I guess if you’re from Philly you can call it gravy. I call it spaghetti sauce. To begin making good on my tour of herbs and spices, I offer you this, my spaghetti sauce recipe. It’s very basic but delicious, and was heavily influenced by my mom’s taste in sauces, which is to say that there’s nothing “weird” about it. I think it originated on a Mueller’s box about 30 years ago as a sauce for lasagna, but it had oregano and since oregano is my kryptonite you will notice there is none in this version. It’s been through various other transformations, too, but I really don’t remember what’s original and what’s not, at this point. And so, before I have to bid farewell to tomatoes (at least for a while), I will be eating this in quantity.
About marjoram: Because oregano is fairly traditional in these Italian-American sorts of recipes, I had to find something that was similar but which did not make me want to avoid the food at all costs. Seriously, I know people hate on cilantro, and I think they must feel the same about it as I do about oregano. But nobody ever believes me when I tell them I think it’s gross. And insidious. Restaurants sprinkle it all. over. everything. Hint: I can smell it a mile away. Keep it off my food. Wait, this was supposed to be about marjoram, not about how I loathe oregano.
As a plant, marjoram (Origanum majorana) resembles… well, a lot of other herbs. It’s got square stems and paired leaves, and looks a whole lot like most mints and the Dread Herb Oregano. You can’t always count on nurseries to properly label potted herbs, so generally I start it from seed and/or divided clumps from known plants. Of course, if you buy it from Penzey’s or a similar source, you probably don’t need to know this.
In truth, its flavor is similar to oregano, but it’s a lot milder and less obnoxious. It’s sort of minty and sort of citrusy, and it does have that pine-like taste but to a far lesser degree than oregano. It’s sweeter and milder and just all around superior, so you should join me in my campaign to eliminate oregano. Please note, here, that when I say oregano, I mean Origanum vulgare. It can get confusing since oregano and marjoram are so closely related. Anyway, give it a try. In my biased opinion, it’s more complex than oregano, and much lovelier.
While oregano holds up well when dried, marjoram loses some of its charm. But dried marjoram works fine for long-cooked sauces, since its subtle nomminess would be overpowered by all the tomatoes anyway. If you have fresh, use it instead; it’s kind of cool to taste the difference.
Just for today, I will assume you have a basic familiarity with basil, because really it deserves to be discussed in the context of pesto and not as an afterthought in some red sauce. So without further ado:
Spaghetti Sauce (with Meat!)
- 4 medium onions
- 2 carrots
- 2 stalks of celery
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3lb. ground meat (I use half pork, half beef or venison)
- 1/4c tomato paste
- 3-28oz. cans of tomatoes (whole, pureed, crushed, whatever you like)
- 3T balsamic vinegar
- crushed red pepper
- two bay leaves
- 1-2T dried marjoram
- 1-2T basil, chopped
Mince the onion, carrot, and celery. If you have a food processor, you can use it without feeling bad, because I said so. It’s not like you’re doing delicate work for an amuse bouche at French Laundry. Heat about 3T of olive oil (not extra virgin) in a big, heavy stockpot, over medium-high heat. Add the vegetables and stir, then let them brown just a bit. Meanwhile, mince your garlic cloves.
Once the vegetables are translucent and slightly browned, add the meat. You’ll want to poke at it fairly often with a wooden spoon, to prevent it forming clumps. Or you could just let the clumps go and call them meatballs, maybe. Let the meat brown (not grey! brown!) and then add your tomato paste and minced garlic. Fry those for about a minute, then add your tomatoes and some water. I normally go for about a 1:4 ratio of water to tomatoes. Splash in the vinegar and season liberally! with salt. I use at least 2 teaspoons at this point, but I Really Like Salt. Add a pinch or two of crushed red pepper — the goal isn’t heat, it’s just a little flavor picker-upper, and your dried marjoram. If you’re using fresh, add 1/4 of it now and hold the rest with the basil until the end of cooking. Toss the bay leaves in there as well.
Lower the heat and simmer for as long as you can possibly stand. Stir it at least occasionally, and also it can be helpful to sing songs to your sauce. I suggest the Super Mario Bros. theme. You will want to at least leave it long enough to achieve the texture you want; for me, that’s fairly thick, especially since I add cooked pasta to the sauce which means the pasta water thins it out a bit at serving time. Also, I use it for lasagna, and thicker is better in that case.
About ten minutes before the sauce is done, add your fresh marjoram (if you’re using it) and basil, and stir. Taste the sauce to see if it needs a bit more salt, or red pepper, and tweak accordingly. Now it’s done!
You can use this with pasta, in lasagna, or probably with a spoon. It freezes really well; I tend to portion out 2c into bags or containers and freeze, since that’s about right for dinner for two of us.
If you’ll excuse me, I am starting to want to use words like “redolent” to describe how awesome my house smells right now, with this on the stove, so I think I’ll go check on how it tastes. Yup.