My great grandmother would simmer her meat* sauce for days while her hungry grandchildren ran around underfoot (that's you, Dad). She wouldn't dream of a meatless red sauce. I, on the other hand, being a non-red-meat-eater, prefer to make a vegetarian red sauce that gets a big flavor boost from slowly roasting the tomatoes until they're charred and smoky around the edges. What is on my plate is very different from what was on my great grandmother's plate. But even though our sauces are separated by decades and method and a few large chunks of meat, Grandma Mastroianni and I are really cooking the same thing: a version of tomato sauce that says more about each of us than words ever could.
Given all of this, I don't ever go out of my way to try anyone else's red sauce recipe. Sure, sometimes I play with my own recipe, making turkey meatballs or adding ground turkey or skipping the oven-roasting in favor of a jar of whole peeled homegrown tomatoes. But at its essence I do not stray from my sauce. When there is red sauce to be made, it is always the same. (Even though I do spy recipes from time to time that indeed look amazing.) So imagine my surprise when, the other night, I decided I had to try Alton Brown's meat sauce. It was calling to me; I was drawn to it by a force much greater than myself. I think it was the method -- low and slow, allowing for ample opportunity to build multiple layers of flavor -- as well as the fact that Alton caramelizes the onions with a tiny sachet of star anise and clove. I had to have red sauce blessed by star anise and clove. End of story.
Alton's recipe calls for bacon, ground beef and ground pork. Though it horrifies my father that he has a daughter that would eschew such critters in her red sauce, I nevertheless swapped in turkey bacon and ground turkey. To a red meat lover, such a substitution is significant. To someone like me, it is no big deal. Preferable, in fact. And you know what? I don't see Dad turning up his nose at it, so clearly he is all talk.
Anyway, I have to say that if for whatever reason I am not making my own red sauce, then I will be making Alton's. It is delicious. Packed with a multitude of flavors, each little component hitting your tongue according to its own tasty schedule: first bright tomato-ness, then sweet onion, then fragrant clove, then a bit of salt, then browned turkey. This sauce is best made on a weekend because it requires hours of simmering to develop its myriad flavors. Should you decide to make it on a weeknight, as I did, you will be eating dinner at like 11:30 p.m. Which is totally not acceptable to a normal person but what can I say? Husband and I are not normal.
In retrospect I suppose Grandma Mastroianni would not be down with adding turkey and star anise to red sauce. Nevertheless, this recipe brings me that much closer to what I imagine her sauce was like. Long, slow-simmering, making the house smell awesome, attracting family to the table. Those are the duties of a red sauce, and it looks like I've found a worthy alternative for my own personal arsenal.
*Dad clarifies what was included in Grandma Mastroianni's meat sauce: "Grandma's sauce sometimes had chicken in it and if Grandpa was a good shot that day, it would have a rabbit or squirrel or maybe even [pheasant]. It, however, never had turkey, bacon or star anise and most certainly was NEVER vegetarian. She made great fall-off-the-bone beef and pork sauce."
AN ALTERNATIVE RED SAUCE, THIS ONE WITH MEAT
Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe for meat sauce and spaghetti
6 oz. turkey bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
5 T. olive oil, divided
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
3 whole cloves
1 whole star anise pod
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic: 3 minced and 2 sliced
1 lb. ground turkey
1 1/4 c. white wine, divided
3/4 c. evaporated milk
3 c. chicken or turkey stock
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms, finely chopped
2 28-oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 T. dried oregano
2 t. dried basil
2 t. dried marjoram
2 T. tomato paste
1 T. ketchup
1 T. sherry vinegar
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/3 c. Pecorino cheese, finely grated
1 lb. pasta (Alton says to use spaghetti but the sauce works quite well with rigatoni, too)
Place 1 T. of the olive oil and the turkey bacon in a Dutch oven and cook over low heat until the bacon has rendered its fat and is crispy, about 12-15 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon and reserve for another use (or, snack on it as you make the rest of this sauce, because it's going to be another 4 hours or so until you eat).
Add the onion, salt and pepper to the bacon fat and stir to combine. Wrap the cloves and star anise in a few layers of cheesecloth and tie to secure; add to the onion mixture. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally until the onions caramelize, 45-60 minutes.
Add the celery and the 3 cloves of minced garlic and continue to cook over low heat until the celery is semi-translucent, approximately 30 minutes. Remove the spice bag from the pot.
Meanwhile, place a wide saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 T. of the olive oil and once it shimmers add the ground turkey. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is well-browned, 5-7 minutes. Transfer the meat to a plate and set aside.
Return the saute pan to high heat and add 1/2 c. of the wine to deglaze, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Transfer the bits along with the wine remaining in the saute pan to the onion mixture in the Dutch oven. Add the cooked turkey to the onion mixture and stir to combine.
Add another 1/2 c. of the wine, evaporated milk, chicken or turkey stock, and mushrooms to the Dutch oven and stir to combine. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 3 hours.
Once the sauce has been cooking for 1 1/2 hours, place the saute pan over medium heat and add 1 T. of the olive oil. Add the 2 cloves of sliced garlic and cook for 30-45 seconds, but do not allow the garlic to brown. Add the tomatoes, oregano, basil and marjoram and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes.
Add the remaining 1/4 c. wine to the tomato mixture, along with the tomato paste, ketchup, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. Stir to combine. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Then increase the heat to medium-high and add the remaining 1 T. olive oil and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes.
Transfer the tomato mixture to the meat mixture and stir to combine. Add the Pecorino cheese. Simmer over low heat as you prepare the pasta.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to the package directions. Drain the pasta and return it to the dry cooking pot along with a few ladles' worth of sauce; mix to coat the pasta with sauce. Serve topped with more sauce and a sprinkling of Pecorino cheese.
Makes enough sauce to dress about 2 lbs. of pasta.