GiGi's Red Sauce

It's been a minute since I posted anything. I've had a few people ask for my red sauce recipe for a while now, so I figured I'd sit down and just type it up.

Grandma Leona (or Gigi, as we now call her) is a product of my namesake, Great Aunt Marie. My Great Aunt Marie was married to my Great Uncle Louis, who I always have imagined as mysterious mafia-like Italians. My mother tells me stories of them - smoking their cigarettes, good Italian food, happy people...and despite my Korean ethnicity, all of my Italian-by-adoption cooking skills seem to be rooted here.

I tell you this to set a precedent for this statement: as we dive into this red sauce recipe, you might be expecting vine-ripened tomatoes, steamed, hand-peeled, oven-roasted...some great family secret...well, you're going to be disappointed.

My recipe calls for canned tomatoes. Straight-up canned. No roasting and peeling. No big secrets. Just cans of tomatoes, a mix of fresh and dried herbs to enhance the flavors, and usually, a mix of meats or veggies (e.g. mushrooms). Turn back now if this isn't what you were looking for. But I will say that I love this recipe with all my soul. I always get compliments and even if I didn't, this sauce makes me feel like "home" when I make it, smell it and eat it, and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world. 

The part you CAN absolutely change in this recipe is the "innards" or filling to whatever you want. I typically use a mixture of ground beef and ground spicy Italian sausage like my mother uses. This gives the sausage a more robust flavor that my dad prefers, which is why I've grown up eating it, and now my brother and husband also prefer it. My Gigi favors roasted pork necks which renders the sauce a tad sweeter than the beef/sausage mixture. I adore this as well, but be careful if you choose this route, as I've aspirated on many a tiny hidden neck bone. For those who are a little more health conscious, turkey Italian sausage does work. For those who are vegetarian, I have used portabella mushrooms and caramelized onions which has worked beautifully to give the sauce a deep earthy quality. The world is your oyster, so they say (or so I seem to say a lot in my recipes).

This is easy, but it does take a little time. I believe it works best if you cook the sauce for 1 to 4 hours. Any less, you usually have a sauce that tastes a little "canned." Any more and you usually have a sauce that tastes a little..."overcooked." I'm not really sure what to call it, but something about the flavor changes and sometimes it's a little difficult to bring back. Now some might be getting out their blasphemy signs because they swear you can and should cook pasta sauce all day to make it "home-cooked." I simply disagree (at least for this particular recipe). I've cooked this many ways for various lenghts of time and I find the sweet spot to be the 2 to 4 hour mark. You CAN make this in a slow cooker, but I suggest assembling on the stove before throwing into the cooker in order to develop some of the flavors (e.g. herbs) more than it would if you just added everything at the same time. 

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1 medium to large yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground Italian sausage
2, 8 ounce cans tomato sauce (why not 1, 15 ounce can? You can do this, but I haven' good reason)
1 to 2, 6 ounce cans tomato paste (you'll add the first can, then I recommend you add the second 1/2 at a time)
1, 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes or whole, peeled (I prefer whole, but I use crushed when I'm in a hurry)
Basil, fresh, chiffonaded
1 tablespoon dry Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 (or more, if you'd like) teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon baking soda
olive oil

Heat a sauce pot on medium to medium-high. Drizzle 1 to 2 tablespoon of olive oil into the pot and heat. Saute onions until translucent and aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and saute 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add beef and Italian sausage and brown. Drain off any unwanted fat, although I commonly leave at least a little for flavor. Add basil, Italian seasoning, black pepper, and red pepper flakes I like to add spices at this stage so they mix with the oils and fats. I'm a big believer in cooking your herbs intentionally rather than throwing them in as an after thought to really use their flavors. 

Add your tomato sauce and whole peeled tomatoes. I then add water by rinsing the cans  (I fill the cans nearly to the top when rinsing) and pouring this into the pot. If you add too much, you can generally cook it off, although this is more difficult than adding extra water along the way, so be careful. 

Bring this mixture to a gentle boil. Once this happens, turn your heat to medium-low and add baking soda. This will help break the whole tomatoes down (or so I've been told).  Your sauce will fizz as if you've added dish soap, but will cook down in a minute or so. After the sauce simmers down, use the back of a wood spoon to gently smash the tomatoes against the side of the pot, which also helps them cook down further and create a more rustic texture to the sauce. As you may have guessed, the "smashing" part is skipped if you use crushed tomatoes. 


Add tomato paste. I'd add one can at first and see how thick/sweet you like the sauce. Tomato paste not only thickens the sauce, but alters the flavor profile, so make sure to let it sit about 10 to 15 minutes and taste it. Add the second can, 1/2 at a time (I usually end up adding both, but that's my taste).

Turn heat down to low and let simmer for 1 to 4 hours, less if you've used crushed tomatoes (as they obviously need less cooking down). Some of the water will cook off, so if it gets too thick, add a little more. If you made your sauce too thin, you may need to cook it on higher heat for a short period to get some of the liquid off. Serve with your favorite pasta or use alongside other dishes (pictured is meatless red sauce with a stuffed pepper on the left and mushroom cheese ravioli on the right). This saves well and gets better in 1 to 2 days after making, I guarantee it.

As always, enjoy.