In college, I had a 100% Italian-American boyfriend, and I was partially adopted by his very traditional family. His mom was about 4’10″ and a spitfire, and every week, she had a cooking schedule. A certain day of the week meant soup, another day was always a roast, and Sunday was spaghetti and meatballs. She’d make the sauce on Saturday afternoon so it could simmer until after mass on Sunday, and Saturday night, she’d fry up her meatballs and put them on the back porch to cool until they were dropped into the sauce on Sunday morning.
I did some damn good eating in their kitchen, and every meal included bread from the best bakery in Syracuse: the Columbus Baking Company. (photo of the outside / photo of the inside. Warning: contains bread!)
In addition to quality tomatoes, lots of garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil, a respectable “Sunday Gravy” also usually includes a healthy dose of red wine (both in the sauce and in the cook).
But you and I, we’re not just any Italian (food) lovers; we are dino-chow afficianados. So we say rifiuto! to pasta and bread and wine and EVOO cooked at high temperatures — and then we say benvenuto! to vegetable noodles, balsamic vinegar, and ghee.
This recipe is from my cookbook Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat. And although this recipe is a tiny bit of a project, it rewards you with enough tender, succulent meat to last for several meals — and it can be frozen, too, so you can defrost Italian love anytime you need a food hug. The balsamic vinegar gives the slow-simmered sauce just the right zing, and pork chops, Italian sausage, and beef meatballs infuse the sauce with flavor while, in turn, taking on the tang of tomato and garlic.
Old School Italian Meat Sauce
Prep 45 minutes | Cook 2 1/2 hrs | Serves 8-12
1 1/2 pounds pork chops
salt and ground black pepper
1 pound Italian sausage (chicken or pork)
ghee or coconut oil
2 medium onions, diced (about 2 cups)
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
6 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2/3 cup beef broth
2 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, slivered
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon water
1 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon Italian herb blend (or oregano)
Brown the meats. Heat a little coconut oil in a large, deep sauce pot. Sprinkle the pork chops with salt and pepper – and be generous! – then brown the chops on both sides. Set aside and brown the sausage in the same pot. Set aside.
Make the sauce. You’re going to make the sauce in the same pot, so add a little coconut oil if there’s no fat left in the pan. Cook onions with the oregano until they’re very soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir fry until brown, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add the balsamic vinegar and stir, about 1 minute. Add the broth and crushed tomatoes; stir to combine. Now gently nestle the pork chops and sausage into the sauce. Bring to a robust bubble, then cover and simmer, 2 hours.
Prep the meatballs. In a small bowl, mix the baking soda, cream of tartar, and water with a fork until combined. Crumble the beef into a large bowl, then add the balsamic vinegar, garlic, parsley, salt, red pepper flakes, Italian herb blend, and water/baking soda. Mix well with your hands (or if you want it very smooth, with a food processor or mixer) until combined.
Cook the meatballs. Preheat the oven to 400F and cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Measure 1 tablespoon of the meat and roll into a ball. Line up the meatballs on the baking sheet, then bake 20 minutes, until browned.
The final steps. When the sauce has reached its 2-hour simmer deadline, add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer an additional 15 minutes, uncovered. Remove the sauce from the heat and toss in the fresh basil, then taste and add salt and pepper, if necessary.
Ladle the sauce over a pile of zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash, or mashed cauliflower and top with a little bit of each kind of meat. Mange!
Two things to consider:
1. If you like your sauce smooth, you can purée it in a blender or food processor before adding the meatballs. I really like it that way, but some people prefer the most rustic, chunkier sauce.
2. I like to eat this like a stew and skip the “noodles” underneath. I just pile a piece of each kind of meat in a deep bowl and top with sauce.
BONUS: In case you missed it, be sure to check out this photo of the kitchen disaster that ensued when tomato sauce met gravity (and yoga pants and the tile floor and…).
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