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Meatball Sauce Without Tomato Using Butternut Squash and Substitutes

A voice teacher and storyteller. Teddi's cooking relatives included a great aunt brought to Boston by the family she worked for in Britain.

Meatball Sauce Without Tomato

Meatball Sauce Without Tomato

Do Nightshade Plants Increase Inflammation?

There is a controversial theory that nightshade plants can aggravate arthritis in some people. One idea is that the steroid alkaloids found in nightshade plants remove calcium from the bones and dump it into soft tissue. Another idea is that the alkaloids affect the body’s immune system, which then causes inflammation. Of course, there is a group that disagrees. Nightshade plants are good. They point to the oxalic acid in nightshade plants that contribute to strengthening bones. Arthritis aside, some folks are simply allergic to various nightshade plants including the tomato.

Tomato Sauce Alternatives

This controversy set me to thinking about the tomato—the beloved staple needed for ketchup and salads and the all-important sauce. (Also known as gravy depending on what part of Italy your people are from.) So what are spaghetti-with-meatball lovers to do? Use a different sauce. No, it won’t taste like tomato sauce. Nothing tastes like a tomato except a tomato. But that pasta and those beloved meatballs can be bathed in other sauces.

Below find one—a recipe for a butternut squash sauce briefly preceded by a few words on the various reasons we need to make substitutions in ingredients. The sauce recipe will then be followed by: more on the art of making substitutions; meatballs; the spaghetti; and some last words.

An Exclusion Test for Those With Arthritis

For those arthritic sufferers who would like to test whether they might be sensitive to the nightshade plants, avoid them for a few weeks. It is thought to take that long for all effects to work their way out of the system. Remember to check labels for nightshade ingredients as well. This trial does not include some strange combination of herbs, spices, vitamins, and baying at the moon that might adversely interact with medicines the arthritic sufferer takes. If, after a few weeks, pain is way down then great. Stay off the nightshades. If it doesn’t work, go back to eating nightshade plants. No harm done.

List of Nightshade Plants

  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes (but not sweet potatoes or yams)
  • Peppers, sweet and hot, (but not black pepper)
  • Cayenne peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Pimentos
  • Pepinos
  • Ground Cherries
  • Garden Huckleberry
  • Tamarillos
  • Tomatillos
  • Narajillas
If you are not purchasing already peeled squash, simply cut off the end then, using a paring knife or a potato peeler, peel off the outside skin. One large squash should do.

If you are not purchasing already peeled squash, simply cut off the end then, using a paring knife or a potato peeler, peel off the outside skin. One large squash should do.

Reasons for Seeking Substitutions

What are some reasons for seeking a substitute ingredient? They include the physical reasons that an individual may not be able to eat certain foods, the nightshade problem, allergies, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, etc. There can be shortages of items due to weather and climate problems. Drought, hail, floods, wildfires—these can all damage or destroy crops. Insect infestations can also destroy crops. Something the cook wants just may be out of season. Or the cook gets bored. Politics can interrupt the flow of food from one place to another, the most extreme political reason being war.

But perhaps one of the most common reasons is—read the parentheses as a whisper—(we forgot to buy it.) Now the decision is whether to substitute one ingredient for another or run to the store. Probably a good idea to call first, just in case the store is out of it.

Make sure the consistency is smooth and soft.

Make sure the consistency is smooth and soft.

Ingredients for Butternut Sauce

  • 5 to 5 1/2 cups butternut squash, cut into 1 or 2 inch cubes
  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 2 tablespoons, approximately fresh rosemary
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream


  1. For those willing to trade a little more money for a little less work, buy the squash already peeled. For those who wish to keep their money, it takes a little time and effort to peel the squash, but it is doable. Scrape out all the seeds, then cut up the squash into one to two-inch cubes
  2. Place the squash in a pot filled with about two cups of the water or enough to just cover. (Set the rest aside to use if needed.) Add the salt. Place on the stove to boil until the squash is soft. When soft, the squash is now ready to go into the food processor.
  3. Pour off the water the squash was cooked in and put to one side. Those with a small processor, rather than a large one, will have to divide the boiled squash into two batches that can be re-combined afterwards. So presuming that a small processor is being used, scoop about half the squash into the food processor.
  4. Add some of the sage, curry, black pepper, brown sugar, and fresh rosemary to the first batch. (The rest will be added to the second batch.) Secure the top. Turn it on for 45 to 60 seconds. Make sure the mixture is very, very smooth. So if 60 seconds is not enough, do it a little longer.
  5. Pour the first batch of squash back into the pot. Repeat the above process with the second batch and pour that back into the pot. Use a little of the cooking water to rinse out any squash remaining in the processor into the pot. Add more of the cooking water to the sauce until the sauce has reached a consistency you like KEEPING IN MIND that the cream, when added, will thin it out a little more.
  6. If you are not going to use the sauce immediately, DO NOT ADD THE CREAM YET. Just pour the sauce into a container (or containers) and put in the refrigerator. You do not want the cream in the sauce until you are nearly ready to eat. So, say you only need half the sauce for your meal. Take half, add the right amount of cream to that, and put the other half, with no cream, away. This recipe should make about four cups of sauce or a little more.
  7. When you are ready to use the sauce, place on the stove and begin to gently heat it up. Don’t crank up the flame. Keep the heat at about a low-medium. When the sauce has warmed up a little, about half way to hot, add the cooked meatballs. (See a recipe below.) Continue warming for two to three minutes. Then add the cream. Once the sauce is hot enough, pour the sauce and meatballs onto the spaghetti.
  8. If you would like to try to add other spices or herbs, I suggest dividing the sauce into two or more batches. Experiment with one while keeping the other as the basic recipe above for comparison—the control.
  9. Last Note. A potential substitution. Sauces and creamed soups are kissing cousins. One can sometimes substitute for the other. Fiddle with the liquid amount a bit to determine thickness.

How to Choose a Substitute

Since allergies are common let me use an illustration of a substitution made because of allergies. Many years ago an allergist gave my mother a list of items he said she could not eat. Her diet was now very restricted. Years went by before she began to suspect that this was a boilerplate list and that she might be able to eat some of the items. In fact, although there were a few foods she needed to avoid, she was able to eat most of them.

But early on, dealing with this limited diet, she and my grandmother tried to find ways to enhance the taste and find substitutes for what she could not eat. My mother loved nuts, which were on the list of forbidden foods. She loved them best on ice cream, which she also was not supposed to eat. She also liked pecan pie (which we sometimes made with walnuts instead.) But no nuts at all meant no pecan OR walnut pie with or without ice cream.

My grandmother came up with the idea of substituting cereal. She used a plain flake, that is, bran flakes or something similar. Corn flakes will do. Nothing with a sugar coating. Pecan pie filling is already very sweet. The cereal-filling mixture provided the contrast between a sweet and a plain, un-sweet flavor fundamental to the original recipe, plus the crunch. One thing my mother loved about nuts was the crunch. Yes, the pecans or walnuts were better, but this was a pretty good substitute recipe.

What Do You Need for the Recipe?

When you are thinking about substitute ingredients, what are you looking for? What do you need? What’s important? For example, if a recipe calls for lemon what is the lemon needed for? If a tiny bit of lemon is to be dribbled over a pie filling before the top crust is put in place, then the lemon is being used for its acidic value and its tartness in conjunction with the sweetness of the filling. The lemon flavor will not come through and vinegar can be substituted.

But, say you decided to make a big, multi-layer lemon cake and then you found you had an insufficient amount of lemon for the recipe. The lemon flavor is fundamental and thus important. You could run out to the store. You could bake something else. Or, maybe, if you are feeling venturesome, you might add another flavor. Lime, of course, leaps to mind. But, maybe the juice of pineapple or pear mixed with the lemon would give an interesting result.

When making a substitution, determine what is the important attribute of the original ingredient as regards the recipe. Is it flavor? Is it texture? Are both those things important? Is it leavening power such as found in eggs or yeast or baking powder? Should you be out of baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon baking soda plus 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar equals 1 teaspoon baking powder.

List of Some Basic Substitutes



Baking powder, 1 tsp

1/4 tsp baking soda plus 1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Chocolate, 1 oz

3 tbsp cocoa plus 1 to 1 1/2 tsp shortening

Cornstarch, 1 tbsp for thickening

2 tbsp flour or 4 tsp quick-cooking tapioca

Flour (for less sensitive recipes)

1 cup all-purpose

1 cup plus 2 tbsp pastry flour

1 cup pastry

1 cup less 2 tbsp all-purpose flour

Garlic, 1 clove

1/8 tsp garlic powder

Honey, liquid, 1 cup

1 to 1 1/4 cup white sugar plus 1/4 cup water or for recipe less dependent on honey taste, 1 cup molasses or corn syrup

Milk, 1 cup fresh

1/2 cup evaporated or condensed milk plus 1/2 cup water OR 1/4 cup powdered milk plus 1 cup water

Sour milk, 1 cup

1 cup less 1 tbsp of fresh milk, lukewarm, plus 1 tbsp lemon or vinegar. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Meatball Recipe

If you do not have your own favorite recipe for meatballs, here is one.

  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of pepper (depending on your taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sage
  • 1/2 cup of bread crumbs
  • 1/2 pound of ground beef
  • enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a pan (or two)


  1. Although bread can be shredded by hand, running bread through a food processor can render a batch of uniform tiny crumbs.
  2. After preparing the breadcrumbs, crack the egg into a bowl. Beat the egg. Add the salt, pepper, sage, and nutmeg. Stir or beat them into the egg until well mixed. Stir in the breadcrumbs. Ensure the crumbs are well coated by the egg mixture. Finally, mix in the ground beef. Make sure the mixture is uniform.
  3. Form meatballs an inch to an inch and a quarter in diameter. Do not worry if they are perfectly uniform in size and shape. Use just your hands or a spoon or scoop as you prefer. Place the meatballs on a plate.
  4. Next, coat the bottom of a large frying pan (or two smaller ones) with the olive oil. Place the pan on the stove, over medium heat, and heat up the pan. Once heated. Place meatballs into the pan(s) and sauté them for approximately three minutes per side. Then, add a splash of water and put the pan(s) in a 350˚ oven for about eight minutes

Storage and Serving Suggestions

If the meatballs are not to be used immediately, they can be stored in the refrigerator. If not to be used for several days, they can be frozen.

If they are to be used immediately, but the sauce is not quite ready, simply set them to one side. Once the sauce is warm, add the meatballs and continue as directed above under the sauce recipe.

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of making meatballs, loose ground beef can be added to the sauce instead. Simply cook up loose ground beef in a frying pan, seasoning with salt and pepper and a little sage. Then throw the cooked ground beef into the sauce.

A Few Words on Cooking Spaghetti

If you check different brands of spaghetti, the range of cooking times can be quite wide. I have seen as short a time as three minutes. (Look in a really old cookbook and you may find a recommended cooking time of fifteen to twenty minutes, usually because the recipe is starting from cold water.) Spaghetti made in Italy often needs less cooking time than that made in the states. In fact, Italian packages often give no cooking times. Perhaps the thought is that any cook that needs to be told a time ought not to be allowed near a spaghetti pot.

Why should the times be so different? Spaghetti varies. It varies in size. It varies in what type of flour used to make it. There are also a variety of opinions as to what constitutes the right consistency for spaghetti—al dente, firm, or tender. There can be difference of perception for true al dente.

But the basic process is to bring a tall pot of water to boil that should have about one teaspoon of salt per quart. Grasp the spaghetti and insert into the water. Soon the covered end of the spaghetti will begin to bend allowing the spaghetti to be fully immersed. Allow about 2 ounces of spaghetti per serving.

In the pursuit of a good al dente texture, do not hover over the pot. Let half the recommended cooking time elapse before tasting it. That should tell you whether you are halfway to done or two-thirds of the way and you should be able to estimate how long before trying it again.

Note: If you are making enough only for yourself, you needn't use a tall pot. That may be Italian heresy, but remember the spaghetti does quickly coil under the water.

Mangia--for non-Italians, Eat.

Mangia--for non-Italians, Eat.

A Story About Lacking the Desired Ingredient (Sometimes There Is no Substitute)

Lacking the perfect ingredient—or two—is a minor problem. Food shortages constitute a major problem. During both world wars, the combating countries such as England had to manage all their resources very carefully. Strict rationing was instituted as they scrambled for food.

Towards the end of the First World War, naval blockades had been so effective England and many of the European nations were running out of food. The day the First World War ended, if they had received no more imports, England was six weeks away from having no food at all. But let us look at a story, from the First World War, about the shortage of one luxury item, sugar.

Now Britain still had its honeybees. Honey is sweet. But honey has a distinctive flavor, which some people love—but not everybody. It is also a liquid. That must be taken into account when substituting for granulated sugar. Nor was there enough honey to make up for the sugar shortage. But it was useful.

Still, sometimes you just need the sugar. The late Alistair Cook talked about the day World War One ended. Cook was then six years old. Everyone was out in the streets celebrating including him. He saw in a bakery window something unfamiliar. A baker had hoarded a small supply of sugar to use to celebrate the end of the war. The baker had made a tiny cake topped with something Cook had never seen before—icing

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2017 Teddi DiCanio