When my Puerto Rican mom married my Italian American dad, she didn’t really know how to cook. The youngest of six siblings, she never really had to learn. Instead, she learned to cook mostly from my Italian American grandma after she and my dad were married and living in Brooklyn, just a couple of blocks away from my grandma’s apartment. We ate a lot of pastas and sauces growing up, and as it goes with cooking, my mom’s food – especially her marinara sauce – ended up over time tasting very different from my grandma’s. It’s one of those awesome bits of kitchen magic: even if you use all the same ingredients, your food will always taste like your own. This dish (like the rice and beans) is one that continues to change from kitchen to kitchen among the women in my family. I call this mom’s dish – and it is a basic variation on her recipe – but I can still taste the difference between hers and mine.
Meat sauce isn’t really a proper name for this, but that’s what we always called it. I think you would also find this listed as a variation on a ragu, or a Bolognese sauce. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s really tasty and really satisfying, good for chillier days. We most often serve it over pasta, but it’s excellent with bread too (and in my family, as in many, many Italian American families, you serve bread AND pasta). We served broccoli rabe on the side.
1 lb ground beef (Don’t get the very leanest beef – you want a little fat or this won’t taste as good. We usually get 85%. You can also easily make this a vegetarian dish by using a ground beef substitute.)
1 can good quality crushed tomatoes (or the equivalent in fresh if they’re available)
Thinly sliced garlic
1 bay leaf
Red pepper flakes (optional – I like a little spice in this dish)
1 scant tbls sugar (if using canned tomatoes)
- Saute the garlic and onions until becoming soft.
- Add the ground beef and brown until just about fully cooked; drain the water.
- Add the tomatoes, spices, and sugar to the pot, stirring well.
- Bring almost to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer for 30 minutes or so.
This will hold really well in the refrigerator for a few days, and also freezes well. I always top with a lot of grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, because I am a cheese freak. A note about this dish: if you leave out the ground beef and up the tomato content by one can, you have my recipe for marinara sauce! (Adjust spices accordingly.)
I made bread to go with this dish today, but I’m still working on density issues, so I’ll post the recipe later on.