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~ Winters Last Gasp: Pasta w/Ground-Meat Sauce ~

IMG_3494ANNOUNCEMENT:  I interrupt my Spring blog posts to bring you one last comfort-food meal for a Wintery evening.  Yes, 'tis true, 4"-5" of snow is falling in Centre County, PA, as I write this.

I'm sick of snow, but honestly, I've been hungry for a bowl of spaghetti with ground-meat sauce for over a week now, so, this nuisance storm is "the perfect storm" for me to cook up a pot of my version of this sauce on the stovetop.  I say "my version", because, I never tasted spaghetti with ground-meat sauce until I was a teenager, and, I've never been served it in an Italian household. I first encountered ground-meat sauce in my high-school cafeteria back in 1973.  It wasn't a high-end version, but, kids like me loved it.  Kids today love it too, and my three boys are proof of it. Since then, I've only seen ground-meat sauce on menus in Italian-American or Eat 'n Park, chain-type restaurants.  Not that there's nothing wrong with that -- to each his own, but:

Is ground-meat sauce Italian or America's idea of Italian? 

My husband is of Italian heritage, and the meat sauce I am making today is NOT the way his relatives taught me to make meat sauce.  In real-deal Italian meat sauce, large pieces of bone-in beef, pork and/or veal (and sometimes chicken) are simmered ever-so-slowly in a tomato-based sauce until the meat falls off the bone.  The meat gets removed from the pot, shredded, then returned to the simmering sauce.  Their meat sauce recipe will be an entirely different blog post.

6a0120a8551282970b0168ebcb6373970c-800wiIn my husbands family, there are instances when ground meat is used to make sauce, but it is not off-the-shelf, store-bought ground beef, pork or veal  For example:  I use ground veal to make Bolognese sauce.  In the case of this sauce, a veal shoulder roast is cut into chunks and run through a meat grinder to produce a much coarser grind of meat.  You can find my recipe for ~ Melanie's Bolognese Sauce & Bolognese Lasagna ~ in Categories 3, 11, 12, 14, 21 or 22! Note:  In an Italian household, authentic Bolognese is NOT considered  "plain old meat sauce". Why?  Different/unique ingredients and a different cooking process.

A really good ground-meat sauce is more of a quick sauce, meaning:  it doesn't simmer all day. In fact, if you simmer it too long (which is the mistake cafeterias and restaurants usually make) it turns into mushy, steam-table-type food.  This is a sauce you make when you don't have time to cook.  I make really good ground-meat sauce, but, I won't take the leap to say "it's authentic Italian".  I'm of the mindset it came about to get out of making meatballs, and, for that reason, while I like enjoy ground-meat sauce, I don't take any recipe for it too seriously, because:

6a0120a8551282970b0167613e2c48970b-320wiWhile Italian immigrants brought their traditional family meatball and sauce/"gravy" recipes to America with them, in Italian households, meatballs were not served with spaghetti.  They were served alone, as was the pasta. The two items began being served together in Italian restaurants to appease Americans who wanted meat served with their pasta.  Call me silly, but, ground-meat sauce seems like an Americanized gig to me.

It is with this light-hearted spirit that I share my easy-to-make ground-meat sauce recipe with you.  Let me start by saying, it makes enough sauce, 3 quarts, for two meals.  Make one, freeze one.  How convenient is that.  For each meal, you'll need to cook and drain 1 pound of pasta. I've also written it for you to make it as 'authentic' or as American family-friendly as you want.  My kids grew up loving it made with a dry spaghetti sauce seasoning called Spatini.  Don't have that in your pantry?  Substitute 3 cups of your favorite store-bought bottled sauce.  When I make it for Joe and I, I use my own homemade tomato-basil (marinara) sauce, which takes it over-the-top. 

It's time to make some easy Americanized Italian meat sauce.
















4 tablespoons, olive oil, just enough to lightly coat the bottom of a 12" skillet

3/4  pounds diced yellow or sweet onion

2  large, minced garlic cloves, about 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic (Italians never overdo garlic)

8  ounces white button mushroom caps, thinly sliced or chopped (optional)

3  packets Spatini spaghetti sauce mix (1, 2.4-ounce box) (Note:  If you don't have Spatini in your pantry, it can be omitted.  I use it to make this sauce for my kids because they love it.  I make it differently for Joe and I.  See my "underlined" substitution instructions below.)

3  pounds ground sirloin (95% fat free)

1  pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

1  28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, or, if you don't have Spatini, omit the crushed tomatoes and substitute 3 cups of your favorite store-bought bottled sauce, or, to take-it-over-the-top, 3 cups of your own homemade marinara or tomato-basil sauce

1/4  cup port wine (a sweet, fortified red wine)

IMG_37691  pound pasta (Note:  Spaghetti is classic, but I prefer to use rigatoni for this meal because its large, tubular holes have plenty of space for the chunky sauce to get stuck in!)

1/4  cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese, for topping

6a0120a8551282970b014e603707b5970c-320wi~ Step 1.  Place oil in a 12" skillet. Prep onion, garlic and mushrooms as directed placing in skillet as you work.  Place over low heat for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Increase the heat to saute, stirring frequently, until the onion softens, about 8-10 minutes, or, if using the optional mushrooms, about 12-14 minutes, until the mushrooms have lost almost all of their moisture.

6a0120a8551282970b014e6037c809970c-320wi~ Step 2.  Stir 2 packets of the Spatini into the onion mixture and continue to saute for about 30-60 seconds.  The mixture will be thick and pasty as well as red.  If you are not using Spatini, omit this step.

~ Step 3.  Add the ground sirloin and sausage to the pan.  If you are not using Spatini, lightly season it with salt and black pepper.  I said lightly season!

6a0120a8551282970b0147e392c8a8970b-320wiCook mixture over medium-high heat, stirring frequently with a large spoon or spatula, breaking up the meat into small bits and pieces, until the meat has lost its red color, is steamed through and almost no moisture remains in the bottom of the pan, about 20-25 minutes.

Note:  It is more important that no moisture remain in the bottom of the pan than the actual time it takes.

6a0120a8551282970b0147e392d0ff970b-320wi~ Step 4.  Add and thoroughly stir in the crushed tomatoes, the remaining packet of Spatini and the wine.  If you are not using Spatini and are adding bottled or homemade sauce, stir it and the wine in (omit crushed tomatoes).

Adjust heat to a gentle, steady simmer, partially cover and cook until the mixture thickens and reduces slightly, about 30 minutes.

6a0120a8551282970b0147e392f3e1970b-320wi~ Step 5.  The ground-meat sauce is technically ready to eat.  That being said, I like to remove the skillet from the heat, cover it completely and let it rest for about 30-60 minutes prior to serving it, to give the flavors time to marry.  

Note:  On occasion, I even make the sauce a day in advance and reheat it on the stovetop or in the microwave, just before I'm ready to cook and sauce my pasta.

IMG_3729Step 6.  Place 5 quarts of water in an 8-quart stockpot and bring to a rolling boil over over high heat. Add 1 tablespon of sea salt to the water followed by 1 pound of your favorite pasta.  Cook as directed, until al dente.  Drain thoroughly and return pasta to still warm stockpot.

Note:  As mentioned above, I prefer rigatoni to classic spaghetti for this "spaghetti w/meat sauce" meal!

IMG_3735~ Step 7.  Return the still warm stockpot of pasta to the still warm stovetop.  Add:

4  tablespoons salted butter, cut into pieces (1/2 stick)

and, toss to combine.  Cover and rest, on stovetop, for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the butter had melted and has been absorbed by the pasta.

IMG_3743~ Step 8.  Begin spooning/ladleing 1-quart (4 cups) of ground-meat sauce into the pasta.  While this might sound like a lot of sauce, this meat sauce mixture is really thick and rich.  It is indeed like eating a meat course with your pasta course!

Portion pasta into 6 warmed pasta bowls.  Using a microplane grater, sprinkle a light coating of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over each serving: 

IMG_3767Winters Last Gasp:  Pasta w/Ground-Meat Sauce:  Recipe yields 3-quarts ground-meat sauce, enough for 2 meals of 6 hearty servings each, requiring 1-pound of cooked pasta for each meal.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 12" skillet w/lid; large spoon; 8-quart stockpot w/lid; colander

6a0120a8551282970b0133f33a94bc970b-800wiCook's Note:  As I mentioned above, if you have homemade sauce on hand in your freezer, it takes this recipe over-the-top.  To find out how I make ~ My Fresh & Spicy Tomato-Basil Sauce (Marinara) ~, just click into Categories 8, 12, or 22!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013) 


That was quick! Thanks, my friend!

Marilyn -- just enough oil to lightly-coat the bottom of the skillet. I am going to amend this post, NOW, to make that point clearer.

Hi Mel!
I'm doubling this recipe for lunch for the church rummage sale workers tomorrow.
One question. How much oil should Inuse to sauté the vegetables and so forth?
I'm guessing just a few Tbs., because you mentioned there should be little moisture in the pan.
This will go over really well, sinceit is going to be a cold, blustery, day in WI. tomorrow!


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