My son, Robert, asked for the “old Fickeisen spaghetti recipe.” LIke much of my cooking, I make red sauce by improv and whim, following a general plan, but nothing is written or measured in this case. He made it for a benefit competition at his workplace (UPS customs brokerage) and was named Grand Champion for his version. Bravo! (And this from the kid who always ate his pasta with butter and cheese only.)
Here’s what I told him from memory. Of course your mileage may differ.
I like to slow cook sliced or chopped onions in a dry pan until they just start to soften and turn ever-so-slightly brown. For a typical batch to serve 4 or so, I’d go with one large onion or maybe two mediums. If you want sweeter sauce, use Walla Wallas if you can get them. The trick is to keep the heat low and give it plenty of time — 10 minutes or so. Stir from time to time, watch that they don’t burn or stick to the pan.
While the onions start to cook, I’d slice up some mushrooms. Maybe half of a half-pound box more or less. Add them to the onions while they continue to cook and drive out the water from them somewhat. The amount of water in mushrooms is extremely variable, depending on their age and who knows what else.
When the onions are soft and the mushrooms have cooked up a bit, I would add some olive oil — a tablespoon or two. If you are using meat, you can add ground beef or turkey, broken up at this point and cook it until all the red is gone and it is somewhat browned. You can also use sausage — sliced up on the diagonal.
(If instead of cooking meat in the sauce, you want to use meatballs, find a good meatball recipe and cook them separately, to add in just before the sauce is done. Or you can cook up some whole sausage links and add to the sauce at the end or serve alongside. I’d go for Italian or a chicken/basil type.)
At that point also add in some garlic — I’d use about three cloves — peeled and crushed and then chopped up a bit. I like to hold some of it back until after I add the tomatoes as I think that gives a bit more bite from the garlic.
This is also the time to add peppers if you are using them — they are optional. Maybe one large red bell pepper chopped and/or a finely diced chili. How much chili depends on the heat of the pepper and how hot you want the sauce. A little bit adds a nice flavor component without too much heat. I would remove the seeds and membranes, then run my finger along the cut surface of the pepper and lick to taste. If it burns, use maybe 1/4 to 1/2 a pepper. If not, use a whole one or more.
Stir and cook until the peppers are softened. Then add seasonings — go for fresh herbs if possible — plenty of basil and oregano, a good grind of black pepper, and some salt. Mix them in, then add tomatoes — I use canned crushed ones when I don’t have homegrown ripe ones available. One large can or two small ones for this size batch. You can also add about a half cup or a bit more of red wine at this point if you want to, but it isn’t necessary. Add the reserved fresh garlic if you want to. Cover, bring to a gentle simmer, and let it cook for a while — at least a half hour, more is better. If it is not thick enough after a half hour, remove the lid and turn up the heat a bit to boil some of the excess water off. Taste and adjust the seasoning (salt and pepper) as needed. You can stop at that point and reheat the next day if you want — that lets the flavors blend even more.
I would serve it over pasta with some nice grated asiago or parmesan cheese (I like the asiago better).