I’m not Italian, but I can’t deny the appeal of a house that smells like slow-cooked tomato sauce — the herbs, the garlic, a hint of pork, maybe some soft Italian bread. Here in Oklahoma where I live, autumn is creeping in and the evenings are becoming perfectly chilly. Excellent weather for some spaghetti and meatballs, don’tcha think? I can’t tell you this is my Grandma Nonna’s recipe handed down for generations, but it’s dang easy, and super tasty. It’s also great for feeding a crowd, or very versatile for leftovers! Here’s my take on what a lot of Italian-Americans call, “Red Gravy,” which is a meat-based hearty tomato sauce.
I like to start off with the meatballs, and I make plenty of meatballs. They freeze well, they’re great for sandwiches, soups and other leftovers, and they’re easy but a little labor is involved. This will be the hardest part of the whole meal (and it’s not that hard).
I am working with two pounds of ground pork for my meatballs. You can use ground beef if you’d like, sometimes I use a half-and-half mix of 80/20 ground beef and ground pork. For two pounds of ground meat, I will be using:
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of bread crumbs (I’m using seasoned)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tbsp dried parsley (you can use 1/2 cup fresh chopped)
- 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes (leave this out if you don’t like spice)
- 2 tbsp salt
- 2 tbsp black pepper
You could also use garlic powder, onion powder, fennel seeds, and/or any spices or herbs you like in sausage.
Toss your meat in a bowl, and sprinkle your salt, pepper, red pepper, cheese, and spices over it. I like to get in there with my hands at this point and start squishing the flavorings into the grind, then add the two eggs and mix them in the same way. Squish squish! Don’t overwork it though, just enough to distribute the eggs evenly. Then, and only then, squish in the breadcrumbs. Mix only as long as it takes to get everything evenly blended, and then let the meat mixture sit and rest about 15 minutes.
When your meat’s well-rested, it’s time to start the meatballs. Using a medium to large Dutch oven or stock pot, let that cooking vessel start heating over a medium-heat burner. No need to add any oil, because our meatballs have enough fat in them on their own.
I like my meatballs about golf-ball sized. Form them gently and when you get 10-12 of them rolled, place them into the hot pan. We want a nice sizzle, because these beauties are going to make lots of good crusty caramelized brown goodness into the bottom of the pan, plus they will be rendering their fat. Roll more meatballs. When you get another 10 rolled, check the pan, and if they’re getting sizzly brown, flip them over.
Is there room in the pan? Add more meatballs. Just keep track of which are the oldest, and when they’re brown on all sides take them out. Keep rolling balls, flipping and removing until there’s a layer of fat and some crusty brown goodness on the bottom of the pan and everything is cooked. Store these at room temp until later when we add them to the red sauce, and if you’re going to freeze some, go ahead and do that at this stage.
Then the sauce!
- 1 large can crushed tomatoes
- 1 large can whole plum tomatoes
- 1 can diced tomatoes (mine were “recipe-ready” and had sweet onions in the can too)
- Half a white onion, diced (I used 3 green onions, as john doesn’t like cooked white onions)
- 8 oz red wine (I’m using an inexpensive Cabernet) or 2 oz unflavored vodka (this is science, but you can omit if you really can’t cook with alcohol)
- 5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
- 3 Tbsp dry basil
- 1 Tbsp sugar (optional)
- salt & black pepper to taste
- Raw (NOT smoked) pork neck bones (optional)
Using the fat in the bottom of the pot, on low or medium-low heat, sweat the onion. While the onion is sweating, open the cans of tomatoes, and in a bowl with your hands, crush the whole plum tomatoes (more squishing!) into small pieces. Add chopped garlic to the onions in the pot, followed by half the wine to deglaze the pan (DO NOT DEGLAZE PAN WITH VODKA, KABOOM). Then add the tomatoes, all their liquid, and the rest of the wine (or your vodka if that’s what you’re using) — tomatoes have some flavor compounds that only come out in the presence of alcohol, so if you’re able to do this step it adds a depth of flavor to your sauce. If you can’t it’s not the end of the world.
At this point, I add the basil and stir it in, and I put the raw neck bones in the pot (optional, but super delicious). Set it on low, and now just let it go! Let it simmer low-and-slow, partially covered, for at least two hours. Stir it every half hour or so to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. We’re not looking for evaporation here, just a gentle melding of all these flavors.
After two hours, taste it for seasoning. Add salt and pepper to taste, some red pepper flakes if you like spice, and if the sauce seems too acidic add the sugar. Add the meatballs, and simmer it again for at least an hour, but two is better!
Now all you need to do is cook up your favorite pasta, maybe some garlic bread, and go to town! (The breadsticks in this picture are Schwan’s Cheese Stuffed Breadsticks, and are super yummy. Then the next day, do this:
Meatball subs! Leftover breadsticks are a great snack with red sauce, leftover spaghetti is amazing, you can freeze this sauce (it freezes great) and use it on stuff like lasagna, chicken or eggplant parm, or just a new batch of noodles. There’s a ton of possibilities — that is, if you and your crew don’t eat the whole batch in the first day or two. Don’t be surprised — it’s that good!