Every Italian I know has their own spaghetti sauce recipe. Most of the time, it’s passed down from one’s grandmother and mother, but it’s usually adapted, too. My grandmother was the queen of the spaghetti sauce (she was an awesome, awesome cook). My mom would make giant stock pots full of it when I was growing up (and our family friends couldn’t wait to get a container). I like to think my spaghetti sauce is as good as theirs – but in a different way.
My major adaptation to the family spaghetti sauce recipe has to do with the meat inside. My grandma used a mixture of ground beef, pork, and veal. Most of the time my mom would get ground beef and pork (although the latter has gotten increasingly difficult to find). A few years ago, I decided to attempt my spaghetti sauce using ground turkey. I think overall it’s far less greasy than sauce made with beef. And to make up for the neutral flavor of ground turkey (because it is sort of bland and not all that meaty), I added mushrooms.
I’m sharing my recipe (although to make my grandma’s – which was never really written down, but you’d get close – you could just substitute the meat and remove the mushrooms…) for turkey ragu sauce . It’s not very difficult to make, but it needs a nice long simmer to really get all the flavors to meld (in fact – it’s better the next day). Use a really big pot and clear some room in your fridge (or your freezer!) – I don’t know any other way to make sauce except to make a ton!
Elisa’s Turkey Ragu Sauce
- 1-2 tbsp olive oil
- 3-4 medium onions, chopped
- 3-4 large ribs celery, chopped
- 2-3 large carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 whole large head of garlic (about 15 cloves), smashed, peeled, and minced
- 1 1/4 pounds of ground turkey (this is the size that most packages in the grocery store are)
- 1 lb brown mushrooms (portobello or cippolini), chopped very fine
- 1 1/2 cups red wine (white is okay too, but I like red better because it gives the sauce a richer flavor)
- 1 can of tomato paste
- 3 cans of crushed tomatoes (yes, I like using canned tomatoes – they tend to have a richer flavor than grocery store tomatoes and need less cooking before they taste good… You could use fresh here if you like; I’d use the freshest roma tomatoes you can find, and maybe a few heirlooms, peel them, and cook the heck out of the sauce… You can also use canned tomato sauce, like my mom and grandma – I just like the texture of crushed tomatoes)
- 1 1/2 tbsp dry parsley (or a good bunch of fresh parsley, since fresh is less potent than dry)
- 2-3 oz fresh basil (that’s 1-2 bunches; and please use the fresh stuff, it’s SO much better!!! But if you must, use about 2 tbsp and add it with the parsley)
- 1/2 cup cream or half and half (don’t go with milk – you run the risk of it separating, and that’s not pretty)
- salt and pepper
Set a large sauce pan (I use the biggest one in my set) over medium-low heat. Add olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and let it warm for a few minutes. Add onion with a pinch of salt and cook for 2 minutes. Add carrot and celery and cook for 5-7 minutes or until onion begins to soften. Add garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.
Add turkey and mushrooms to the pan at the same time and stir well to combine. After about 1 minute, add tomato paste and mix very well.
Let cook until turkey is about 75% cooked (it will turn white but ground turkey doesn’t brown very well, and this is a crowded pan; it won’t really matter in the end). You want to make sure that the turkey doesn’t clump, or you’ll have meatballs in your sauce (and this isn’t a sauce with meatballs!). Add the wine and cook for 3-4 minutes or until it’s mostly evaporated.
Add the canned tomatoes. If you have any fresh tomatoes you’d like to use up, you can do so as well (I had half a package of cherry tomatoes that were about to go bad, so I threw them in whole – they burst when they’re cooked). I like to add a little freshness, but it’s not a huge deal (which is why they’re not in the recipe – I wouldn’t go out and buy them just for this). Stir in some pepper (I use about 1 tbsp). I wouldn’t add any salt at this point – most canned tomatoes have salt added, and you’ll want all the flavors to meld together before putting any more in. Add parsley (dry or fresh is fine at this point) and stir very well.
Now walk away.
Yup, that’s what I said. Just walk away. You’re going to want this to simmer on low for, well, as long as you can. At least an hour. It’s better if you can let it simmer all day. Just check on it periodically, make sure it’s on low (try to go for simmer, not boil), and stir it once every half hour or so to make sure that you’re not burning the bottom (stir more often on an electric stove – for some reason they tend not to go as low as gas stoves and I’ve burned more than one batch when I lived in my old apartment).
When almost ready to serve, go ahead and add the fresh basil (chiffonade, if you please) and the cream (if you want – but it definitely makes this into a nice rich bolognese-type sauce, and I’d reccommend it!), and let it cook for another 5-10 minutes. You can add a handful of good parmesan here (my mom always does) but I find that it usually ends up sticking to the bottom of my pan, when all is said and done. So I prefer to just put it on top. You can taste it here for seasoning, though, and add salt (if you must).
This sauce is chunky, with lots of vegetables that are still toothsome. It’s better the next day and freezes incredibly well. You can serve this over pasta, polenta, or gniocchi (or use it in a lasagna, on pizza, make meatball sandwiches, or just eat it straight up with a piece of bread… It’s even good cold!).
When I took the first photo, I served this over fresh gniocchi (I used Tyler Florence’s recipe on Foodnetwork.com – very tasty, light, and fluffy, but you’ll notice in the photo that they let out quite a bit of water!). We had it two nights in a row (and then for lunch the third day – the second photo), and I put four containers in the freezer! I’d say this safely will serve 12 people, but you’ll probably have leftovers. Make that – you’ll want leftovers!
What’s that you say? No oregano?
Nope. Northern Italians (my family is from Emilia-Romagna, north of Tuscany, in the same province where Parmeggiano Reggiano is made) don’t traditionally use oregano (or capers, anchovies, or sun-dried tomatoes). Those ingredients are typically found in provinces south of Rome (and most Italian restaurants in America have a decidedly Southern Italian flavor). We still have oregano in my house – for Greek dishes and Spanish Rice. Obviously if you’re making your own sauce, you can add herbs as you like them, but parsley and basil are the only herbs I need!