The Dyke Kitchen is a bi-weekly series about how queerness, identity, culture and love are expressed through food and cooking.
This election week has been exhausting and I have been looking for comfort in my food — something warm, reliable and simple that also makes me happy when I eat it. I began what I knew would be a trying week with homemade nachos smothered in a gooey cheese sauce made by my friend Phoebe. Then, to make sure I had something substantial waiting for me in the fridge, I made one of my classic Kamala dinner dishes: That Meat Sauce So Delicious.
This sauce is based on a distinct pasta memory I have — not from the selection of excellent meals in Italy I’ve enjoyed — but from what should have been a really below-average lunch, at a nondescript restaurant not far from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. I was studying abroad at the time, and we, as a group of 35 very closely bonded women and five men from liberal arts and women’s colleges, were always ill-prepared to make the most of our cultural program excursions, because they were too early and we had always just finished partying. So while the particular trip to this museum is not one I can recall, I do remember, afterward, the hemming and hawing I did with my friend Rosa about where to have lunch in this obvious cluster of tourist traps. The Italian place we chose had also been selected by at least 10 other members of our program, who we sat with. Everyone took a quiet moment to look at the menu, but it was clear what to order. All the items on it were generic Italian dishes written about in Spanish, and then in bold, at the top was one item called Spaghetti With That Meat Sauce So Delicious. It conveyed what I needed to know.
“When the restaurant makes it easy, only idiots say no,” I said to Rosa and closed my menu.
“I don’t know. You don’t think that’s just a trap for the idiots? For the one’s who can’t think for themselves?” Rosa asked me skeptically. “I’m not falling for that shit!” she declared.
So when the waiter came around to take our order, everyone at the table got That Meat Sauce So Delicious, and Rosa, the genius, ordered pesto. And when the food came, and all of our hungover, 20-year-old faces were stuffed with the overwhelmingly satisfying That Meat Sauce So Delicious, I watched Rosa dig into her pesto and then look silently into her lap.
“It tastes like a front yard!” she cried and dropped her head onto the table. “I’m the idiot. I knew it. I’ve always known.” Which was and is not true, but it is something I bring up with Rosa, to this day, when we’re trying to make a decision and she’s really pushing for the option that seems bad, only because the good option seems too good to be true.
Anyway, the truth about the meat sauce is that it’s just a good tomato sauce at the right time in the right place, and you don’t have to make it with meat — I’ve often made it with minced shitakes and it turns out great. But for my version, this week, I wanted to use the Italian sausages I had and decided to ladle it over potato gnocchi. I will say, the sausages added great flavor, but didn’t create the same silky texture that I’ve gotten when using mixes of fattier meats, like bacon, ground pork and ground beef. But that is just not what was in my fridge this time and I was not mad about it! There are a million hot tips that people have for what makes their own tomato sauce pop, so please share yours too, I could always use some new tricks try out.
How To Make That Meat Sauce So Delicious
Half a large white onion
3 cloves garlic grated
2 celery stalks
1/3 cup fresh sage chopped (Many people prefer these herbs dried because they’re more powerful and you can just use a few teaspoons, but I like the taste of fresh. That’s just me.)
1/3 cup fresh basil chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano chopped
4 hot Italian sausages out of their casing
28 oz can of San Marzano or plum tomatoes crushed
1/4 cup of red wine
Fish sauce or dashi (When I don’t have high quality anchovies, this is my solution.)
Red pepper flakes
The hardest work of this meat sauce, is the chopping and prepping of your aromatics and herbs, everything else is a cinch. So start by chopping the onion, leek, celery and carrot into small cubes. The smaller they are, the more easily they will melt into a sauce. I also like to keep things a little chunky for bite, so as always, make the choice that’s right for you or figure it out over time!
When I’m making sauces like this, I like to grate my garlic on a microplane or cheese grater — if you’re fancy, you might have a garlic press — because I think it lets out a different flavor and I like the way it melds with the tomato.
Chop up your herbs! I once bought this pair of herb cutting scissors at Target while I was stoned, because they have like 5 blades that go all at once and it looked really cool. It doesn’t work any better than a knife and I highly recommend never getting any. I still forget this nearly every time I chop herbs, however, and pull them out just to see. Anyway, I like to put half of the herbs in at the start and save the other half for later into the simmer.
My tomatoes were not crushed when I bought them, so I opened the can, poured them into the bowl and tore them apart with my bare hands!! It’s fun and it feels really nice. My friend Michael, who excels at cooking Italian cuisine, showed me this trick and I like it. It gives your tomato pieces way more character than when they get diced by a machine, though a cold, calculated cut is something I enjoy like too — there is a canned tomato for every mood,
Next, I peeled the casings off of my sausages. Because I had made a pizza a couple days before this pasta, I had one sausage that was already de-cased and browned that I just tossed into the meat sauce.
Because, for me, sauces are all about timing, I like to get everything ready and lined up on the counter behind me, so I can make quick decisions and execute!
The next step is getting a big pot of very salted water on high heat on the back burner so I can throw my gnocchi or pasta in, when I’m ready.
I put my dutch oven on medium heat, glazed it with a heavy pour of olive oil, and began by cooking my onions with a big pinch of salt, until they were translucent. Next I added, the leeks. I waited until those were cooked down before adding the celery and carrots together.
When the celery and carrots were soft and everything is a kind of mush in the pan, I scooped my garlic into the pot and added the sausage. Sometimes I like to break the meat up evenly, sometime I like when it cooks in chunks. This time I went for chunks. Stir all of this up, so they’re all coated in each other.
And then before the meat is doing too much sizzling, I like to add in my tomato paste. In addition to a thick texture, the tomato paste can add an important sweeter flavor if you give it some time to cook. So I put in about two tablespoons of tomato paste, but you can put in more if you want a stickier sauce — I’d just suggest cooking the paste longer, if you add more.
At this point, I like to salt again, add a teaspoon of red chili flakes and fennel seeds, and also add in half of all the herbs, and then mix it all together.
So when everything is a little stuck together, now is when I’ll start adding in the liquids. I’ll start with the wine, and let that cook down a little. And then I add a few healthy glugs of fish sauce — I also sometimes use a 1/4 cup of dashi along with the wine if I want a smokier sauce — and then drizzle in a few tablespoons of maple syrup. Depending on your taste and the acidity of your tomatoes, you may want more or less sweetness, and you can also just use sugar, though I like the way maple and tomatoes taste together.
Then, finally, I add my tomatoes! I stir it up a bunch and bring it up to a boil. Then, I turn down the heat to as low as it will go. I cook it with a lid partway on but with enough room to let steam out of the side for about 30 min.
After 30 min, I have to taste and assess. Does it need more liquid, is it starting to get a little dry? If yes, add some broth, stock or just water, just a splash. How does the tomato taste? If it’s still a little flat you might need more salt and more sweet — the acid in the tomato should start out with a bite, but finish in a rounded sort of way that’s soft. How is the sauce texture? If it’s too watery, you can leave the lid off to let the steam leave, but you might need to give yourself a little more tomato paste and more olive oil or even some butter. Does the red pepper bite? Does the fennel come through?
I like to adjust the flavor and then add the rest of my herbs and let it go for at least another 30 min. When I have a good simmer going, the vegetables have sort of melted, and I feel like the flavors are coming together as one whole, not just a series that follow each other, this is when That Meat Sauce So Delicious is ready. Now, and only now, is when I will cook and drain the pasta or gnocchi. And I always finish it off with cheese, cheese is everything.