Oh, fiction writers, you are so lucky. You can turn your dreadful old boyfriend, Dan--the one who hitchhiked to Taos every other minute to play frisbee--into your novel's egomaniacal hacky-sacking "Stan" who train hops to Santa Fe. And all you have to do is add one of those These are fictional characters dredged from the brilliant depths of my own imagination. Nobody is actually based on you, you narcissistic New Mexican hitchhiker.
But you can't really write a fictional recipe column, now, can you? No you cannot. And so, this is not the character “Dad”’s spaghetti sauce, if you understand what I'm saying here. Which means that, as I write the recipe, I am acutely aware to the changes, however miniscule, I have made to the original. In my family, this may be the gustatory equivalent of editing a bit of scripture because it reads better that way. "I just feel like Noah would more likely have brought three of every animal, in case anything happened." I once published a recipe for my mother's shortbread, to which I had added the agnostic flavorings of rosemary and lemon. A plague of locusts, etc.
Anyways, this is the spaghetti sauce I grew up on, and it is rich and delicious, and I have changed it very little. The original recipe is handwritten right here, on a piece of graph paper. I see that you're supposed to add garlic salt to the meat as it's browning, which even my father doesn't bother with any more. There's the slightly mysterious ingredient "1/2 a lemon," which I'm not sure about; I sometimes add a generous splash of red wine or a smaller one of balsamic vinegar, which likely accomplishes the same thing. Oregano I don't use, because I don't like it, even though my dad uses it and I love, love, love his sauce even more than my own because he made it. But oregano always reminds me of the kind of red-saucy or salad-dressingy food that tastes dustily like someone dumped a baggie of stale pot into it. Forgive me. I know this is not a widely shared aversion, oregano.
What else. My dad's recipe calls for 6 8-ounce cans of sauce, and I use 2 29-ounce cans. That's only a 10-ounce difference, though my children have to forego the mechanical pleasure of opening those 6 little cans. Also, I forget to ask them to grind in the black pepper, which was my solemn job as a child. "No, more," my father always said, with his back to me, when I asked, grinding and grinding, if I'd ground in enough. "More." I loved that. Instead, my kids get to break up the tomatoes with their hands, which, as far as cheap thrills go, is pretty excellent.
The sugar is in the original recipe as "6 tablespoons," and if you leave it out? Well. I don't know. Don't come crying to me when your sauce was only good, but not so lipsmackingly excellent that you sat around long after dinner was over, rubbing your finger around the rim of your plate and licking it, in case there was any sauce that didn't already get sponged up by the bread you mopped around. Oh go on. We've all got more to worry about than a bit of sugar, right?
Dad’s Spaghetti Sauce
Active time: 20 minutes; total time 3 hours.
This recipe makes a huge batch that I freeze in 2-cup portions in Ziploc bags. It's one of those money-in-the-bank scenarios that I especially appreciate as the season changes: come a chilly, dark dinnertime, all I have to do is boil a pot of water. I love that. The sauce needs to cook for a long time--the original recipe actually says 4 hours, though I only do 3--which would likely make it a good candidate for the slow cooker. Let me know if you try that.
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, and finely chopped
A couple pinches of dried thyme (or, shudder, oregano)
2 pounds ground beef (not lean)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or whole, peeled tomatoes
2 29-ounce cans Hunts tomato sauce (it has to be Hunts)
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4-1/2 cup mellow red wine (optional)
If you're using whole canned tomatoes, pour them into a bowl and break them up with your hands. This is an incredibly fun job for a child (who has no hang nails or paper cuts).
Now, in a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion with one teaspoon of salt, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so, until it's translucent and just starting to color. Add the garlic and sauté, still stirring frequently, for another minute or two. Now crumble in the meat, add the cayenne and oregano or thyme, turn up the heat to medium-high, and cook the meat, stirring occasionally and breaking it up with a spatula, until it is cooked all over and browning in spots; if it seems like it's steaming more than sizzling, turn the heat up even higher.
Now stir in all the tomato products, as well as the sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, lots of black pepper, and the optional wine, and bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, with the lid 1/2 inch ajar, for 3 hours (or, at the very least, 2). Stir the sauce occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom of the pot. Serve over hot, well-buttered pasta (that you cooked in plenty of well-salted water) with freshly grated parmesan for passing.