Whenever I make this for dinner, there is always silence at the table. This is our favourite meat sauce. It’s thick, rich and full of fresh ingredients. Most sauces are simmered for long periods of time, but this one is ready in under an hour. I add an unusual, but common household ingredient that tenderises the meat. Keep reading to find out what it is. 🙂
For starters, this is not an authentic bolognese sauce, nor is it the classic neapolitan ragu. However, it’s roots are embedded deep in the south of Italy. What makes this sauce southern style is that in Calabria, meat is always simmered in an abundance of pureed tomato. This is how I remember my mom and nonna Rosa preparing their sauces. A typical Northern sauce starts with a soffritto (a mixture of finely chopped/grated onion, carrot, and celery), but in this recipe, finely diced onion is gently sauteed in olive oil. In my parents’ village, it was custom not to mix onions and garlic together in a tomato sauce (for some unknown reason), but I broke that tradition by adding both in mine. Here’s how:
First, heat a bit of oil in a large skillet with tall sides over medium heat. Then chop an onion as small as you can (I find that chunkier pieces are unpleasant to eat). If you prefer, chop the onion first and then heat the skillet.
Cook the onion over medium-low heat, until translucent (about 5 minutes).
Now add the ground meat. For a really good sauce, I highly recommend using good quality meat. I have made this dish with meat from the discount store, and the result was very disappointing. So, the better the quality, the better the taste. 🙂
Next, break or flatten the meat and then add half cup of milk. This may sound unusual but this secret ingredient does three things:
- it helps break down the meat better as it cooks
- it helps neutralise the acidity in tomato sauce (there is no need for sugar)
- and most importantly, it tenderises the meat as it cooks
Milk is very neutral in taste, and doesn’t add any creaminess to the sauce, like heavy cream would. But just a friendly warning to those who might have a weak stomach. When you mix the milk with the meat, it will look very unappetising, but try not to let it bother you. Think of the beautiful red sauce you’ll get after it is cooked. 🙂
Next, brown the meat over high heat, stirring constantly until most of the liquid has evaporated. Then add the tomato puree. Again, using a good quality sauce will make a world of a difference. There are three or four brands that I rotate, depending on availability, and the one that I had on hand at the time was Cirio (pronounced like cheerio).
I discovered this brand when I first moved to northern Germany seven years ago. The company was established in 1856 by Francesco Cirio in Turin, Italy. Today, they have facilities all over the world, including in the United States. What I love most about this product is that it tastes exactly like the sauce my parents used to make every summer. The website doesn’t specify what type of tomatoes are used, but you can hardly taste any acidity. The one I used is labelled as Tomato Puree Chunkystyle in America, while in Europe and other parts of the world, it is simply known by its’ Italian name, pomodoro passato. I have yet to be disappointed with this product. It really does make a delicious sauce, whether it contains meat or no meat.
Please note that I was not paid to write this. The opinions are entirely my own. I just wanted to share a good thing. 🙂
After you pour the sauce over the meat, you’ll notice that some remains in the jar or can. A trick my mom taught me, is to swish a bit of water (about half cup) inside, to get the rest of it out. Works every time. 🙂
Finally, add a couple of fresh basil leaves and a tablespoon of tomato paste (make sure that it’s also a good brand, otherwise, it will make the meat sauce taste very acidic). The paste will thicken the sauce and deepen the red colour.
Cook for 20-30 minutes. If you prefer to have it thicker, then simmer it a little longer till you get the consistency you like. The longer the sauce simmers, the more tender the meat will become (because of the milk we added earlier). Sometimes, I purposely make this a day before I plan on serving it. Something magical happens when I reheat it the next day. It only gets better. Oh my gosh! It really is to die for!!
Now, after the sauce has cooked and while it’s still hot, add these three simple ingredients (one or a combination) – fresh basil, garlic, and olive oil. They will take your sauce from good to ultimate. Cover the pan and let it sit for a few minutes for the flavours to mingle.
On a side note, do you remember when Lucinda Scala Quinn over at Martha Stewart introduced us to the One-Pot Pasta dish several years ago? At the time, I thought it was an ingenious idea to cook all the ingredients in one pot, but I was a bit disappointed when it turned out bland and flavourless. To spruce it up, I added a bit more salt, freshly chopped basil and a handful of Grana Padano cheese. These simple additions brought the dish from blah to epic. The moral of this story is to use fresh ingredients when ever possible. Sometimes, just drizzling a bit of olive oil over a finished dish will take it to the next level. I have been doing it for many years, and have yet to hear something negative about it. 🙂
I can only say good things about this sauce! Serve over your favourite pasta or gnocchi and top with Parmesan, Grana Padano, or Romano cheese. It’s not too often that I classify a recipe as “ultimate”, but for my family this meat sauce is by far our favourite. This dish will definitely please just about all meat and garlic lovers. 🙂
ULITMATE SOUTHERN STYLE MEAT SAUCE
FOR THE SAUCE:
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 lb (450-500 g) ground meat (half pork, half beef)
1/2 cup (125 ml) milk
1 24 oz (700-800 g) jar tomato puree, or 28 oz (800 g) can of tomato puree
2 basil leaves, whole
1 tbsp tomato paste
salt and pepper, to taste
FOR THE FLAVOURING:
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press
2 basil leaves, torn or finely chopped
Heat oil in a large skillet with tall sides, over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add ground meat and break it apart with a wooden spoon. Pour the milk and raise the heat to high. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, till most of the liquid has evaporated. Add tomato puree/sauce. Swish half cup of water of the sauce’s container and add to skillet, along with two whole basil leaves, minced garlic, and tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium or medium-low. Cover skillet with lid, leaving it a bit ajar. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. For a thicker sauce, simmer a few minutes longer till the desired constancy is reached. When sauce is ready and while it’s still hot, add the remainder olive oil, minced garlic, and torn or chopped basil leaves. Cover and let stand for a few minutes for flavours to mingle. Serve over your favourite pasta or gnocchi and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
MAKES 4-6 servings
Inspired by mom, nonna Rosa and my little cousin in Italy 🙂