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[caption id="attachment_178538" align="alignright" width="300"] Originally from Salisbury, Fred Warlick settled in Greensboro, where he worked as a salesman and made spaghetti sauce for his three daughters, including the author (pictured

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_178538" align="alignright" width="300"] Originally from Salisbury, Fred Warlick settled in Greensboro, where he worked as a salesman and made spaghetti sauce for his three daughters, including the author (pictured

Long-Lost Sauce

Focaccia topped with meatballs, bowl of spaghetti with sauce, bowls of lasagna soup
The author, age one, with her father,

Originally from Salisbury, Fred Warlick settled in Greensboro, where he worked as a salesman and made spaghetti sauce for his three daughters, including the author (pictured at age 1). Photography courtesy of Lynn Wells

My dad was a traveling salesman who made his way across the South selling textile dyes. He was known for his stylish work attire: polished shoes paired with suits purchased from Bernard Shepherd, a clothing store in Greensboro. It was only on Saturday mornings in the winter, when my sisters and I would follow the scent of oregano and basil to the kitchen, that we’d see my dad standing at the stove, still clad in his navy cotton pajamas and well-worn leather slippers. This meant only one thing: We were having spaghetti.

One of my greatest regrets in life is that I never wrote down how my dad made his spaghetti sauce. I don’t know where he got the recipe, but it was perfect every time. I was too busy playing outside with the neighborhood kids — or sledding, if we were lucky enough to get snow — to memorize the steps and ingredients. I picked up on a few sauce secrets here and there. I learned the importance of getting the ratio of oregano to salt just right, that bay leaves are not optional, and that good spaghetti sauce takes all day to perfect. By noon, Dad dressed in his khakis and polo shirt had returned to the kitchen for one final taste before the long afternoon simmer.

Beyond Dad’s rare casual attire, Spaghetti Sauce Day allowed for some lax behavior. I’d always sneak into the kitchen before dinner to dip some white bread into the sauce. Once dinner was on the table, sopping the sauce from our plates was tolerated, even though we never sopped in a restaurant.

My dad is gone now, as is the recipe, but I’ve never stopped trying to re-create it. I’ve strung together all the sauce secrets I could remember, and after much testing, I’ve come quite close. When it comes to childhood recipes, you can re-create the sauce, but you can never replace the chef.

bowl of spaghetti topped with author's sauce recipe

photograph by Matt Hulsman

Dad’s Spaghetti Sauce

Yield: 8 servings.

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium white onions, chopped (about 3 cups)
3 (28-ounce) cans San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
10 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, cored and diced
1 cup dry red wine (cabernet sauvignon or merlot)
1 pound ground mild Italian sausage, cooked and drained
2 pounds ground sirloin, cooked and drained
3 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried basil
3 bay leaves
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
½ teaspoon red chili flakes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Cooked spaghetti, for serving

Add olive oil to a large pot over low heat and cook onions until caramelized, about 30 minutes.

While onions are cooking, pour canned tomatoes into a mixing bowl and mash into bite-size pieces using your hands or the back of a spoon.

Stir garlic and bell pepper into the pot with onions and cook on low heat for 3 to 4 minutes.

Deglaze onions, garlic, and pepper with wine and cook on medium heat until liquid is reduced by half, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Add sausage, ground sirloin, tomatoes, oregano, basil, and bay leaves. Continue cooking over low heat for 30 minutes.

Stir in cheese, parsley, balsamic vinegar, sugar, salt, chili flakes, and tomato paste. Simmer for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaves and discard.

Ladle sauce over cooked spaghetti. Top with additional Parmesan cheese if desired.

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Focaccia bread topped with three meatballs and sauce

photograph by Matt Hulsman

Italian-Style Meatballs

Yield: about 36 meatballs.

1 pound ground chuck
1 pound ground veal
½ pound ground pork
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 handful Italian parsley, chopped
4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil

With clean hands, gently combine all ingredients (except olive oil) in a large bowl until well incorporated. Roll mixture into 1½-inch balls.

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Working in batches, place meatballs in skillet and cook on medium heat, turning occasionally, until all sides are browned and the internal temperature of each meatball is 160°.

Place cooked meatballs on cooling rack. Serve with fresh bread and marinara sauce or over spaghetti with sauce.

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bowls of lasagna soup

photograph by Matt Hulsman

Lasagna Soup

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

1 pound lean ground beef
½ pound ground Italian sausage
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (24-ounce) jar marinara sauce
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
7 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
10 uncooked lasagna noodles
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
10 ounces whole-milk ricotta cheese
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Fresh basil, for garnish

In a large pot over medium-high heat, cook ground beef and sausage until browned. Season with salt and pepper as you cook. Drain grease, remove meat from pot, and set aside.

In the same pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in tomato paste, marinara sauce, red pepper flakes, parsley, oregano, basil, and broth. Return meat to pot.

Bring sauce to a boil, then break lasagna noodles into 2 or 3 pieces and place into pot. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until noodles are tender, approximately 12 to 15 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir together mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta, and nutmeg.

Ladle the hot soup into bowls and dollop a scoop of cheese mixture on top of each. Garnish with fresh basil leaves. Serve with garlic toast.

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This story was published on Jan 18, 2024

Lynn Wells

Lynn Wells is a personal chef with more than 20 years of experience in the food and hospitality industry and a degree in Nutrition Management from UNCG.