There’s a popular story that’s been floating around my family for years. My mother revels in telling it, and every time she does, it elicits a mixture of nervous laughs, horrified looks and hasty signs of the cross. It’s about my mother’s childhood BFF, Rosie. Rosie and my mom lived next door to each other while growing up, and for most of that time were inseparable. They played with each other’s dolls, did each other’s hair and practically lived in each other’s houses. Rosie wasn’t Italian, but my nonna loved her anyway. After Rosie and Mom graduated from high school, my mom began dating my dad and Rosie met a nice boy named Tommy. Of course, they did a lot of double dating too. And, when they both got married, they were each other’s maids of honor.
After a while, Rosie and Tommy bought their first house out in Long Island and moved away. Since not many young couples had cars back then, Mom and Rosie didn’t see too much of each other anymore. So, it was a huge deal when my father bought his first car, and we excitedly drove out to “the island” for our first visit to Rosie and Tommy’s place.
Now, here is where I need to give you a little background information in order for this story to make sense. For those of you who don’t know, my father was an Italian immigrant. He was born and raised in a little hill town halfway between Rome and Naples. Life in the Italian countryside in the mid-20th century was rustic, at best – especially during World War II. My father grew up on a farm and everything his family ate, they grew. Each year during tomato season, all of the women in the village canned tomatoes for use throughout the rest of the year. They’d never even heard of tomato sauce from a jar, and I’m sure that the very idea would have been abhorrent to them.
My mother’s family was from the same hometown as my father. When he came to this country in 1956, he naturally settled in the same area as my Mom’s family and the rest of the “paisans” from home. They carried their food traditions with them across the ocean, and cooked the way they did back in the old country – with fresh, unprocessed, whole foods. And, every year the women still got together for a marathon tomato preserving session. The hundreds of jars of tomatoes it yielded were stored in their basements and garages while waiting to be cooked into luscious gravies and sauces made from scratch.
Okay. Back to the story…
So, there we were, out at Rosie and Tommy’s house on Long Island – only I don’t really remember it because I was barely a toddler. Dinner time came rolling around, as it always does, and Rosie prepared a meal for us. Now, here’s the kicker. She opened a jar of Ragu Pasta Sauce, poured it over some boiled spaghetti and put it in front of my “barely off the boat” Italian father. Oh, yes she did! Rosie served my father tomato sauce from a jar. And, this was the sixties. Jarred tomato sauce wasn’t what it is today. There were no premium, all natural, gourmet brands. Just Ragu. I may have been just a little tyke, but even I knew that serving Ragu to Italian dinner guests was a great, big no no.
My father, being the gentleman that he was, choked down a few bites and then devoured the salad as he sidestepped the canned green beans. My mother, on the other hand, was absolutely outraged. Never, even on her worst day, would she serve Ragu – and to company, no less! Fai scumbari! But, they both held their tongues, muddled through and hoped for a better breakfast.
The next morning, when Rosie whipped out a jar of Tang to make my parents some “orange juice”, my mother announced that I had “swollen glands” and that we had to leave. On the way home, we stopped at White Castle for a bag of burgers and vanilla shakes. That was the last time we went to Long Island.
Rosie and Tommy came in to the city to visit us several times after that, and my mother always made sure to demonstrate the “proper” way to feed guests. No jars, no cans and definitely, no fake orange juice!
After the story I just told you, you will probably find what I’m about to say shocking. But, every once in a while I – the fruit of my mother’s womb – do, in fact, use jarred tomato sauce. I know that this must be quite a blow to some of you, but before you boil me in extra virgin olive oil, hear me out.
Although homemade tomato sauce isn’t difficult to prepare, a good meat sauce does take some time. When I do make a sauce from scratch, I usually make a lot so that I can freeze some for later. However, sometimes I run out. And, sometimes I’m just really feeling tired and lazy. When that happens and I want a bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce, I buy a couple of jars of a good quality premium sauce to use as a base and jazz it up. A few of my favorites are Rao’s and Dell’Amore brands.
I start out by browning ground beef and Italian sausage meat. Then, I add lots of onions and fresh mushrooms. I stir in some white wine and simmer it all together until the wine evaporates. Then, I add the tomato sauce and fresh basil and heat it through. That’s all there is to it. In the time it takes to make the pasta, I have a rich, hearty and incredibly tasty meat sauce ready to go. And, I’m telling you that if I served this dish to you, you wouldn’t know the difference. My quick and easy meat ragu is so delicious that my father probably even wouldn’t be able to tell!
Let’s face it. We’re all busy people and sometimes we take shortcuts in our kitchens. The trick is to find shortcuts that don’t sacrifice quality and flavor in the process. My meat ragu doesn’t. And, I can guarantee one thing. It’s better than Rosie’s!
Better Than Rosie’s Meat Ragu
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound Italian sausage, removed from casings and crumbled
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 cup white wine
2 24-ounce jars premium marinara sauce
4-5 leaves fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large wide Dutch oven or skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and sausage meat and cook through until no pink remains. Drain in a colander and set aside.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, reduce heat to medium and add the onions. Sauté onions until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 3 minutes. Mix the meat back into the pot.
Add the wine and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the wine has almost completely evaporated, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce and basil and mix well. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for as long as it takes to cook your pasta.