It is the summer of 1997, I am 10 years old, and my twin sister and I have spent nearly every day at our best friend’s house since summer break started.
Every day after breakfast we would walk through the park, through the gap in the fence around the schoolyard, and knock on her door to ask her mom if she could come outside to play. We would sit on the front lawn and belt along with Mariah Carey and the Spice Girls blasting out of her CD player, sometimes we would walk to the gas station to spend our crumpled dollars on candy and blue slush, and our days often ended with microwaved popcorn and a rented movie on the living room floor.
One afternoon we were picking raspberries near the edge of her yard when we smelled the unmistakable aroma of her mom’s spaghetti sauce wafting across the grass. We came in through the side door directly into the kitchen where the sight of the giant stock pot on the stove confirmed it. That night she proudly served up her luscious sauce on a bed of noodles, then watched her little girls clear their plates and wash dishes with sauce stains on their happy faces.
Mama Dee has been a part of my life for a long time, and a few of my son’s favorite books have handwritten notes from her inside. She isn’t really my mom, but she helped to raise me, and I love her just the same.
I wouldn’t dream of giving away her spaghetti sauce recipe, so I’ll give you mine. This meaty sauce is savory and herbaceous and is well worth the four hours of simmer time. The longer you cook it, the better it gets.
1 pound mild Italian sausage
6 Roma tomatoes — finely diced (canned tomatoes are not ideal, but if you need to use them, use two 14-ounce cans)
1 white onion — finely diced
⅓ cup tomato paste
8-10 cloves garlic — minced
1 large carrot — minced
1 large green bell pepper — finely diced
½ pint cremini mushrooms — finely diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried basil
¼ cup fresh chopped basil
3-4 bay leaves
At least 1 teaspoon salt — more to taste
½ teaspoon black pepper
Peel the tomatoes by slicing a small X on the top of each one with a sharp knife before blanching them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Then transfer to an ice water bath. Once cool, the skins should be easily removed by hand. This step isn’t completely necessary, but it removes what little bitterness the skins would impart on the sauce.
Brown the sausage in a large pot. Use a potato masher to crumble the meat so the pieces are as small as possible. Strain the meat but do not wash the pan.
Using the residual grease from the sausage, saute the onion, garlic, mushroom and carrot until the onion is translucent and the carrot is soft.
Add all the dried herbs, pepper and salt.
Add in the tomato paste and cook for another couple minutes stirring constantly to coat the vegetables.
Add the diced tomatoes and cook for a few minutes until the tomatoes have begun to disintegrate.
Return the meat to the pot, add the bell pepper, and cover with water until the ingredients are just submerged. Add the bay leaves.
Bring to a boil then turn the heat down to a slow simmer and cook for 4 hours, stirring occasionally. You may need to add water several times.
Turn the heat off and allow it to cool to serving temperature before tasting and assessing the seasoning. Add salt accordingly.
Remove the bay leaves and add the fresh basil immediately before serving.