One weekend, I was already sweating onions and garlic when I reached into the fridge for my trusty tube of tomato paste—only to realize it was gone, likely used up in my last batch of Sunday sauce. In a panic, I racked my brain and the back of the fridge before landing on a bright red tub of gochujang.
Gochujang has been a fridge staple for me since I graduated college. I reach for it to make kimchi stews, pork marinades, and spicy tteokbokki. It made perfect sense as a tomato paste substitute: While it is made of concentrated red peppers versus tomatoes, gochujang is also fermented, giving dishes even more umami flavor and deepness. Plus, it helps to thicken the sauce and adds a subtle kick of heat as well as sweetness, just enough to keep you going back for more. But the best added bonus was that it knocked several hours off my cooking time, which is great because I don’t yet have that time to spare in my day-to-day.
I still have a few more decades to go before I gain full-fledged Grandma Irene status, which should give me plenty more opportunities to keep finessing my Sunday gravy and my cheek-pinching. In the meantime, see below for my Sunday sauce recipe as it stands today—or you’re welcome to come over so I can ply you with bite after bite, until you couldn’t possibly eat another. —Irene Yoo
freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more to taste
garlic cloves, minced, divided
panko bread crumbs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
beef chuck, cut into 1-inch chunks
bacon fat, or extra-virgin olive oil, divided
sweet Italian sausage (in casings)
medium onion, chopped
(28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
Several large sprigs basil, tied with kitchen twine, plus more (chopped) to garnish
In This Recipe
Make the meatballs: In a large bowl, mix ground beef, pork, egg, cheese, 1 clove garlic, panko, and salt and pepper together. Slowly add 1 cup water and mix to combine. Form 1-inch balls and set aside.
Salt and pepper the beef chuck. In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, heat 1 tablespoon of bacon fat (or olive oil) over medium-high heat and sear the beef chunks on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes at a time, until browned. Do not overcrowd the pan or turn the meat too often—work in batches to ensure a good sear. Remove chunks as they finish and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of fat and repeat with the meatballs.
Add the last tablespoon of fat and sear the sausages. Remove and slice into large chunks. Set aside.
In the remaining fat, add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining garlic and cook another minute, stirring constantly.
Add gochujang and cook, stirring constantly, until paste is fragrant and starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes.
Add the juice from the canned tomatoes to deglaze, using a wooden spoon to stir the brown stuck-on bits off the bottom of the pot. Add the tomatoes one by one, using a finger to poke a hole into them (so they don't squirt) and then your hands to crush them.
Return all of the meat to the pot. Add the tied sprigs of basil and bring sauce to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 2 hours partially covered, stirring occasionally.
Remove the tied basil. Use a wooden spoon to break up the meat into smaller chunks and cook for another 15 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add more cheese and fresh basil, and serve over pasta, polenta, or Korean rice cakes.
Irene runs a monthly Brooklyn-based pop-up series called Yooeating, with new takes on Korean home cooking, street food, and drinking culture by pairing with other culinary cuisines that feel like home.