Pasta Sauces alla Marvelous Marcella

There are a number of pasta sauces that I enjoy greatly and make on a fairly regular basis, but the following two I can actually say I crave. I will wake up one day and know that by the end of the day I had better have whichever one I’m jonesing for ready for the table. No ifs, ands or buts about it. I’m not sure I will be able to explain exactly why these two simple Marcella Hazan sauces hold such power over me, but I’ll at least give it a shot.

The first is a simple, hearty beef ragu. Nothing pretentious about it. No special ingredients, no difficult techniques. But oh, when you combine those simple ingredients and cook them in just the right way, what you end up with in your bowl is pure magic. The beef is cooked first in wine until the wine is all absorbed, which infuses it with incredible flavor. Then it is cooked again in milk, until the milk has disappeared, leaving the beef soft and tender. Only then do you add some tomatoes, and the pièce de résistance, fresh nutmeg (please try to use fresh, it really matters!). When the ensuing 3 ½ hour simmer is completed, you will be rewarded with a bowl of Riggies topped with the most succulent, thick, sweet, silken pasta sauce imaginable.

NOTE: I always double this sauce even though I live alone, because 1) I put way more on my pasta than any self-respecting Italian would, and 2) I love the stuff so damned much that there is never a question of my getting sick of it.

6 servings



Marcella Hazen’s Classic Italian Cooking

2 T chopped yellow onion

3 T olive oil

3 T butter

2 T chopped celery

2 T chopped carrot

3/4 pound ground lean beef (I buy some beef, cut it up into cubes, then pulse it in the food processor to the right consistency, preferably chuck or the meat from the neck. I like the texture better for this sauce.)


1 cup dry white wine (I always use a good dry white vermouth, as Julia Child recommended, but whatever white wine you have on hand will do)

1/2 cup milk

1/8 tsp. nutmeg

2 cups canned Italian tomatoes (San Marzano always preferred) roughly chopped, with their juice

Use a heavy, enameled cast-iron casserole, the deepest one you have (to keep the ragu from reducing too quickly). Put in the chopped onion, with all the oil and butter, and sauté briefly over medium heat until just translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook gently for 2 minutes.

Add the ground beef, crumbling it in the pot with a fork. Add 1 teaspoon salt, stir and cook only till the meat has lost its raw red color. Add the wine, turn up the heat to medium high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the milk and the nutmeg, and cook until the milk has evaporated. Stir frequently. (I find it really important to the final flavor to make sure both reductions are completed to almost nothing left.)

When the milk has evaporated, add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly. When the tomatoes have started to bubble, turn the heat down until the sauce cooks at the laziest simmer, just an occasional bubble. Cook, uncovered, for a minimum of 3 1/2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and correct for salt. (If you cannot watch the sauce for such a long stretch, you can turn off the heat and resume cooking later on. But do finish cooking it in one day.)

Note: Ragu can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or frozen. Reheat until it simmers for about 15 minutes before using.

Who else but Marcella Hazan would be so unassuming as to name one of her wonderful pasta sauces “Tomato Sauce 1”?  Ya gotta love it! I also love her following simple, vegetarian pasta sauce. Whenever I am looking for a fast, simple, delicious dinner that’s fresh and light as well, this is my go-to meal. The sauce should actually be called a tomato-olive oil sauce, as those flavors both predominate. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the amount of olive oil is a typo. It isn’t.) There are no spices, no herbs, just a hint of vegetables for flavoring. But the result is just perfect. It is a very light, loose, “tomatoey sweet” sauce, and I like to serve it over thin spaghetti, but use whatever you like.

6 servings



Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking

NOTE: I always make the version using canned tomatoes. I just never get around to doing the fresh version, although I’ll bet it’s killer!

2 pounds fresh, ripe plum tomatoes

1/3 cup olive oil (the olive oil is important to the flavor, so try to use a nice aromatic one)

1/3 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1/3 cup finely chopped carrot

1/3 cup finely chopped celery


1/4 tsp. granulated sugar

1 to 1½ pounds pasta

Wash the tomatoes in cold water. Cut them in half, lengthwise. Cook in a covered saucepan or stockpot at a steady simmer for 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer gently for 1 ½ hours more. Purée the tomatoes through a food mill into a bowl. Discard the seeds and skin.

Rinse and dry the saucepan. Put in the olive oil, and the chopped onion, and lightly sauté over medium heat until just translucent, not browned. Add the carrot and the celery and sauté for another minute. Add the puréed tomato, the salt and the sugar, and cook at a gentle simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Stir from time to time while cooking.

If using canned tomatoes: use 2 cups tomatoes (again, try to use San Marzano) with their juice, omit steps for preparing the fresh tomatoes, and simmer 45 minutes instead of 20.

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One Response to Pasta Sauces alla Marvelous Marcella

  1. THEN, I took a cooking class in Tuscany and learned the secret to many Italian dishes is slow cooking–hard for me to do cuz when it starts smelling good, my mouth starts watering!!Paula, bolognese is probably one of favorite sauces. I remember trying to whip it up for a “quick” dinner and then wonder why it never tasted as good as the sauces made in Italy.

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