While spaghetti seems to be standby kid food in a lot of households, it wasn’t in mine. My mom’s “I’m not sure what to make for dinner” go-to was broiled chicken with sautéed spinach. I’m not sure why, she just never made spaghetti. I actually think part of the reason was that my dad, who grew up eating dahl and rice with his hands, a tradition he carried with him stateside, made squished up spaghetti and meatballs a messy affair. On top of that, anything from a can was out of the question (as much as my brother and I begged for Chef Boyardee!). To get our fix we had to wait until we got to Auntie Betty’s house. Auntie Betty is my maternal aunt, so she grew up eating chicken paprikash and cabbage rolls just like mom. The difference is that she married into a large Italian family and gained all that goes with it-including 9 brother- and sisters-in-law, and family recipes that come from the motherland.
No matter the time of the year that we visited, it seems that spaghetti was always on the menu. I can still picture the big vat of sauce simmering on the stove, the aroma teasing us all day until dinner time rolled around. And since it was a treat only eaten once or twice a year, it was something to get excited about.
When I called Auntie Betty for the recipe, I was shocked by how simple and short the ingredient list was. No garlic. No carrots. Only one onion, whole. The flavor, I realized, comes mostly from the meat that cooks in the sauce- traditionally meatballs, ribs, spicy Italian sausage and chicken thighs.
That’s a lotta meat
With all that fatty goodness bathing in the sauce all day, it was no wonder that those simple ingredients turned into a rich, hearty topping for a lousy bed of noodles. And, by doing it this way, the sauce stays smooth, but is still sufficiently thick. Please excuse the “measurements”…it’s one of those recipes.
Serves about 4-5
2 12-ounce cans of Hunt’s tomato paste
8 ‘cans’ of water (using the Hunt’s can as a measure)
½ large onion, whole
1 TB Italian seasoning, or more to taste**
1 fingertip size of dried mint
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
2 links hot Italian sausage
½ slab St. Louis cut ribs
2 chicken thighs
About 8 meatballs*
1. In a large stock pot, bring the tomato paste, water, seasonings, sugar and onion to a boil.
2. After it’s boiled, add all the meat. Simmer on low for 8 hours. Remove the onion.
3. Serve on top of pasta with freshly grated parmesan.
Uncle John would shake his head at my shaved Parmesan, but personal preference
*Meatballs, recipe courtesy of Apple Crisp (who hails from another large Italian family)
½ lb lean ground beef
1 egg yolk
3 TB breadcrumbs
3 TB grated parmesan
1 TB chopped parsley
¼ tsp plus a pinch of garlic salt
¼ tsp plus pinch of oregano
¼ tsp cinnamon (an Auntie Betty addition)
Salt and pepper
2 TB olive oil
1. Mix it all together. Shape it in to balls.
Makes 10 TB
2 Tb dried basil
2 TB dried oregano
2 TB thyme
2 TB marjoram
1 TB rosemary
1 TB sage
1. Mix it up, shake it up, store it in a jar.