Updated: Mar 17
(by Cherie Kephart)
When I was growing up in sunny West Los Angeles, one of the best days in my house was Sauce Day. The recipe for the marinara or meat sauce came from my Sicilian great-grandmother, and I loved watching my mom making a giant batch.
My mom, who spent most of her life in L.A., was unlike her Sicilian ancestors in many ways—not the usual fiery, temperamental persona you may think of. She was calm, kind, and funny, but when it came to cooking, the heated side of her lineage showed. I loved spending time with her in the kitchen. It was our way of bonding, giggling, sharing family secrets, and creating something meaningful together. It was our tradition at any family gathering to congregate in the kitchen, share stories, and cook together, tasting the food as it simmered, adding more of this or a little bit of that. Cooking was important, done with heart, and taken seriously.
So when it came to her sauce, I would shadow my mom’s every move, helping her any time I could, learning the ways of my ancestors. The process often started early in the morning, when I’d hear a symphony of clanking, chopping, and sizzling come from the kitchen. Sleepily stumbling into the heart of the house, I’d see the tan Crockpot and an assortment of ingredients lined up on the counter. It simmered for hours while I was at school.
On one particular Sauce Day, I raced home from school and, unable to wait for dinner, ran to the kitchen to dip a finger into the pot.
“Get out of there!” My mom’s voice was firm. “You’re going to spoil your dinner.”
“Just one taste?” I begged.
“No. Besides, we have a guest tonight.”
All afternoon, my brother, sister, and I tried sneaking into the kitchen to dip a piece of sourdough bread into the pot. Finally, suppertime arrived, and so did our guest. It was my dad’s cousin. He had a thick brown mustache and sideburns, and wore a tight-fitting belt, causing his midsection to protrude over his corduroys. I helped my mom dish up the spaghetti with sauce, topped with freshly grated extra-sharp imported provolone and Parmesan cheeses. My brother wore his typical white T-shirt that would be speckled with marinara flecks by the end of the meal. (My mom always yelled at him to wear a different color shirt and learn to use his napkin.)
The cousin looked around the table, then stood and went to the refrigerator. When he returned to the table, he was holding a bottle of ketchup, which he proceeded to pour all over his plate of pasta.
I froze in mid-chew and looked at Mom, her eyes as big as meatballs. My brother sat in between Mom and this ketchup-wielding criminal. All I could think was: Soon there will be red sauce, ketchup, and blood splattered on my brother’s white shirt.
The rest of dinner was eerily quiet. We waited for something to happen, but my mom kept her cool. Later, when my sister and I were doing the dishes, we heard my mom shrieking and a male voice responding with a series of muffled and disgruntled arghs. A car door slammed, followed by the squeal of tires.
I never knew exactly what happened, but I was smart enough to know that you never come between a Sicilian mother and her sauce.
Cherie Kephart is the author of A Few Minor Adjustments, The Healing 100, and Poetry of Peace. She is working on a cookbook called The Cookbook for People Who Can’t Eat Anything. She can be found at www.CherieKephart.com.
I now know why I loved this sauce so much as a kid: It’s loaded with sugar. I now do an updated sugar-free version. (To my Sicilian family: Please forgive me.) Originally this sauce was made on a stove in two large kettles; my great-grandmother would stand for hours watching and stirring to ensure that it wouldn’t burn. My mom and I suggest you cut the recipe in half for one large pot or Crockpot.
2 - 3 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 - 3 large onions, chopped
1 - 2 lb. ground beef (depending on how meaty you want it)
9 cans (12 oz. each) tomato paste
1/2 - 3/4 c. sugar
6 T. Italian seasoning
2 - 3 T. garlic salt or garlic powder
1 T. ground black pepper
2 T. dried oregano
4 - 6 bay leaves
Heat oil in a large skillet, and brown the onions and beef. Drain excess fat.
Add tomato paste, rinsing each can with hot water and adding to the sauce.
Add 1 additional can of water, blending well.
Add sugar, Italian seasoning, garlic salt or powder, pepper, and oregano.
Add another can of water and bay leaves.
Bring mixture to a boil.
Simmer approximately 2 - 3 hours (or 6 - 8 hours in a Crockpot).
Taste for seasoning, and remove bay leaves before serving over pasta
1 T. high heat oil such as avocado oil
1 c. diced yellow or white onion
2 T. chopped garlic
2 1/2 c. fresh tomatoes, chopped, or 28 oz. canned fire roasted tomatoes
2 T. fresh or 3 T. dried basil
2 T. fresh or 3 T. dried oregano
1 T. pink Himalayan salt
1 t. black pepper
optional: crushed red pepper flakes
In a large saucepan over high heat, heat the oil.
Add onion and garlic, and sauté until translucent and caramelized.
Add tomatoes, basil, and oregano.
Simmer about 7 - 10 minutes.
Add salt and pepper.
Using an immersion blender, blend/pulse until the sauce is smooth and velvety.
Sprinkle with optional crushed red pepper.