Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese”

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milanese 2I have always wanted to be the girl who had the recipe for gravy.  You know what gravy I mean…..meat sauce.  The good stuff. I wanted it to be just like all the movies I saw with big Italian men, sitting around a table talking about how their mama’s Sunday gravy was the best.  I wanted to be that girl, wearing an apron, who could just throw together some key ingredients and have everyone fall at my feet, dying from a spaghetti coma while I shrugged my shoulders and said, “fohgettaboutit”.

Never happened.

My family is not Italian and I don’t have any sacred recipes that were handed down to me on my grandmother’s deathbed.  So, you understand when I tell you that I was excited to make my own gravy, I WAS REALLY EXCITED.

This month’s cook book is Mark Bittman’s  The Food Matters Cook Book.  He focuses more on amping up the good stuff, like whole grains and veggies, and turning down the less-than-good-stuff, like refined sugars and fatty meats.  His Ma-Ma’s Pasta Milanese bittmancookbookis all about the veggie and there is a surprise ingredient in there that would normally scare a person away, but makes a surprising deep and complex sauce.  I ate it, thinking that it would be too weird, but I totally cleaned my plate.  It was just too good.

I began by prepping all my veggies.  I cleaned, peeled, chopped, and minced everything and opened up all the cans.  I also uncorked the wine and poured myself a glass. No worries!  I checked the recipe and poured what I needed for the recipe first, that way, I didn’t lose all my senses, drink all the wine and end up with a dry and tasteless gravy.  Pre-reading the entire recipe and prepping all the ingredients made the process so much easier, knowing that nothing would burn, while waiting for me to prepare an ingredient and put it into the pan. (Plus, thereonions milanese is a sense of accomplishment seeing all those piles of chopped goodies.)

I used a dutch oven on the stove top for the sauce.  (It seemed very old world and I was totally feeling that vibe, plus, it’s a great pot to make stuff in.)  I let the oil heat up in the pan and tossed in the chopped onion, celery, and bell pepper and sprinkled it with salt and pepper, stirring it all up to make sure the oil coated everything.  After about 5 minutessardines milanese or so, the onions mellowed out and got a bit opaque and I knew it was time for the sardines.    YES, sardines.  I bought the fanciest sardines I could find.  They were $2.50 each packet.  That’s five whole dollars of added depth and complexity, people!  I’ll admit that the sauce smelled kind of ‘off’ for a while.  Things started making more sense once I added the tomato paste and garlic, but let’s be honest….it took some dilution with the wine, tomatoes and cauliflower to really balance it all out.

I’ve got to say that the cauliflower ended up being my favorite part of the sauce.  It has a natural sweetness and it gave the gravy some heft.  This helped make it feel like a full meal and could be an easy substitute for ground beef.  The recipe said to cook for 20-30 minutes, until the cauliflower started to fall apart.  I simmered mine for an hour and found it to be super delicious.  It gave the ingredients an opportunity to get to know each other a bit. As soon as I put the pasta in the water too boil, I added the last 2 ingredients, which, quite frankly, were the weirdest ones of the bunch.  1/2 cup of raisins and a 1/2 cup of chopped pecans.  I figured that something that out of place, must take the sauce to the next level.  Admittedly, as much as I wanted to hate the sauce knowing what all was in it, I couldn’t stop eating it.  It was actually really good.

I was looking forward to eating it the next day, because I find that most pasta dishes taste better after they have had a chance to sit around for a reduced milanesewhile. (Sadly, my heart was stolen by a slice of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, so my leftovers were leftover for another day, but my pal, Dag, ate the portion I had brought for him, and he said it was delicious!  He’s the only other person I know who likes sardines and mackerel as much as I do.)

Though I know Mark Bittman really wants me to eat more veggies, I will gladly do so if I get to add some nice link sausage to the mix.  I think a spicy sausage or a sweet chicken apple sausage cut up in the sauce would give the ingredients a chance to make more sense.  As it stands, I really enjoyed it and certainly didn’t feel guilty eating it.  (That came later when I consumed an entire roll of Butter Rum Lifesavers.  Do you know how hard those are to find?!) Follow this easy recipe and make all the Italian men in your family weep over your Sunday Gravy.

Addendum**  I just had leftovers for lunch and I must say, that even though it is slightly fishy in smell, it was SUPER delicious.  The sauce and flavors had soaked into the pasta, making it a deeper, richer, and tasty meal.  Get on it!

Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese”

  • Prep time:
  • Cook time:
  • Total time:
  • Yield: 4-6 servings
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Recipe type: Main Dish


  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • Two 3.75-ounce cans sardines, preferably packed in olive oil
  • 1/4 c. tomato paste
  • 1 c. red wine or water, or more as needed
  • One 28- or 35-ounce can chopped or whole tomatoes; include their juice
  • 1 small cauliflower, cored and roughly copped
  • 1/2 c. raisins or currants
  • 1/2 c. chopped pecans or walnuts
  • 8 ounces any pasta, preferably whole wheat (Ma-Ma used regular spaghetti or linguine)


  1. Put the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and the onion becomes translucent, about 5 minutes. (if you’re using whole tomatoes, now is a good time to core them and break them up a bit.)
  2. Stir in the garlic, sardines with their oil, and tomato paste and cook until the mixture is fragrant and starting to stick to the bottom of the pan.
  3. Stir in the wine and scrape up any bits on the bottom of the pan.
  4. Add the tomatoes and cauliflower. Sprinkle again with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so that the mixture bubbles steadily, then partially cover and cook, stirring once in an while, until the cauliflower is extremely soft and disintegrating, 20 to 30 minutes; add more wine or water if the mixture gets too thick.
  5. Stir in the raisins and nuts.
  6. ***The sauce can be made ahead to this point. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to a few days or freeze for longer; gently reheat before proceeding.
  7. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Cook the pasta until it’s tender but not mushy (start tasting after 5 minutes), then drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Toss with the sauce, adding enough reserved liquid to keep it moist. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve.

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