Dad’s Spaghetti

Trying to get details about recipes from my dad is like trying to herd cats—nearly impossible. This isn’t because he’s trying to keep secrets—more that he doesn’t measure anything. He’s a free spirit in the kitchen (and in life). As a child, I remember he caused a stir when he made the executive decision to wear pajama pants to choir practice on Wednesday nights. And, one time, he dressed up in a gorilla suit and crept through the cul de sac scaring all the neighborhood kids. John plays by his own rules, and luckily, the game is pretty fun.

I loved this recipe so much as a teen that I even invited friends over and asked my dad to cook it for them. He cleared off the dining room table, and my friends and I had a proper dinner party, complete with candles and napkins (in case you were wondering, I was a very cool teenager).

When I lived out of state during high school and college, I remember he’d ask me where I wanted to eat when I came home to visit (a crucial conversation that requires planning and forethought). In addition to my favorite local restaurants, I always requested this spaghetti.

In the years since, I’ve pressed him to nail down the recipe into exact measurements, but that’s not his style. It’s hard to even get a straight list of ingredients or cooking times; he’ll say things like “I just walk through the store and pick up what I need” or “I don’t know; just cook it for a few hours.” I think the crucial ingredients that set this recipe apart from others, though, are: the inclusion of the Southern Holy Trinity (onions, celery, and green bell pepper), lemons (which are squeezed and cooked whole in the sauce), and cajun seasoning in lieu of salt. (You won’t catch me using anything except Tony Chachere’s.)

This is my attempt to bring some structure to my dad’s amazing spaghetti. Mine will, obviously, never be as good as his, but the smell and the taste evoke these fun memories of him—and that’s good enough for me.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

For the sauce, sauté the following ingredients in a large, oven-safe pot over medium heat:

  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 8 oz mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Cajun Seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

Once the beef is cooked through and the vegetables have cooked down, stir in:

  • 28 oz tomato sauce
  • 14 oz stewed tomatoes (Italian-style, if you can find it)
  • 14 oz petite diced tomatoes
  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • 14 oz Ro*tel tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 bay leaves

At this point, you should also stir in the juice of two lemons. Once you’ve squeezed out the juice, throw the lemons themselves into the pot. You want to remove as many seeds as you can before doing this, which is admittedly a pain. This article from Epicurious has some suggestions.  

Bring the sauce to a simmer on the stove, then cover and carefully transfer the whole thing to the oven. Let the sauce cook for 3 hours, checking and stirring it every 30 minutes or hour. Taste it as you go – if it needs salt, add more Tony Chachere’s – unless it’s getting too spicy for your taste, in which case you can switch to regular salt. If it’s too acidic or tangy, courtesy of the lemons, add more sugar. If it’s drying out, you can add some broth, but there should be enough liquid to let it reduce for a few hours without problem.

At the 3 hour mark, return the pot of sauce to the stove and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir ½ cup powdered Parmesan cheese into the sauce. It’s time to make meatballs! In a large bowl, combine:

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup Italian bread crumbs
  • ¼ cup powdered Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Cajun Seasoning

Shape this mixture into golf ball-sized meatballs and carefully slip them into the bubbling sauce. If the sauce is too thick at this point, you can add 1-2 cups water to thin it out a bit. Try to nestle the meatballs in as best you can without stirring vigorously. Let this cook over low heat on the stove top for about 15 minutes – my dad says you want to be careful not to stir too much at this point so the meatballs don’t fall apart. After 15 minutes, cover the pot and return it to the oven to cook for 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.

Serve over cooked spaghetti or bucatini (my favorite) and garnish with additional Parmesan cheese.

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