Life can be predictable, and for me, predictable is what life will always be…
I will, always, sleep until the last possible second before needing to get up for work. Most days, Buddy will, always, be waiting for me outside the shower, ready to cry if I don’t give him (and Ginger, who is three steps behind) their raw diet immediately upon grabbing a towel. Tom will, always, eat anything I put before him, and eat it as if I have given him a gift. So, life goes on like this…always, day-in, day-out. What’s not predictable is the change. It could be the subtle things, that happen quietly, in a whisper. They might pour upon us in a slow and gentle trickle. Or, the unexpected change that gives our world a big shake up, requiring agility and finesse just to keep from falling down.
Good, bad, or otherwise, it is predictable that change will occur. Our lives become better for it, richer! Our expanse of experience becomes larger and wider. More fulfilled. It might not seem that way because change is not always by choice and yet, sometimes it is.
I feel change coming. I don’t know why…I don’t know what. But, on this day, I feel like something familiar, comfortable and predictable. I want to fill the house with smells that are as safe and comforting, to taste something that will welcome me back rather than introduce me to someone/thing new. I want to make something I make when the weather is cold, the heart is warm and the outlook is unclear.
I want to make spaghetti, with meat sauce. I want to eat it in large portions accompanied with garlic bread oozing of garlic…and butter…and cheese. Lots of cheese. Lots of garlic. And wine. Ruby red wine. Bold, personable Italian wine. And cheese. But as Buddy would say, “more meeeeet” too, please!?
Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
Over the years I have refined my tomato sauce which is both versatile and handy to make in large batches. I keep 2-cup packages in the freezer for a large array of uses, but the main reason for doing this is to have on hand a quick avenue for making a reliable and predictable spaghetti. Simmered with good-quality ground beef, garlic, onions and red wine, the spaghetti feed is on and change can wait ’til another day.
INGREDIENTS (for tomato sauce)
1 TB olive oil
1 1/2 – 2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped carrots
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped and peeled
1 TB red wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups red wine
3 qty. 28 oz cans peeled whole tomatoes or diced, unsalted (preferably San Marzano)
2 TB tomato paste (from the tube, Napoleon double-concentrate or 1 small can)
20-30 grinds pepper
1 tsp red chili flakes
2 TB dry oregano
1 tsp each fresh thyme and rosemary
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
sea salt to taste
MAKE THE TOMATO SAUCE
In a stock pot, sweat the onion, carrots and garlic in the olive oil until they are soft (approximately 10 minutes). Listen to them sizzle softly, without browning and reflect on the day.
Add the vinegar and cook for another minute before adding the wine. Breathe in the fragrance and exhale.
Now empty the tomatoes into the pot, stir. Take in the wonderful hue of red with your eyes and recall warm summer gardens brimming with plump, sweet tomatoes bursting from the vines.
Stir in the tomato paste and grind in the pepper. Feel the strength of your hands as the mill turns out the fiery black speckles.
Add in the chili flakes through the fresh basil, one spice at a time. Pause after each addition to appreciate the smell and imagine the taste that the spice will bring to the finished sauce. Tip the jar a little further or scoop the herb a little fuller if you feel more will improve the taste.
Bring the mixture to a rumbling simmer, turn down the heat and cover the pot. Let it simmer this way for 30 minutes, or so. Don’t go too far though, it will need attention and stirring. As you lift the lid to stir, breathe in the aromas, deep and slow. Break up the tomatoes with the back of your spoon, put the lid back on the pot and pour yourself a glass of wine.
After the 30 minutes, or so, remove the lid and continue to simmer, gently, for at least another hour, more if you desire. I usually go about my business attending to other things and keep it simmering away for several hours, adding the lid when it gets thicker than I want, and then removing the lid to thicken a little more.
I always, periodically, dip in a clean spoon to determine what adjustments I want to make, more pepper or chilies, more basil or wine? Sometimes I add salt and sometimes it isn’t needed; the brand of tomato used will play a role in this.
When the sauce is done, you can keep it chunky or use a small hand mixer to purée the sauce into a more even consistency. I like it somewhere in between even and chunky.
If you are making spaghetti, as I am tonight, begin preparing your meat while the sauce is developing flavor.
INGREDIENTS (for spaghetti)
Olive oil for browning the meat
1 1/2 lbs ground beef (I always use grass-fed)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
1 cup chopped onion
2-3 cloves chopped garlic
1 TB red wine vinegar
1 cup red wine
2 cups homemade tomato sauce
1/2 lb good quality spaghetti noodles (you could also use angel hair or linguini noodles)
Fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating over
MAKE THE SPAGHETTI
It is important to bring the meat to room temperature before browning. Season with the salt and pepper, gently tossing and mixing the seasoning into the meat; let it sit covered for an hour.
To a hot, low-sided Dutch oven, add a little olive oil and tilt, covering the bottom of the pan with the oil. Add the meat, carefully breaking it up into a single layer as it drops in the pan. Enjoy the sound as it sizzles; this is a happier, more energetic sizzle than that of the onions.
Do not disturb the meat for at least 5 minutes. When you are able to stir without the meat sticking to the bottom of the pan, it is ready to be turned. Now is the time to add in the onions and garlic.
When the onions have softened and the meat has browned (8-10 minutes), add in the vinegar first, then the red wine. Breathe in again and exhale slowly. Close your eyes and feel the humidity wash over your face as the liquid evaporates into the air.
When the wine has reduced just a little, 5 minutes or so, add the tomato sauce, stir and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and cover. With the lid on, moisture stays in and it sweats out the flavor, which then seeps back in, tenderizing and deeply-flavoring the meat and the sauce. Lifting the lid is like seeing the inner workings of a factory in motion. I stir, feeling like an intruder interrupting a process fully under control.
The meat sauce can simmer this way for as little as an hour or as long as 5 hours (yes, I picked that number out of a hat). A slow-simmered sauce will deepen and develop as long as the heat is low and the sauce stays moist. This can be interrupted early for a weeknight meal or left to simmer all day for a casual weekend extravaganza; it will be deeply satisfying in either case.
When you are near-ready to eat, bring a pot of salted water to a hard boil, add the pasta and cook per the package directions. If the pasta is fresh, it will take less time than dried pasta. There are very-good quality dried pastas imported from Italy that are often better than the fresh pasta found at your local grocery store.
When the pasta is al dente, drain and drizzle with olive oil, toss and grate over some cheese.
Using kitchen tongs, place a pile in the center of heated pasta bowls. Spoon over a large helping of meat sauce. Grate more cheese on top and serve with really good homemade garlic bread and a hearty glass of red wine.
The house will put off the most comforting of aromas and your tongue will be rewarded with an explosion of addictive flavor, predictable, but never boring.
What do you cook when predictable provides comfort?