One evening several years ago, I was in the middle of suffering through one of my many bouts of insomnia, made worse than usual by a stretch of particularly harsh New England weather that kept us home-bound.
My remedy to this sleep-challenged affliction often was to head to the kitchen and start cooking. Pies, cakes, cookies, casseroles, and soups were my “go-to” creations during these sessions. My husband, James, would be somewhat-aware that something was happening in the culinary world in the Fogg household as the scent of my current creation half roused him from his sleep as the fragrant air passed through his C-PAP machine. Always ravenous upon awakening, he would scurry to the kitchen to partake in whatever resulted from my previous night’s insomnia. He often joked that he, himself, felt badly that I struggled to sleep, but his stomach didn’t mind it a bit.
On this particular evening the house was taking on a chill. The fire in the wood-burning stove was spewing forth its last gasps before turning into a tiny pile of glowing embers set on extinguishing itself for the night. As I gazed at the pantry shelves, the thought of making something that simmered for awhile was appealing — the flame from the gas cook-top and the warm moisture from a steaming pot would warm up the postage stamp-sized kitchen.
My pantry was always well-stocked with tomato products because so many dishes on the “favorites list” in the Fogg household were tomato based, like American Chop Suey and Slow-cooker Halupki Casserole. As I perused the shelves, my eyes fell on my current stash of tomato puree, sauce, crushed tomatoes, and paste. On the shelf immediately underneath sat a collection of pastas in assorted shapes and sizes. The light bulb went off — I would whip up a batch of red sauce and we could enjoy a hearty pasta dinner the next day.
I found my banged up recipe card file and thumbed through looking for the recipe a friend had presented to me when I begged for it after tasting her sauce for the first time. As I pulled it from the stack, my eyes fell upon “ground beef” in the list of ingredients. No problem — along with a fully stocked pantry, I kept a fully stocked freezer containing pound and half-pound packages of an assortment of ground meat.
Except this time it was a problem. For some reason, I had failed to realize I had rolled through the ground beef in the freezer and did not pick any up during our pre-foul weather forecast shopping trip. Just ready to give up and go back to bed to toss and turn for a few more hours, I saw a package of bulk sweet Italian sausage lurking in the back corner of a shelf. I grabbed it, wrestled it from the vacuum-sealed bag, and popped it into the microwave to defrost. What started out as a “that’ll do for this time” moment turned into a substitution that has become permanent. I never once again used ground beef in this sauce.
I found the aroma of the browning sausage so much more enticing than that of ground beef. But the coarse grind of the sausage and the resulting chunks of browned meat left me in a bit of a conundrum — James was not a fan of chunks of meat in spaghetti sauce unless layered in lasagna. The sausage was already combined with the sauteed onions and garlic in the pot, but I grabbed my mini food processor and thought, “Why not?” Working in batches, I processed everything — sausage, onions, garlic, and the fat and oil in the bottom of the pot — into a very fine grind; it was almost a paste. No chunks now, but all the flavors would be there. James shouldn’t object to that!
Back into the pot went the ground up sausage mixture. I added the rest of the ingredients, turned on the small TV in the kitchen, and settled in to babysit the pot of sauce. Every time I lifted the lid to stir the bubbling sauce, the aroma grew more enticing. By the time the sauce was ready for the final adjustments in seasoning, I had tasted it several times. This batch of sauce made with the substitute Italian sausage tasted so good, I found myself thinking it was the best I had in a long time.
After allowing the steaming sauce to cool, I found my eyes getting heavy and thought I might be able to catch a little sleep. I placed the pot in the refrigerator and went to relax on the recliner. I awoke a couple hours later to the sounds of my husband moving around in the kitchen. I heard the distinct sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing repeatedly, but still in the throws of a slightly satisfying period of sleep, I did not pay it much attention.
Once fully awake, I realized James was at his desk in the room adjacent to the kitchen. As I passed him, he said to me, “Wow, that’s really good sauce you made. I mean, like some of the best I ever had!” Flattered, I went to reply to his comments while simultaneously opening the refrigerate and removing the pot of sauce. I lifted the lid from the pot and simply stared in disbelief — my jaw dropped but no words came out.
The level of sauce in the large pot was noticeably lower now than it had been when I placed it in the refrigerator. I started to laugh, turned to James and said, “I see you had a little sauce…” Looking sheepish, he replied, “Just a little…but I had a little several times.”
James was so fond of that sauce he rarely wanted any other after that day. We used it so often in so many dishes, I would make it in double batches and freeze it in containers to have it ready to use at a moment’s notice. When we left New Hampshire, I found myself making it less than I had in the past because we no longer had the extra freezer space. Right before Christmas 2020, we decided to get a small chest freezer so we could stock up on some of James’ favorites. He was not feeling all that well and his appetite had not been its usual self. I had hoped having some the foods he loved at hand would spur its resurgence.
Just a few days before James unexpectedly passed away in late January 2021, we spent a day cooking together and packing freezer containers. One of the things we made was this sauce. As he poured a ladle of it in to a bowl, loaded a spoon, and took a taste, he said to me, “This is still your best sauce ever.”
It brings me some comfort that he was actually able to enjoy one of his favorite things at a time when he got very little pleasure from most other food. In memory of James, I will continue to make this sauce even though it is only me left here to enjoy it. It is one of my favorites, too, and now, there’s plenty of space in the freezer.
My recipe calls for both beef and chicken bouillon/base. I prefer and use the Better Than Bouillon brand. I have substituted another brand of base occasionally but always use one that is a paste type, never powdered or in cubes. Always use freshly grated Parmesan in this sauce, not the low quality “sawdust” in the cans from the supermarket.
My tomato products of choice for this sauce are the Contadina or Cento brands.
This sauce freezes wonderfully and is easy to double for a larger quantity.
All-purpose Red Sauce With MeatCourse: SacesCuisine: General, ItalianDifficulty: Easy
1 pound sweet Italian sausage with fennel
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sweet onion, finely chopped
1 – 28 ounce can of tomato puree
1 – 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1 – 12 ounce can of tomato paste
2 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon roasted beef flavor
2 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon roasted chicken flavor
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
1 1/2 teaspoons dried parsley
28 ounces water (fill empty tomato puree can)
Salt, to taste
OPTIONAL: 1 – 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- Heat Dutch oven or stock pot over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and heat until shimmering. Add the sausage, breaking up clumps, and cook until starting to brown. Add the garlic and onions and saute about 5 minutes until onions start to soften and turn translucent, being careful not to burn the garlic. Remove pot from heat.
- Fit a food processor with the metal S blade. Transfer the entire sausage mixture, including any oil in the pot, to the food processor bowl and, using short bursts, pulse until almost a paste like consistency, scraping down sides of bowl once or twice. Return this mixture to the pot. add the tomato paste and cook stirring constantly, over medium-high heat for 5 minutes.
- Add all remaining ingredients, except sugar, to pot. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to simmer and, stirring frequently, cook for 45 to 50 minutes covered, with lid slightly tilted. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. If the tomatoes are acidic or you prefer a sweeter sauce, at the end of cooking, add 1 tablespoon of sugar at a time and cook the sauce 5 minutes between additions.