Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hearty Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style

If I was stranded on an island with just one cook book which one would I take? Let me preface by saying that Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, is my gal but if I had to limit myself to one I don't think I could pick from her collection and leave the rest behind. Better to sacrifice them all and take Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything". Though the title is perhaps a bit tongue and cheek, at 944 pages it does cover just about every base and gives you a couple of really good easy-to-make recipes in every major food category. This is my go-to gift for young newlyweds or an amazing housewarming present for a burgeoning home cook.

Tonight I have invited a new friend and her little girl over for dinner so I wanted something that I could prepare in advance and was tasty but not too fussy. I tend to like "country" cooking -  regardless of the nationality - that is food that is simple but full of flavor. Bittman's recipe for Meat Sauce Bolognese fits the bill perfectly, and over polenta is rich and delicious without being overly heavy.

Though it takes about three hours to properly cook, the majority of that time is unattended. I usually serve this with a green salad and a nice crisp white wine, or on a colder day a zinfandel with a little richness to it. It makes about 4 cup of sauce - I tend to enjoy half now and freeze the rest for later when I am in a rush and need a quick, nutritious meal.

One note: Take the time to mince the onion, carrot and celery versus just chopping it up. It really does make a difference in the texture of the sauce and allows those components to really break down durning the simmering process.

Hope you enjoy!

Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style

2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
1 carrot,peeled and minced
1 celery stalk,minced
1/4 cup chopped bacon or pancetta (about 2 oz sliced meat)
8 oz. low fat ground beef (this will save you from having to skim a lot of fat off during the cooking process)
8 oz ground pork (or use all ground beef)
3/4 cup dry white wine or juice from the tomatoes (cook with something you would be willing to drink at the table - it makes a difference)
One 28 or 35 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes, drained, reserve liquid if you are using instead of wine (I like to use San Manzano tomatoes)
1 cup organic chicken stock combined with low-sodium beef bouillon
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste (optional but I like a little heat)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup cream, half and half or milk
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Handful fresh basil leaves or italian flat leaf parsley if you want a more subtle end note

Heat olive oil on medium heat in a large pot or Dutch oven until hot. Add onions, carrots, celery and bacon and sautee until veggies are soft and meat is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Add ground meat, breaking up the meat into small crumbles, cooking until all traces of red are gone - about 5 minutes.  Add the wine or tomato liquid and cook until most of the liquid is evaporated, stirring occasionally, for about another 5 minutes.

Crush the tomatoes with a fork or with your hands until very well pulverized. Add them to the meat and pour in the stock. Bring to a nice rolling simmer and turn down to low. Allow to cook for about 1 hour, stirring occassionally and break up any big pieces of meat or tomatoes as you go.

After an hour, add salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to your taste. Stir well and allow to simmer for another hour, or until most of the liquid is evaporated.The sauce should be fairly thick when it is ready.

Add in the cream or milk, parmensan cheese and stir well. Continue to cook for another 15 to 30 minutes until the sauce is nice and thick and bubbly, stirring occasionally during that period. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking.  Prepare quick cook polenta per package directions and seve immediately with a fresh basil or parsley chiffonade on top.