In the pale dawn light filtering through the blinds, I slowly open my eyes and the first thought knocks on my barely awake consciousness: What day is it? Followed closely by: Where am I supposed to be today? This ritual has been repeating itself for the last few weeks, relentless, every morning, even on those few days when I am not expected to juggle any of my three current jobs (four, if we include the blog).
My weeks are turned upside down and this morning not even my beloved coffee could lift the fog nor erase the raccoon look. If I smudged some red lipstick, I could claim kinship to The Cure’s Robert Smith in his heyday. Cooking loving or experimental dinners is not in the cards right now although I have drawn up a list of dishes I expect my mother to get busy with when she gets here next week. At least, nourishment in the form of proper meals will be ensured.
Between bowls of oatmeal and cereal, my dinner staples of choice when I am too tired or can’t be bothered, meat sauce makes a welcome appearance. Ragu’, like we call it in Italy, is one of my top 5 comfort foods (and the only beef I eat) – whether layered in lasagna or tossed with some homemade tagliatelle, my sister and I grew up eating large quantities of it, and we both learnt to prepare it the way my mother does, which is the way her mother made it and back on and on through the years.
Every food magazine, website and Italian family has its own variation on this intrinsically Italian dish. The farther South you travel down the boot, the more likely you are to encounter spices added to it. Some cooks like to use pork and/or pancetta but my staple is very basic, very easy to make and, during the four hours or so it will cook on the stove, it has the added bonus of perfuming the house more pleasingly than any Dyptique candle ever could.
Recently I was talking with a friend from Padova who has the habit of adding a beef bouillon to her meat sauce, to intensify its flavor, but I am in the camp of those who do not mess with the basic recipe: all you need is some good meat and the flavor will develop nicely as the beef cooks along. Grass fed and not too fatty is my ground beef of choice but anything not too fatty will do. A pound of meat will serve around 4 people, if used as a pasta topping. I make more and then I freeze it in small portions that I defrost as needed. Like tonight. I already know I will not feel like cooking dinner and that a bowl of pasta will improve my outlook on life immensely.
Start by chopping very finely (or use a blender or mixer) some carrot, celery and onion and saute them in a pot, on medium heat, with a bit of olive oil until tender. Add the meat and break it up with a wooden spoon and let it coat with the oil and brown a little bit.
In the meantime, find a bottle of whatever opened wine you might have lurking around. Red would be ideal but I have used white too – as a matter of fact, I like the lightness white wine imparts and a nice white is better than a cheap red bought just for cooking.
Add some wine to the pot, just a bit to make things more interesting, and let it evaporate. At this point, add some milk, maybe half a cup per pound of meat, salt and pepper and canned tomatoes (if you happen to have some homemade sauce, even better). I usually add about one can of chopped tomatoes per pound of meat as I don’t like my sauce too thick and red and saucy: that is what I call New Jersey meat sauce but it’s really up to your tastebuds.
Transfer the pot to a smaller burner and leave the meat sauce to work its magic for about 3 to 4 hours, tasting it halfway through and adjusting salt and pepper as needed.
Cool completely before freezing and use when you don’t feel like cooking, unexpected company shows up or just feel a pick me up is in order. Ragu’, in my world, is a smile on a plate.