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Witch Sabbaths in the Sauce of Life
Sunday Strega-Cauldron Spaghetti Sauce
Get out of your head all those Disney versions of witches. Hey, we’re all around you, and many witches don’t even know they’re witches.
But they and their appreciators can feel it … in the sauce.
From the mid 70s into the 80s, I reveled in a Witch Sabbath every Sunday. I didn’t know I was a witch. My mom didn’t know she was a witch cooking for this witch. The seeds were there, though.
I felt it most intensely in the autumn. My bedroom was on the other side of the kitchen, and Sunday morning, I’d wake up to Mom frying meatballs. I’d munch cereal at the kitchen table while sautéd garlic wafted my nose. I knew the drill and limited myself to one bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch because at Noon every Sunday—and I mean every Sunday—we would pig out on spaghetti, meatballs, Italian sausage, garlic bread, and salad (which we ate, as Italians do, after the main course, to help digestion).
And we’d need that help because the Steelers usually played at 1pm, and though they dominated the American football scene in the 1970s like no other team has dominated a sport in such a short span of time, they didn’t always make it a cinch. My stepdad, Bill, always had money on the game, his denunciations of the refs as “Stripéd-ass bastards!” making that clear. He was as Irish as they come, but he ate that meal like an Italian lord in Borghese Rome.
Yes, we also feasted from the sauce cauldron in the late winter and spring, followed up by Bill’s (boring) golf telecasts or my Pirates obsession, but those TV rituals didn’t carry the same magik. The Steelers and the crispness of autumn ratcheted the spell to perfection.
My mom wasn’t an old-fashioned Italian nonna but a high-ranking professional in the medical field. Yet, every Sunday, she channeled her ancestral spellcasting abilities, combined with everything about cooking that my Italian Pap-Pap and Nana Vitanza had taught her. Hers was the secret sauce of life. Championships come and go, sports dynasties fade, but in the huge pot she used to make her sauce, she stirred up the aroma of the cosmos. The universe was happy on Sundays in our house, even if life was far from perfect for me, latently trans and never knowing it till decades later.
What I did know, intuitively, in my mitochondria, was how to make a seed grow into a galaxy. Though I strove to be the dude the world demanded me to be, I always gravitated to the cauldron. To cooking. To crafting magik.
The Years—and the Spell—Wind On
Mom taught me the recipe, till I had it rote. But I didn’t cook in my teen years. There were sparks, though. I taught myself how to make fettuccine alfredo, which I spread out for a once-a-semester meal with my college-dorm mates. When I got to grad school, I began to make my own red sauce, doing it my way. Back then, it was like a pureed vegetable-and-meat stew. “More is more!” was my philosophy. When Pam and I set up in our first apartment in Texas, I still managed to find authentic Italian ingredients in the Lone Star State and brew up Sunday Italian feasts that we’d then have as leftovers for the next week. I taught our kids that red sauce was the cooking religion in our household, even as the Dallas Cowboys and Dallas Stars replaced the Steelers in our TV viewing in the 1990s and early ‘00s.
The business of adulting trimmed down the sauce to the essentials of the spell—tomato puree, tomato paste, garlic, spices, and Italian sausage. On holidays, the cauldron fit meatballs, bracciole, and sausage links, slathered over stuffed shells or manicotti. When we went through a vegan phase, I made it marinara, with vegan stuffed shells (still don’t know how I pulled off that one). It was about the sauce, people. When I did Atkins, I subbed lo-carb pasta. Whatever gets you through the spell.
Pam and I long ago empty-nested, but two to three times each autumn/winter, I still brew the magikal feast. I’ve got it down, now: a little of my way, a lot of the ancestors, and a dedication to the spell.
Though you may have your own family-tested, tried-and-true essentials for the sauce, it’s still The Sauce. The magik is in the making, and we all make it, even if it’s not spaghetti, not at all Italian, and not on Sundays.
We’re all in a coven, you see. The coven of humanity. You may be a Browns, Raiders, or Cowboys fan who despises Steeler Nation. Hell, Pam and I no longer follow football (though, of all ironies, Pam is one of the most dedicated Pittsburgh Penguins fans you’ll ever meet). Whoever you are, whoever we are, we make the magik.
Here’s a way to do it at your own hearth, over your own cauldron, makeshift or authentic cast iron. In Pittsburgh, Loveland, Roma, or Cardiff. You do you, Boo. Just bring the sauce.
Sunday Strega-Cauldron Spaghetti Sauce (Marinara or Meat)
This recipe is multipurpose and completely adaptable in terms of amounts and ingredients. I recommend this Italian-sausage version, but you can do meatballs (uh, I’ve got a recipe for those), bracciole (got one for that, too), pork butt, even ribs. I purposely don’t provide a pic of the end result. I ask you to run with your imagination as to what your table looks like. Just make sure it can bear the weight.
Prep Time: 15min Cook Time: 1.5-7hrs (plus MANDATORY overnight refrigeration) Total Time: 36hrs Difficulty: Medium Servings: A Shit-Tonne
Largest stock pot you can find, maybe even rent a dumptruck
Silicone spatula or wooden spoon
Lg hand whisk
Lg skillet/frying pan
Skewer or fork
A f*ck-tonne of storage containers
3T olive oil
several cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
3 28oz cans tomato puree
3 8oz cans tomato paste (the little guys)
1t thyme, fresh or ground
2T basil, fresh or ground
1T oregano, fresh or ground
1T Italian spice, ground
1T all-purpose spice, ground (optional)
1⁄2t cayenne pepper (optional)
salt, to taste
black pepper, ground, to taste
2lbs (900g) Italian sausage links
dry red wine (I use Chianti)
1. In stockpot, add olive oil, and over med-low heat, bring to sauté temp while you slice garlic and open cans of tomato puree and tomato paste.
B*tch-Bake Tip: Open BOTH ends of the tomato PASTE cans. This will allow you to push all the dense paste into the stockpot in Step 3, maximizing the paste. Stregas don't waste nuthin'!
2. Add garlic and thyme to hot oil, and sauté for 30- 60 sec, but no more. No need to brown the garlic— just break down some molecules to release its divine flavor and aroma. Remove from heat.
3. Pour all tomato products into stockpot and return stockpot to heat, turning it up to med-high and stirring to distribute sautéed garlic and thyme. (Don't throw away the cans; you need 'em for the next step.)
4. Run trickle of warm water along inner edges of each emptied tomato-puree can, to capture all the rest of that red-blooded goodness, till each can is half full. Set cans aside.
5. Add basil, oregano, Italian spice, all-purpose spice, and cayenne to stockpot.
6. Pour water from tomato-puree cans into stockpot, whisking with spices and always scraping the sides of the stockpot, to desired thickness. (If you add more water than you wanted, you can always cook it off, but the less-is-more approach is the Strega way to do things, as you can always add water later.)
7. Add salt and pepper and whisk them in, taste-testing. (Again, follow the intuitive, less-is-more approach. You can always add salt and pepper later. This is artwork-in-progress, people.)
8. Stir occasionally as mixture heats, always scraping the bottom and sides of the stockpot. You'll notice a pink foam forming at the top.
9. Once the sauce reaches a rolling boil, turn heat to low, to keep sauce to a simmer-boil.
10. At this point, if you're making marinara, it's just a matter of cooking the sauce down to the desired quantity and consistency, anywhere from 1 hr to all-day. Regardless of how long you cook it, ALWAYS stir and scrape, stir and scrape.
11. Remove sauce from heat and allow to cool, with lid on. (This will take forever, so, Strega-word to the wise, start this like all Italian Strega Nonnas do—early in the morning.)
12. The MANDATORY next step, whether you're doing marinara or adding meat, is to STORE THE SAUCE IN THE FRIDGE OVERNIGHT, to set in the spices. Do NOT skip this step. (If you're wanting to use just a small quantity the next day, you can freeze the extra, then thaw for future red-sauce bacchanalia.) If you're doing marinara, jump to Step 16.
13a. Jump back to Step 8. While sauce heats to boil, pour enough wine into lg skillet to cover bottom.
13b. Place Italian sausage links into wine. You want the wine to reach halfway up the sides of the sausages, so add more vino if needed.
13c. Sauté on med heat, till wine comes to boil.
13d. Poke sausages with skewer or fork, to make sausage fat bubble out.
13e. After 2 min, turn over each link with tongs and pierce the other side of each sausage.
13f. Sauté sausages another 2-5 min. Do NOT allow wine to completely evaporate.
14. With tongs, transfer sausages directly into sauce.
15. Follow Steps 10-12 to complete your Meat Sauce. Give sausages at least an hour to cook in sauce, to make sure they're cooked. Capice?
REHEAT & SERVE
16. Next day, put the refrigerated sauce on med-high heat, frequently stirring and scraping to ensure NO BURN at the bottom of the stockpot. Make your pasta of choice and top with this amazing sauce. Buon Appetito!