The World’s Greatest Tomato Sauce
It’s true. I know sometimes when it comes to food I can get a little excited, but this, my friend truly is, the World’s Greatest Tomato Sauce. It’s not my recipe – I’ve tweaked it and played around with it over the years, but I could never claim ownership of it. It was my Aunt Lucy’s recipe and when I was big enough, she taught it to me. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know what jarred tomato sauce was until waaaay past puberty. When my family served pasta, made lasagna or cooked up chicken parm, we pulled a plastic container of sauce out of the freezer. I thought everybody did.
What I didn’t realize was that everybody didn’t have a wonderful Italian neighbor who loved to cook and was amazing at it. Lucy Tomasino and her Husband Tony lived around the corner from my very young parents. They became like Grandparents to me and my little sister Mara. Legend has it that both she and I took our first steps with Uncle Tony – although mine involved beer. But that’s a story for another time.
Lucy was always cooking, and on Sundays, she made sauce. It was an all day affair which ended with the mother of all meals and inevitably some of those little red plastic containers for us to take home and put in the freezer. As I got older and started asking the really important questions, like…”what’s this crap in the jar?”, I became slowly aware that tomato sauce like Lucy’s was something special. Questions like that made me very unpopular as a dinner guest but fueled what became a passion for cooking.
When I moved out on my own, I wasn’t completely independent. I would go home to do my laundry, hang out with my parents and raid their fridge. My Mother would send me back to the city with warm, folded shirts and a shopping bag full of food. There were always leftovers for the week and a container or two of Lucy’s sauce. Problem was, I was so broke that I would go through it immediately and have nothing when I felt inspired. All my life, I was used to having backup.
I realized that if I could cook up a batch of Lucy’s sauce myself on Sunday, I could load up on the meat and have food for the whole week and pasta was cheap. There was only one problem; my apartment didn’t really have a kitchen. I had a kitchen “corner” in my studio with a small college sized refrigerator, a microwave on top, a toaster oven that fit perfectly on the microwave with a single burner on top. I washed my dishes in the bathtub. I $#!T you not my friend. Hey, persistence is a pesky thing. I wanted sauce, I figured out a way to make sauce. Cleanup was a b!tC#, but the sauce was so good, it was worth doing it on your knees.
I still remember the day that I asked Lucy to write the recipe down for me. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me like I was nuts, I had been making it at her knee practically since childhood. My whole family knew the recipe. I did know how to make it, but in the true tradition of cooks, I had taken liberties over the years, I had seen her change a few things from time to time, I just wanted something ‘on the record’. And in the true tradition of cooks, she wrote it down for me with a million little notes in the margins and approximations with no promises. She put her phone number on the back “Call me if you need me”.
I was able to make the sauce into a weeks worth of meals, all I needed was a pot big enough and containers to freeze it all in. There were meatballs – made from pork and beef, Italian sausage both sweet and spicy, country style pork ribs and even some lamb chops. I was able to make so many different meals out of the resulting pot-o-sauce; sausage with peppers, lasagna (this was the year they introduced the no-boil noodle – totally changed my life), spaghetti with meatballs, shredded pork ribs over rotini, ravioli with sauce, etc….If I could dream it and cover it with sauce, I could eat it.
Lucy’s sauce did well by me in my twenties. Not just as fulfilling nourishment, it worked as a lure too. What is the best way to a man’s heart? I personally like Roseanne Barr’s answer of “directly thru his chest” but I do believe that thru the stomach is easier and far more romantic. This is a stick to your ribs and impress the daylights outta someone kinda recipe. If I dated you back in those days and you were any good in bed, you’ve had this sauce. For the rest of you, I’m gonna teach it to you right now and make followers out of you too.
I had grown up to see Lucy less and less as my parents moved away and she moved further East on Long Island. I would call her sometimes when I was making the sauce, not that I had any problems, it was just the perfect reminder to do something I should’ve done anyway – I loved talking to her. There was her number written in her perfect handwriting on this raggy piece of blue paper. Even on the days that I didn’t call, just seeing her name next to the number made me feel all safe and smiley while I was cooking it. I always knew she was there.
Lucy Tomasino passed away a few Christmases ago. I was down in Florida visiting with Mara and my parents, my Mother waited until we were together and told us. I was so sad that I was quiet for the rest of the night. For some reason, I just couldn’t cry. It had been a few years since I had seen Lucy, I guess I felt guilty. I always pictured her sitting in her comfy chair, thumbing thru the TV Guide. It didn’t seem real.
A few weeks later, Michael asked about meatballs so I figured I’d make some sauce. When I pulled out the familiar, faded blue piece of paper and habitually turned it over to smile at her name and number, it hit me, I burst into tears like a five year old. All of a sudden it was real; she was no longer reliably at the other end of that phone. For me, that was the day she was really gone.
I make Lucy’s sauce for my family. I teach it in my business. I am never short for containers of it on hand in my freezer and every time I use it for something, I always tell the kids “this is Lucy’s sauce” and you know what, somehow, it makes me feel better. As if she is real to them, this woman who meant so much to me seems to keep me company in the kitchen even when I’m not making her sauce. I received a wonderful letter from her daughter Eleanor last year; it made me grin for a week.
The following recipe is a combination of her notes and some of my conversions over the years. It’s a wonderful tradition to start it early on a Sunday morning, have it cook during the day making your house smell like heaven and bring your family together for an amazing meal. Don’t forget the leftover containers for the freezer.
The basic premise is to sear the meats first, set them aside, assemble the sauce and place the partially cooked meat back into the simmering sauce for complete cooking. The rest is just details.
Lucy’s Tomato Sauce
Chopmeat – approx 2 lbs. (1lb. each ground beef & ground pork)
1 Large Clove Garlic – minced
½ Tsp. Kosher Salt
¼ Cup Parmesan Cheese – grated
Wet Bread – optional (soak 1 pc. stale Italian bread in either water or milk just until wet – approx 3 Tbs. Break it up with a fork and add it in)
Combine all ingredients and use an ice cream scooper sprayed with Pam to scoop out the portions. Form the meat into meatballs with your hands. Using the ice cream scoop insures that the meatballs are all the same size. Ice cream scoops come in a variety of sizes from ‘oh so cute to ‘oh my goodness!
2 Large (12 oz.) Cans Crushed Tomato – I like Redpack or Hunts
2 Large (12 oz.) Cans Tomato Puree – Redpack or Hunts
1 Medium Onion – chopped
4 - 5 Cloves Garlic – sliced
Splash of Red Wine – whatever you have opened or are planning on enjoying with your meal.
3 Tbs. Magic Oil – can sub with pure olive oil or veggie (NO EXTRA VIRGIN)
3 Links Spicy Italian Sausage
3 Links Sweet Italian Sausage
1 Lb. Country Spare Ribs – pork (sprinkle with Kosher Salt prior to searing.)
2 large Lamb Shoulder Chops (sprinkle with Kosher Salt prior to searing.)
Just for the record, I have also used the following:
Rack of lamb chops
Flanken cut beef
When making this sauce, sear the meat in the same large saucepan that you will be making the sauce in. You’ll need to do it in shifts. I like to keep a bowl next to the pot for the meats as they come out of the initial sear. Using one pan will keep all the flavors and juices in the sauce. When you do this, you do not need to add the Magic Oil to sauté the onion and garlic for the sauce, the fat from the meat will work masterfully.
- Sear the meatballs in 2 Tbs. Magic Oil until brown on both sides and set aside.
- Sear the sausage, lamb chops, and country ribs on both sides, set aside.
- Sauté the onion and garlic until soft but not brown, approx. 5 minutes.
- Splash the red wine in – just a little.
- Add the cans of tomatoes + 1 ½ cans of water. Swish the water around the inside of the can to get all the tomato out.
- Add the meats and any juices into the sauce and cook on Medium for 2 hours or more. You want the sauce to be at a gentle bubble.
- Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn at the bottom.
- Salt, only if needed, at the end.
I like to throw a few fresh Basil leaves in at the end of the cooking time if I have them on hand. Don’t add the herbs at the beginning, they don’t hold up so well to the long term cooking.
The sauce will be thick and rich and the meat will fall apart. It’s great for freezing. Separate out containers of just sauce for versatile uses. It is best to store all the meat in a container with just enough sauce to keep it moist. The sauce is even better the next day. If you are health conscious, refrigerate it overnight and skim the fat off the top before freezing.
Lasts up to 5 days in the refrigerator.
Reheating the sauce alone is best done in the microwave. Reheating the sauce with any of the meat is best done on the stovetop.
Spray plastic containers with Pam ahead of time and avoid those red marks that only tomato sauce can make.
Enjoy and soon, you too, may find yourself uttering…”What is this crap in the jar?”