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How a "Not Meat" Italian Red Sauce Found its Way into a Lapsed Vegetarian's Kitchen

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Though I come from a family of very talented cooks, bakers, and even cookie artists (seriously, my cousin has a gift), I’ve never felt particularly tied to a single culinary history. Sure, there are recipes I’ve craved so badly I have to try my hand at them, such as my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, but so much of my food history has been about creating new traditions.

Photo by James Ransom

Since I was seven years old, I have been somewhere on the pescatarian/vegetarian/vegan spectrum, and—as someone who hails from Virginia—I can attest that there just aren’t a lot of good meatless Southern dishes being passed down. I inherited my aversion to meat from my mother, but she would be the first to tell you that she really doesn’t care much about cooking. Thus, though my siblings and I were all second-generation vegetarians, we got to create our own rulebook.


This Easter, I got to travel home with my boyfriend Patrick for the first time and visit Youngstown, Ohio. One thing I quickly learned during my visit was when someone asks you “What do you think of Youngstown,” what they're really asking you is “How do you like the food?” From ice cream that you’re required to try (Handels, and try the cotton candy flavor—tastes as good as it looks), to the Italian Specialty Store you have to visit to stock up on essentials before leaving, Youngstown is rich in a distinctly Italian-American culinary history.

Photos by Jackson Fust,

Patrick’s family has worked to capture that culinary history with a family cookbook, which they compiled and printed a few years back, and it is has become a touchstone for them. Discuss a recipe with anyone in the family, and the first question that must be answered is whether or not it's in the cookbook. He showed this cookbook to me when we first started dating, but I’d been unable to delve into it since many of the recipes were reliant on meat.

This past December, some health concerns came up that prompted me to add some meat back into my diet. I took this as the perfect opportunity to finally test out some of his family recipes and throw a big Sunday dinner party. The most obvious place to start was with “Sunday Sauce,” the venerated red sauce I’d been hearing about since our second date.

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Or at least, I thought there was a venerated red sauce. Once I dug in, I learned that there were actually three family red sauce recipes, each with its merits. After settling on the recipe I’d heard the most about, I started to make a shopping list and realized all of the things I didn’t know: I’ve cooked a few red sauces in the past, all vegetarian or vegan, and thought that the main distinction was vegetarian or meat sauce. I was quickly informed by Patrick that the sauce I'd chosen was not a meat sauce (“my mom doesn’t do bolognese,” he said) but a sort of “not meat” sauce, where meat is cooked in the sauce but is easily separable in the final product.

More meat than I've ever purchased in my entire life. Photos by Jackson Fust

In any case, this “Not Meat” sauce required three different types of meat: western or country ribs, spicy Italian sausage, and meatballs. While sausage and meatballs didn’t cause me much hesitation, western ribs were a cut of meat I was previously wholly unfamiliar with. My good friend Google tried to help, but neither a pre-grocery store search nor the knowledgeable men at the Whole Foods’ meat counter could sort out what cut I was looking for, so I swapped in spare ribs.

The butcher helped steer me toward a meatloaf mix for the meatballs, and to a good spicy Italian sausage, so I at least could stay true to 2/3 of the recipe’s meat requirements. I snagged some produce for sides (Italian Greens, which turns out is Escarole), some prosciutto, ricotta, and plums for the antipasti, as well as some good canned tomatoes for the sauce, and made my way to checkout.

Photos by Jackson Fust,

I woke up the next day ready to cook! I combined all of the tomatoes (puréed, sauce, and paste) with sugar, salt, and spices and let that come to a simmer. Then I tackled handling the meat: The sausage was to be baked off in the oven, which seemed easy enough, but the ribs were to be "grilled on a pan with fresh garlic until browned on the outside." Using my very limited knowledge of how to cook meat, as the recipe as written didn’t specify much, I decided that the ribs should be seared at a high heat to caramelize the outside, but not cooked through. At that temperature, however, the garlic swiftly burned. I scraped it all away before flipping the ribs, which seemed to salvage things, but still don’t know how I should have incorporated the fresh garlic (any ideas?).

Meanwhile, Patrick kindly mixed and rolled the meatballs, and then we were ready to add all of the meat to the pot. Unfortunately, the 4-quart Dutch oven in which I was simmering away the tomatoes simply couldn’t hold all of the necessary meat. Luckily I was able to scrounge up a second stock pot, so I split the ribs, divvied up the sausage and meatballs, and ladled half the sauce into the second pot, so everything could still come together evenly.

Left: Pork spare ribs standing in for western ribs. Right: Italian greens. Photos by Jackson Fust

Fortunately, I’d reached cruising altitude, so I left the sauce at a low simmer for about four hours while I tackled the other dishes. As I’d made enough sauce for an extended family gathering, and had hogged every surface of our kitchen for most of the day, I invited both of my roommates and another good friend to join for a dinner party! To serve as antipasti, Patrick whipped up some ricotta the Andrew Carmellini-way (note that Carmellini is a distant relative of Patrick’s, so this felt fair game for the dinner’s theme, and it seemed easy!). I macerated some plum slices in a good balsamic vinegar to serve with the ricotta, and served that all with mini toasts and an assortment of cured meats.

Next, I boiled spaghetti to serve under a blanket of the sauce (though I usually talk myself into whole wheat pasta for weeknight cooking—that makes it a health food, right?—I made an effort to stay authentic and went with white flour pasta). Once that was cooked nicely al dente, I prepared to serve up the spaghetti and meatballs!

Here, the “not meat” aspect of this particular meat sauce caused yet more confusion—Patrick’s cousin had to confirm that you do eat the ribs after they’ve simmered in the sauce—and I ended up letting the guests serve themselves ribs from a plate, family-style. Though messy to eat, they were tender and juicy, and the tomato sauce that clung to them served as a sort of Italian take on barbecue sauce!

LefT: Non-meat meat sauce. Right: Cooked greens. Photos by Jackson Fust

The sauce, meatballs, and sausage were ladled over bowls of spaghetti—though I’ve been told you really should toss everything together before serving, I couldn’t bear to dirty up another pan. Fortunately, no one held that against me, as everyone served themselves up healthy portions and began to dig in.

I took a big swirl of pasta and sauce, and was pleased by its rich flavor and zing. However, while I’m usually content with my own opinion about my cooking, this time was different. I could say the sauce tasted good, but I couldn’t say it tasted like home. Patrick took a bite.

Left: A spread of antipasti. Right: Digging in. Photos by Jackson Fust

“Oh wow!” he said, with a note of surprise. “When I was sneaking tastes while it was cooking, it didn’t taste right—didn’t taste good! I was so worried. But whatever was missing appeared—this tastes just like the real thing!"

Relieved from receiving Patrick’s approval, I gave into the dinner party revelry, drinking wine from short stemless glasses (my roommate’s idea, “like we’re in Italy!”) and overindulging in all of the saucy goodness. Though we all parted that night with bellies bursting at their seams, we were already discussing the next Sunday dinner, listing of all the recipes we wanted to try.

Meat or not meat, Western ribs or spaghetti served on the side, perhaps this red sauce dinner is the start of a new tradition.

What traditional recipes are celebrated in your family? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: meat sauce, italy week, italian cooking, sauce, pasta