Mama's Meat Sauce

I come from a long line of women who can cook: My great grandma, I’m told, made legendary pasta. My grandma rolled her own cannoli shells. My mom, a woman who loves to say, Oh, it’s so simple (particularly when her only daughter asks for clarification on some new recipe trick), has a vast cooking repertoire that ranges from bakery-worthy apple strudel to hot chicken curry just the way my dad likes it.

And as with a lot of things in life, I feel there are different ways to approach this kind of heritage: Embrace it. Or resent it.

homemade meat sauce

I’ll let you guess which way I tended towards for most of my childhood and only say this: it’s amazing how we can turn blessings into curses, how we can choose to be intimidated by that which can help us grow. You may call it perfectionism; I call it ugly.

It’s like, say, when you have the opportunity to start working from home: This is such an obvious good (especially as it is the thing—the very thing—you have wanted and worked towards for years!), yet you can let yourself see it as a bad (citing all the potential problems/risks, from insurance to pay to the way it feels to step into the Unknown).

That same vice that makes you see the negatives in one situation will make you see the problems in others. But I’ve been thinking. Maybe the parallel works both ways? Maybe by learning to embrace a heritage of good home cooks, for example, you step towards learning to embrace everything else. What do you think?

I’m starting with this meat sauce.

pizza and salad

This is the latest version of my mom’s meaty tomato sauce. I say latest version because she often tweaks or adds to it, pulling from new recipes or improvising on her own. Somehow it’s always delicious, chock full of tender meat, loaded with chopped tomatoes, slightly sweet to the taste. I have been known to say she should bottle the stuff, that’s how much I like it. I mean, people: this is a pasta sauce you build a meal around, like a great pair of shoes that commands an outfit. Pour it over pasta: instant win. Use it on your pizza (over and over again, if you’re like me): good enough for company.

I’ve spent years thinking there was some secret to Mom’s method, but sometime last month, she handed me two pieces of scratch paper, filled with ingredients and the classic women-in-my-family sketchy instructions, telling me I should use the leftover meat I’d been freezing from that time I grilled burgers this spring.

I took her advice last weekend, spending just a little over an hour near the stove, and oh, man. It does the women in my family proud. I don’t know what took me so long.

Mama’s Meat Sauce
You could also add a cup of chopped mushrooms to the sauce, if desired.

Olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of a large stock pot
2 pounds good-quality ground beef or sirloin (preferably grass-fed)
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
6 cloves crushed and chopped (or grated) garlic
6 diced tomatoes
12 to 14 ounces tomato puree (we like POMI brand)
1 cup chopped white or yellow onion (from about one medium onion)
1 cup chopped green pepper (from about one bell pepper)
1 Tablespoon basil
1 Tablespoon oregano
1 Tablespoon parsley
1 Tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon rosemary
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 cup Sucanat or coconut sugar (or dark brown sugar)

Place a large stockpot over medium heat on the stove and warm olive oil. Add ground beef and stir around with a wooden spoon until it’s all lightly browned. Chop up your hamburger meat and brown it in a large pot with olive oil. Add salt on top. Add garlic and cook for a few more minutes over medium heat.

Add the rest of the ingredients, stirring everything together. Continue cooking until meat is very tender and sauce is the consistency/thickness you like, probably at least an hour. Taste and add salt until it’s the way you like.

[Bonus!] Homemade Pizza Breads
I had the idea for these pizzas for a while before I made them. I wanted a good-quality sourdough bread as the crust, Mama’s meat sauce on top, then some mozzarella and basil. What I didn’t expect was it would be one of the best homemade pizzas I’ve ever had. And so easy!

Slice of sourdough bakery bread (We like Breadsmith or Berlin spelt)
1 to 2 Tablespoons of butter
Mama’s meat sauce (above)
A few basil leaves
Sliced good-quality mozzarella

Turn the oven to 350 degrees and toast buttered sourdough bread until it is golden brown. Remove from oven and turn on broiler. Top toast with generous helping of meat sauce, basil leaves and mozzarella. Stick back in oven under broiler until cheese is all melty and brown, probably about five to ten minutes. This is especially nice with a salad on the side. Enjoy!

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Kim Shenberger

    That’s similar to the way I make my sauce–sometimes. I guess I’m like your mom; my sauce changes over time; depending upon what I have on hand or how much time I have. I’ve simmered on top of the stove, plopped it all in a crock pot, or even baked it slow and low in a stone baking bowl and it always comes out to rave reviews.

    I’m convinced (at least with sauce) along with Marie Barone that it’s the love that makes the sauce. : D

  2. Maddie

    Oh, I love reading about other people’s family recipes! The kitchen can be so representative of what’s going on in all the other rooms of the home, I think.

    I like your honesty about your past intimidation; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all built of human frailties, and if we recognize that and struggle to overcome them, that’s really the best we can do in life. Your mom must be proud of how you’ve grown up!

  3. Whitney

    um, YUM. I’m intrigued by the cayenne pepper.

    I hope you are enjoying your new life style!

  4. Kelly

    This sounds so good! My moms meat sauce also has sugar in it and it’s oh-so-good. I’ll have to give this a try when the weather cools down. Thanks!

  5. Jacqui

    that sauce looks and sounds like home.

  6. Joanna

    We’re making pasta tonight and I am bored without summer work so I’m gonna give this a shot. I’m looking forward to trying it. :)

  7. Flavia

    Meat sauce is one of my favorite things to make. I learned how to cook from watching and helping my grandmothers and great-aunts and I treasure every minute I spent with them in their kitchens. Great post!

  8. kickpleat

    Homemade pizza breads? Yum!!! I’ll be bookmarking this for when it’s cooler outside, looks amazing. Love mom recipes.

  9. kate

    These are the best types of food out there; long-standing ideas on a simple theme, enhanced with love and easy to make. A million recipes exist for something similar, all sharing the memory of a person or time.

    This looks delicious, and despite the heat, I crave a thick hearty meat sauce. Makes me glad for good recipes to utilize over the winter.

  10. Joanna

    It was delicious Shanna. Seriously though while I was preparing it I wondered if you left something out. I have been made paranoid by family members that deliberately leave a spice out or something when they share a recipe so no one can make it like they do. So funny. Then there’s my mom who doesn’t even use recipes. She’s a great cook, and I’ll call and ask her how she made something and she can usually list the ingredients but when I ask her how much she’ll give really nebulous answers like add a little or a a lot or ’til it looks right or ’til it tastes right. Gotta love family :) I enjoyed the sauce and my friends were impressed because honestly I normally just go buy Ragu or something at the store. Thanks for sharing :)

  11. Shannalee

    Kim, Yes, it’s the love! But I also love the way you describe your substitutions: that’s the mark of a good home cook, my friend!

    Maddie, Your comments always feel like such gifts. You are right that the kitchen signifies so many other rooms – well said!

    Whitney, Gives it just a little kick. What’s cool, of course, is you could bump up the cayenne if you like that or leave it out if you don’t. And thanks – it’s all still new, but I’m liking it!

    Kelly, My brother and I still talk about a pizza we had at someone’s house four, five years ago? The secret was the sweetness. Makes such a difference!

    Jacqui, Exactly!

    Joanna, I love to cook on days like those! Thanks so much for coming back to let me know how it went – yay!!!! I laughed at your second comment because I SO KNOW what you mean and certain well-meaning experienced home cooks like my mom often forget to tell me things, too. That’s why I had to try this for myself before telling you! So happy you enjoyed it!

    Flavia, I love when families cook together. Absolutely love it!

    Kickpleat, Oh, do. I must have made them five times over the last week or so. They’re that good. And the sourdough base is key.

    Kate, I know! It’s definitely more of a winter recipe, but as shameful as it sounds, I love it in my air-conditioning in summer, ha! : )

  12. Grapefruit

    Really enjoy all your posts! First time I;m commenting because I wanted to let you know that I have an award for you over at my blog. Please do check it out.

  13. Hannah

    family recipes are so awesome. my mom didn’t start cooking until she was older, but from what i hear my dad’s mom was quite a cook. i wish i had her recipes!

  14. TJ

    Great sauce! So many of our recipes were just passed down by doing. Maybe I’ll write them down some time.

  15. E.P.

    Yum yum. I’ve been known to make a meaty red sauce on bad days, and your mom’s sauce has some components I want to try out the next time I make up a pot of that stuff. And you’re right — it’s pretty much good on anything, and it’s something that you plan an entire meal around. Sometimes, I’ll plan a day around it, and just be really excited. Yeah…

  16. Shannalee

    Grapefruit, Well thank you so much! So happy to have you reading!

    Hannah, I actually also love hearing about people (i.e., your mom) who didn’t start cooking until later because there’s so much hope in that. It’s never too late to start!

    TJ, Exactly! And I know it’s hard to write stuff down when you’re improvising but man, posterity appreciates it!

    E.P. – That made me smile. A sauce to plan the day around! Yes, that’s this to the T.

  17. Rachanee Scott

    I so much enjoyed your story. I thought that I would never learn to cook Thai food. My mother’s eggrolls were famous. She would make hundreds of them and sell them at lunch time at the plant she worked at and would come home only with orders for more the following week. My childhood favorite food was her beef noodle soup. The list goes on and on. Sadly, my mom didn’t want the kids to be in the kitchen when she cooked, so I wasn’t often able to stand and watch. After I was out on my own, she tried to teach me (now that I was allowed in the kitchen), but I couldn’t follow. She didn’t use recipes. I would try and write down as fast as things were flying into the pots what she was doing, but to no avail. It took many years of trying, and although my versions aren’t authentically Mom’s, it’s still soul comforting and a homage to my Mother and the influence she had over me and a heritage that I can now pass down to my daughters.

    1. Shannalee

      Rachanee, that is actually so encouraging to read, knowing what an amazing cook you are now! And btw I love the way you welcome your kids into the kitchen. I’d want to be the same way.

  18. Kim

    I love every single thing about this, and I will definitely be trying this recipe and “pizza” :)

  19. Shannalee

    Kim, Yessssss! Hope you love it all like I do!

  20. Kendra @ My First Kitchen

    Hey, gurrrrl. Are the herbs dried I’m guessing? I’m going through all of the saved recipe posts from all the food blogs I read and entering them into one place. What. A. Job. But I wanted to make sure I got the herbs right for this meat sauce, because it’s TOTALLY making an appearance very soon. Thanks.

  21. Shannalee

    Dried! (because that’s what she had year-round) hope you love it, Kendra!

  22. Pingback: Meaty Lasagna - Food Loves Writing

  23. Christa

    How long does meat sauce keep in the fridge, once cooked, would you say?

    1. Shanna Mallon

      Christa, I would feel comfortable with keeping it in the fridge for up to a week. Any longer than that and I would freeze it, which my mom regularly does. When you want to use it again, thaw and warm and it will be just as good!

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