Wednesday, April 28, 2010

With Thanks to Aunt Kay

1970 Volkswagen Beetle

When I first married in 1970 my wife, Brenda, and I had pretty limited cooking abilities.  My wife’s mother, who is Italian, failed to learn from her own accomplished mother.  Brenda’s own repertoire consisted of two dishes taught to her by her German father, navy bean soup & pork with sour kraut.  My mother had passed on to me only limited knowledge of my own regional Southern dishes.  I could make a pot of pinto beans and bake a skillet of corn bread.  During that first year we added a couple of pedestrian dishes to our routine, but it was not until we moved to New York in January of 1972 that food started to become an experience. 

With our Volkswagen Beetle packed to the roofline, we left Memphis headed to Brooklyn NY.  The plan was to overnight in Elyria, Ohio, 30 miles west of Cleveland, with Brenda’s mother’s family.  My mother-in-law was one of seven sisters and Brenda’s extended family was much like my own large southern horde.  Among them was Aunt Kay, a woman of modest means, who worked as the cook for the local Roman Catholic parish house.  She had a large number of Italian dishes at her fingertips.  However, during our one day stay I was only able to get one full recipe and one tip that I still use when I can get away with it.  The latter is to whip a beaten egg into your mashed potatoes.  It gives them richness, texture, and a wonderful color.  My wife insists it’s too dangerous to feed to children (I contend the hot potatoes cook the egg), but I do it whenever I am cooking for myself.  The former was Aunt Kay’s Meat Sauce, a complicated all day affair, that was the best Italian meat sauce I ever tasted.    Aunt Kay started with beef bones roasting in the oven, but I have developed my own version that can be ready in an hour and still taste better than most.


  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped finely
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1  lb ground chuck
  • 2 15 ½ oz cans of crushed Italian (Roma) tomatoes
  • 1 cup dry red wine (I use a Cabernet, see notes)
  • 1 tbsps McCormick Beef Soup Starter (see notes)
  • 1 cup chopped Crimini mushrooms (optional)
  • 1 tbsp dry Italian Seasonings.
  1. Sauté onion in olive oil until they begin to brown.
  2. Add mushrooms, if using, and saute until limp
  3. Add garlic and sauté for one minute more.
  4. Add chuck and brown.
  5. Drain excess fat.  Leave some. Remember fat is taste.
  6. Add tomatoes and wine and bring to a simmer.
  7. Add soup base an stir until dissolved.
  8. Add seasoning.
  9. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for one hour minimum.  If I have the time I will cook for two hours or until sauce is very thick.
Leftovers freeze beautifully.

  • When cooking with wine, use only a wine you would drink.
  • The McCormick Soup Starter is readily available and provides that simmered for hours quality.
  • The mushrooms are optional, but add a wonderful, earthy quality to this benchmark of Italian comfort food.
  • My favorite variation is substitute meatballs for the beef.

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