramen noodles at that point, but I don’t think I’d ever eaten anything that made me so happy before.

And yesterday, after years of trying, I think I’ve come as close as possible to making that sauce myself.

It happened pretty much by accident — in truth, I really just needed to cook some sausage meat before it spoiled — so I’m going to try and recall everything I did, in the hopes of recreating this sauce again later.

  • 1 lb. sausage meat (or lean ground beef)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 big handful fresh parsley, minced
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 tbs. red wine
  • 1 heaping tbs. sugar
  • 2 cans crushed tomatoes
  • about 1 can of water (because I couldn’t waste that bit of tomato clinging in the cans)
  • salt and pepper

The rest is pretty self-explanatory; brown the meat and then the vegetables, dump in the rest, set it to simmer.

Here’s what I did differently yesterday: I pretty much forgot about it. Seriously, I walked away from it simmering on the stove and started doing something else… and then before I knew it, it was two and a half hours later and my husband was calling from the kitchen, “uh, should I be doing something with this sauce out here?”

I scuttled off to the kitchen, muttering fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck! under my breath, and found the sauce had reduced by about a third. I stirred, skeptical but hoping some of it could be salvaged, and found it was more than salvageable — it was perfect. As close as I’ve ever come to the sauce my grandmother made.

And, of course, I just stood there in the middle of my kitchen, the same as I did fifteen years ago, just eating that sauce with a spoon and being happy.


  • Sally

    That sauce looks perfect! That was a beautiful memory of your grandmother and her sauce. I hope you DO do a post about her. Hell – that’d be a great one-off event “Tell Us About Grandma”!! (You can do it – I’m too lazy.) LOL

    Anyway, good post.

  • Julie

    That’s a great looking sauce. Bolognese sauce is supposed to be simmered some ridiculous amount of time (four hours maybe?) so I guess there’s something to the whole long simmering and mingling of flavors thing.

  • Ethan

    “I guess there’s something to the whole long simmering and mingling of flavors thing.”

    Yes. I discovered this accidentally, as the cookbook said “1 hour” and I ended up taking more like 2 hours. Much more complex. I suppose that it’s like really good chili: longer cooking times = bigger flavor.

    (Ironically, Kristen, I was just reading my HUGE italian cookbook, which calls your recipe (or a variant) the “shortcut to Bolognese sauce.”)

  • Bob

    This brings back childhood memories of my mother’s late Saturday night preparations for our Sunday afternoon pasta dinners. Thanks. Two questions: do you suggest a sweet or spicy sausage meat, and what size of can for the crushed tomatoes?

  • Kristen

    I used sweet, because that’s what my grandmother always made, but I’m sure you could use either hot or sweet or a combination of the two.

    The crushed tomatoes I used were in the big cans: 28oz. each, I think.