Last weekend one of my husband’s colleagues lost a parent-in-law. We haven’t gotten to know the family particularly well yet, but learning about their ordeal was heartbreaking. On top of their obviously tragic loss, they’re faced with the monumental challenge of explaining to their 2- and 4-year old boys why Mommy can’t be at home for a few weeks. Daddy has to parent by himself for a while (I can’t even begin to comprehend how one parent would explain to a kid that the other parent was lost to war), and while I’m sure both Mommy and Daddy are emotionally equipped enough to deal with all this, I couldn’t help but feel like we should be doing something to help.
So this is how casseroles came to be. This feeling, this utter helplessness, this wish that sad things didn’t have to happen to anyone, is what has driven people for centuries to stir up a pot of Something and bring it over with a big label that says “comfort.” This is what I love about cooking, and about life in general: I love that even in the saddest times, something inspires us to give to others. I love that thousands of people gave their time to help Katrina victims. I love that people walk hundreds of miles to raise AIDS awareness. I love that each person has to give back to society in their own way, and that we can’t all do it in celebrity style. I hope that Daddy will come home tonight, throw some healthy, homemade spaghetti sauce in the microwave, and have a pasta dinner on the table without any fuss, so that he can bathe the boys and put them to bed and still have enough energy to comfort Mommy, probably exhausted from comforting others, when she calls.
I’m often embarrassed, even ashamed, that I don’t give as much as I could – to homeless people, to food banks, to cancer research fundrasiers. But sometimes I’m also relieved, especially being so new to a place, that I already have a more immediate community that lets me help in much smaller, more personal ways. I can’t claim to have helped rebuild New Orleans in any way (I don’t think I gave a cent toward reconstruction). And Mommy and Daddy definitely didn’t need my help, but I felt needed because I gave it. (So maybe I’m just selfish. But I’m going to ignore that problem today.)
I somehow feel better knowing that the two little boys who maybe haven’t yet understood who’s died, or why Mommy’s sad, will be full and happy tonight. That is, if they eat spaghetti.
Recipe for Big Boy Bolognese
Recipe 33 of 365
Inspired by the Italian squeeze-tube product my friend Michaela told me about last week (onions, carrots, celery, and garlic, all chopped up and ready to squeeze out of a tube), this recipe starts with pureed vegetables, so you get a kid-friendly sauce texture (no icky chunks!) but the full adult flavor of all the aromatics.
This batch is big; it should easily make about three meals for four, if you’re serving it with a salad and garlic bread. Serve the sauce over pasta, with plenty of Parmesan cheese.
TIME: 45 minutes active time, plus about 1 hour simmering
MAKES: 12 servings
3 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound carrots, peeled and chopped
6 ribs celery, chopped
8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 pounds ground beef
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 (375 mL) bottle dry red wine, minus a glass for the cook
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes in heavy puree*
In the work bowl of a large food processor fitted with the blade attachment, grind the onions as finely as possible; they’ll be almost liquidy. Heat a large soup pot over medium-high heat. When hot, add the olive oil, then carefully add the onions, and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. (Note: if you don’t have a big food processor, using a small one will be a long, painful process. Consider chopping by hand and settling for a chunkier sauce.)
While the onions cook, chop the carrots in the processor until extremely fine, and add them to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Process the celery and the garlic together in the same manner, add to the pot along with 1 teaspoon of the salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Increase the heat to high, and add the beef to the vegetable mixture, breaking it up as you drop it in. Cook the meat, stirring every minute or so and regulating the heat as needed, until no pink remains, about 10 minutes. Drain off any excess fat, if desired (I used 90% lean beef and chose not to drain the fat off).
Add the herbs and the cream, and stir to blend. Adjust the heat to a strong simmer and cook the sauce for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the cream has reduced and almost all the liquid has evaporated.
Add the wine and repeat with the simmering process, stirring occasionally until there is barely any liquid left. (This should take about 15 minutes). Add the canned tomatoes, stir to blend, and cook at a low simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, or until the sauce is much thicker.
Season the sauce with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste, you may want a little more than that) and pepper, and serve warm.
To freeze, let the sauce cool to room temperature before dividing it between 3 (or 4) quart-sized plastic containers. Refrigerate the sauce without the tops on overnight, then seal and freeze.
* You can also substitute diced tomatoes for one or both cans of the crushed tomatoes, if you want tomato chunks.