Rich & Meaty Tomato Sauce

Scott Louie Cooks

This is my go-to tomato meat sauce which I’ll use on pasta (spaghetti, fusilli, cavatappi, etc.) or as the sauce for lasagna. This started from my mother’s recipe, although hers was much simpler preferring a prepared sauce in a jar to canned crushed tomatoes or fresh tomatoes. Make this versatile sauce and freeze in pint or quart containers to use anytime.

This recipe is vegetarian if you omit the ground beef and butter (and perhaps the wine—check its label). Use olive oil for sautéing the vegetables. If omit beef, butter, and (perhaps) the wine, it’s vegan.

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs 80-20% ground beef (or chuck)
  • unsalted butter, but only as needed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1 clove minced garlic or 2 cloves of roasted garlic
  • 16 oz of mushrooms (can be just white button, or use combo with cremini, shiitake, and oyster), separated into two piles: a) 10 oz (2/3) chopped, and b) 6 oz (1/3), sliced (add more or less to taste)
  • 3 oz unsalted tomato paste
  • 1½ cups of robust red wine (like zinfandel, malbec, or cabernet sauvignon)
  • 1 28 oz can unsalted crushed tomatoes
  • 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • nice bunch of fresh parsley, chopped, with half reserved
  • oregano, sage, and thyme
  • 2-4 bay leaves (depending on size)
  • salt & black pepper
  • optionally add some cayenne or white pepper

Brown the ground beef

In a 7-qt dutch oven (I prefer Le Creuset), brown the ground beef over medium heat. 80% ground beef has enough liquid and fat that you won’t need oil or butter, just dump the beef into the pot. Using a wooden or plastic spatula (not metal) break up the chunkiness of the ground beef (it tends to stick together as it first cooks).

Continue to break up and turn over the beef until it is cooked and granular and most of the water has evaporated. Brown it in its own fat for some nice caramelization. Scoop out and set aside.

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browning the ground beef

Sauté the vegetables

There will be residual fat from the ground beef. If that’s not enough, add a Tbsp of butter. On medium heat, add the onions, green pepper, and carrots and cook until onions are translucent (about 4 minutes), stirring often. Add the garlic and the chopped mushrooms (the 2/3 portion) and stir into the other vegetables. Let the mushrooms express some liquid and evaporate off.

When the pan is sizzling again, add the tomato paste. Stir it into the vegetables and let it brown a bit. This can feel tricky as the paste may turn the bottom of your pan black, but it’s really a deep brownish-red and isn’t burning. You have to hang over the pot on this. If you suspect it is burning, stir it around and move onto deglazing the pan.

vegetables just added to pot

Deglaze the pan and add remaining ingredients

Turn the heat to medium high and add the wine. It should sizzle when it hits the pan and boil immediately. Mix it well into the veggies and paste and it will get rather thick. Be sure to deglaze, meaning scrape up all the baked-on goodness at the bottom of the pot. It should come off fairly easily.

wine thickens with the tomato past

Let the wine cook, stirring (a lazy but constant stir is fine), so that the alcohol evaporates off, perhaps a minute. Add the crushed tomatoes and chopped fresh tomatoes and stir well, bringing the whole to a simmer.

Stir in the reserved browned ground beef. Add your spices. I like to coat the top with oregano, add 2 large bay leaves (or 4 smaller ones), and sprinkle in some sage and thyme. Add salt and pepper and half of the chopped parsley. If you like, add a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and/or white pepper to add some spiciness.

bringing the ingredients together

Cook

Cover, reduce heat to low (you want this to lazily simmer). Cook for 2 hours, but check it often, at least every fifteen minutes. Make sure when it’s just covered (within the first 5 minutes) that it’s not boiling robustly which will make it burn on the bottom.

Taste, taste, taste, checking for salt and herbs. People tend to under salt, but it’s best to start with a little and add it to taste, especially towards the end of cooking.

After about an hour and a half into the cooking, start skimming the fat from the top. Due to the tomatoes, it will appear shiny red. Use a tablespoon to just break the surface to let the fat run into the spoon. Discard. Do this several times (every 10 minutes towards the end of cooking). After skimming the fat, stir up the sauce.

Finish

About 15 minutes before eating, cook the remaining mushrooms. In a sauté pan, add a Tbsp of butter, turn up the heat to medium high and add the remaining sliced mushrooms (the 1/3 portion). Stir well and let them evaporate off their water and caramelize in the butter. These will cook up quickly, so 2-3 minutes should do it. Add the mushrooms and remaining parsley to the pot.

Cook another 15 minutes, or about the time it takes for the pasta to cook. When ready to serve, remove the bay leaves.

Cook your pasta of choice, plate, top with a ladle or two of sauce and grated pecorino Romano (my favorite) or cow’s milk Romano or Parmesan. A fresh garden salad goes well with this along with crusty bread with a little salted butter or olive oil. A glass of red wine pairs well. Delicious!

Enjoy!

plated with cavatappi pasta and buttered bread on the side — add some romano, pair with garden salad and a glass of robust red wine, and you’re good to go!

Make it Your Own

Probably half of the time I make this sauce I add 2-3 cooked pork sausages cut up into bite-sized chucks. Fully cooked, I add these with the ground beef.

Instead of sauteing the sliced mushrooms near the end of cooking, roast them in the oven. Toss with some olive oil, separate out on a baking sheet lined with foil, and bake at 425° F for 15 minutes. Careful—depending on how thinly sliced they are, they will roast quickly. Check them often. When done, don’t salt them like you might if you just wanted them as-is (they make a great snack). Then substitute in at the end of cooking per above.

OR–after browning the beef and ladling it out of the pot, cook the 1/3 portion sliced mushrooms in the residual fat (add a little butter if necessary). Cook and reserve. This will save you a dirty pan later, but you should refrigerate them until needed.

Roasted red pepper flakes are a classic ingredient of tomato-based pasta sauces, but I don’t use them. I find I can control the heat better with cayenne and white and black pepper. Or add Siracha to the sauce on my plate alone and let my guests control their own heat.

NOTES: On Ingredients

I typically use a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, but I’ve made it with 9 fresh tomatoes. This adds more liquid, so I’d add the full 6 oz can of tomato paste. My usual practice is to use canned crushed tomatoes with my meat sauce and fresh tomatoes for marinara.

Remove your whole bay leaves at the end of cooking. Whole bay leaves present a cutting or choking hazard. Bay leaves remain rigid with sharp edges even after cooking for several hours. Breaking them up is worse–now you have many pointy hazards you can’t readily pick out. I haven’t used it, but you can buy powdered.

Always cook with wine that you would happily offer to guests (or drink yourself, of course). The better the ingredients, the better the outcome of your food. About the time I’m adding the wine to the sauce, I’m pouring myself a glass. I’m the cook, I deserve it.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.