Recipe: Sunday Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

Sunday Tomato Sauce with Meatballs, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Sunday Tomato Sauce with Meatballs, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog

Ah, Sunday tomato sauce with meatballs. I remember my mother getting up early on Sunday mornings to get the sauce started (or as some call it – gravy). Other kids wake up to the smell of coffee or bacon and eggs, but Italian kids often wake up to the smell of tomato sauce.

There are as many recipe variations for tomato sauce and meatballs are there are Italian language dialects. Most people are strangely defensive of their sauce recipe, which is often handed down through the generations. If that’s you, then stick with what you know and love. But, if you are looking for a recipe to make your own, then try mine. I have adapted my Mom’s recipe to my own preferences, through trial and error over the years. I often make large batches and freeze it for later use, freeing up my Sunday mornings. Because I use canned tomatoes, I used to feel that my sauce wasn’t as authentic as those made from fresh tomatoes. I have since overcome that little self-criticism.

Why is it that gathering the family around the table on Sunday afternoon after church, for pasta and sauce with meatballs seems to be an all but lost tradition? Maybe it’s because our lives are so incredibly busy with work, family and social commitments. However, since we have modern technology and conveniences, why don’t we have more time for leisure? Why do we constantly fill up our “down time”? It’s time that we resurrect the Sunday afternoon tradition of sharing a homemade, family meal. This rustic tomato sauce with meatballs is a great way to start; use it with your favorite pasta and invite your friends and family over for a simple, yet elegant Sunday afternoon meal.


For the Tomato Sauce
1 (29 oz.) can peeled, whole tomatoes
2 (29 oz.) cans crushed tomatoes
1 (29 oz.) can tomato purée
1 (12 oz.) can tomato paste
½ white onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
½ Tbsp. dried basil
½ Tbsp. dried oregano
½ Tbsp. dried parsley
½ Tbsp. salt
1 bay leaf
1 lb. stew beef, cubed

For the Meatballs
3 lbs. lean ground beef
2 large eggs
½ cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1/8 cup water
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ Tbsp. salt
fresh cracked pepper
¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
½ Tbsp. garlic powder
½ Tbsp. oregano


For the Tomato Sauce:

  1. In a heavy bottom pot, add the cans of peeled, crushed and pureed tomatoes with their juice, and the tomato paste.
  2. Heat on medium heat.
  3. Add three (29 oz.) cans of water, filling the empty tomato cans to get the sauce left in them; stir to mix.
  4. Add the onion and garlic; stir to mix.
  5. Add the bay leaf, basil, oregano, and parsley; stir to mix.
  6. Use a wooden spoon and knife to break up the peeled whole tomatoes into chunks.
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Bring to a slow boil, stirring.
  9. Gently drop raw stew beef into slow boiling pot and stir.
  10. Gently drop raw meatballs into slow boiling pot and stir. (see below for meatball recipe).
  11. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 3½ to 4 hours to cook down to desired thickness. (It takes this long for the raw meat, onions and garlic cook in the sauce.)
  12. Skim sauce of any grease from the meat, every 30 minutes or so. Discard skimmed sauce.
  13. Stir sauce after each skimming, not before
  14. Remove stew beef and meatballs from sauce. Remove bay leaf.
  15. Serve sauce hot.

For the Meatballs:

  1. In a large bowl, add the ground beef.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk two cracked eggs; add whisked eggs to the ground beef.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the ground beef.
  4. Using your (clean) hands, mix well. Consistency should be sticky.
  5. Using your (clean) hands, loosely roll the ground beef mixture into golf ball-sized meatballs. (Don’t over handle or tightly compress the ground beef any more than needed, or else the meatballs will be too dense and dry).
  6. Drop meatballs into slow boiling pot of tomato sauce (see sauce directions above).
  7. Reduce heat to low; cover and let tomato sauce and meatballs simmer for 3 ½ to 4 hours, skimming off any grease every 30 minutes or so.
Meatballs Uncooked, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Meatballs Uncooked, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Meatballs Cooked in Tomato Sauce, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog
Meatballs Cooked in Tomato Sauce, Courtesy: Food Mingle Blog


Food Mingle Blog Alternatives and Substitutions:

  • Pour the tomato sauce over your handmade pasta and serve with the meatballs.
  • I tend to under salt my food, so feel free to add more salt to taste.
  • For the meatballs, alternatives include:    
    • Using a “meatloaf mixture” of beef, veal and pork, in place of the ground beef (although it is more expensive). You may reduce the amount of water slightly if using the “meatloaf mixture.”
    • Using ground turkey in place of the ground beef. Add more water, as turkey can be dry.
  • There are many variations of cooking the meatballs, including baking them in the oven or frying them in a pan, before adding them to the sauce. This will add a nice crust to the meatballs and reduce the sauce cooking time. However, I prefer to add the meat raw, because it flavors the sauce nicely.
  • Other alternatives (or additions) to adding stew beef and/or ground beef meatballs to the sauce include:
    o Add sausage links to the sauce – this will make a more spicy, somewhat thinner, sauce
    o Add chicken to the sauce – this will make a very mild, much thinner sauce
  • Do not let the sauce burn – make sure that it boils only briefly, when adding the meat. If it does burn, do not stir it – this will only stir in the burnt parts. Instead, pour off the sauce into another pot, being careful not to include any burnt parts from the bottom of the original pot. This will help, but may not get rid of the entire burnt taste.
  • If the sauce is too salty, add one peeled potato, cut in half. This will somewhat absorb the extra salt. If still too salty, add more water to dilute.
  • Instead of adding finely diced onion to the sauce, my mother used to add one whole, peeled onion, because she liked to eat the onion afterward. I prefer my onion in smaller doses.
  • I have tried other variations for the sauce over the years, none of which I liked, as follows:
    o Add pepperoni – this is supposed to add a tangy taste, but it made the sauce greasy
    o Add sugar – this is supposed to cut the acidity, but I did not like the sweetness
    o Add wine – similar result as the sugar

Yield: Approximately 2 gallons of tomato sauce, 30 meatballs, and 1 cup stew beef

Source: this is my recipe, adapted from how my mom taught me, and tweaked over the years.



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