Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dear John: Spaghetti with Meatballs and Sausage, and Grandma B's Amazing Sauce

Background: John Tyree has come home to Wilmington, North Carolina on furlough after three years of active duty in the Army. He's been spending his days on Wrightsville Beach surfing. One day he meets Savannah, who has come to Wrightsville for a month with a group of college students, who are building a house with Habitat for Humanity. For the next couple of weeks, until it's time for John to return to Germany where he is stationed, John and Savannah spend most of their time together when Savannah isn't working on the Habitat house. After John returns to active duty, they write to each other almost constantly, and count the days until they will see each other again.

John's father lives alone in the modest house in Wilmington where John grew up. John barely remembers his mother; she had left him and his father when John was very young. The two have never had a close relationship, however; John's father has always been quiet and reserved; often spending hours at a time with his extensive coin collection. John had been quite rebellious as a teenager, and joining the Army was a way for him to get away from his father.

The night John came home on leave, his father brought him to the house and cooked spaghetti, as he had done every Friday night of John's life. It was comforting in a way for John to come home to find things pretty much the same at home as they had always been, right down to the daily eggs, bacon, and toast every morning and the spaghetti every Friday night. John's father looked older and more tired, however, and even though the two hadn't seen each other in three years, they couldn't seem to find much to talk about. That was how it always had been.

Now, if I were cooking spaghetti on a Friday night, I would open up a jar of Ragu', maybe brown up a little meat, and call it done. But since this blog is for the most part a weekend project, I decided that the day after Hurricane Irene (a Sunday) was a great day to make my mother-in-law's special pasta sauce. Or "gravy," as she calls it.


First, make the meatballs.

When Grandma makes them, she soaks some bread in milk, and then mixes it with a couple of pounds ground beef along with some chopped fresh parsley, an egg, some salt and pepper. Since mine need to be gluten, dairy, and egg-free, I put about a cup Organ All-Purpose Rice Crumbs in a bowl with a little rice milk to moisten it; then I mixed it in with the ground beef, along with approx. 2 T each of chopped parsley and thyme, and a heaping half tablespoon (which is just about a whole tablespoon, really) of Ener-G Egg Replacer mixed with two tablespoons of water. The meatballs should be about an inch and a half in diameter.

My dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free supplies

For the sauce:

1 to 2 lbs meatballs

1 to 2 lbs Italian sausage links (hot or mild. Grandma uses a mixture of both, and cuts the hot ones in half so folks can tell the difference. Me? I go for all hot.)

1 medium onion, diced

2 to 3 cloves finely chopped garlic (For the record, I almost always double or triple the number of garlic cloves my recipe calls for. But you can do whatever you want.)

1 small (6-oz) can tomato paste

1 large (28-oz) can tomato puree

2 large (28-oz) cans tomato sauce

red wine

basil leaves (if fresh, says Grandma. But a dried bay leaf or two will do in a pinch.)

Brown sausage in a large saucepot; remove and set aside. Brown meatballs and remove; drain off most of the fat. (I don't necessarily cook the meat all the way through, because later it will cook in the sauce for several hours.) In the same saucepot, sautee onions and garlic over medium heat until they begin to soften; add the tomato paste and cook for about a minute, stirring frequently. DO NOT BURN.

I use so much meat, I need to brown it in two pots. Here's my local free-range hot Italian sausage.

Don't worry about the browned bits that stick to the bottom of the pot.

Fill the tomato paste can with wine; add to the pot and cook for another minute, stirring frequently. Ad puree and bring to a simmer; add sauce and bring to a simmer again. Add salt and pepper to taste; add basil (or bay leaves) if available. Bring to a simmer. Add sausage and meatballs to sauce; bring to a simmer. Cover and turn heat to very low. Keep covered on very low heat for 2 to 3 hours, stirring every 30 minutes. It is VERY IMPORTANT to stir the sauce every half hour so that it doesn't burn.

I had some red wine from the Finger Lakes that was a little bit too sweet for our taste, but it's perfect in Grandma's sauce.

(Onions, garlic, tomato paste, and wine)

Fortunately I had some fresh basil on my deck. It really does make a difference.

This makes A LOT of sauce. When I make this I'll divide it in two and freeze half of it; the rest we'll have for several nights of dinners. (Spaghetti...lasagna...eggplant parmesan...meatball/sausage subs...even pizza.)

When the sauce is done, I put the sausage and meatballs in a separate dish for serving.

John and his father ate their spaghetti with a glass of milk. We opted for mojitos instead. (This was Joe's plate. My gluten free pasta of choice for this meal: Mrs. Leeper's corn spaghetti.)

During their brief time together, Savannah meets John's father and visits him several times. Savannah sees something in Mr. Tyree that John has never considered before, and this revelation ultimately helps John to better appreciate and accept his father's awkward quirkiness.

There's also a guy named Tim in this story (maybe we have a little bit of a love triangle?), an autistic boy named Alan, a hotshot named Randy, some horses, and the full moon.

I'll tell you more when I share my recipe for teriyaki grilled chicken!

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