Last week, I sat on the couch devouring episode after episode of Call the Midwife and The Paradise, dozing in and out of a Nyquil haze and just generally feeling badly for myself.
The week of travel over our Easter holiday had come at a price: it started in my throat, took my voice, plunged through my sinuses and finally settled in my chest. Jimmy was a doll, never telling me to suck it up, and even bringing me Nepalese take out on his way home form the gym- he even got both of the dishes that I couldn’t decide between! What a winner!
By Saturday afternoon, I finally had a ton of energy and, moreover, a pressing need for a home-cooked meal. And the urge to throw things in a pot and yell “Voila!” before feasting!
Naturally, I turned to my favorite go-to pasta bolognese recipe. This came straight from my cooking lessons in Florence, Italy and is just how mama used to make it! Hearty, spicy, and pretty darn easy.
Like most Italian dishes, there is a basic formula to a great bolognese – and plenty of room for adventure. The dish will taste different almost every time depending on what you have on hand, but no matter what, at the center of a great pasta sauce is quality ingredients.
It is what sets blah bottled sauce apart from that of your favorite restaurant’s. It is why a caprese salad is completely transformed with home grown tomatoes. It is what makes truly great food come alive.
Fortunately for me, there is an excellent corner shop just a block away that sells amazing, high quality foods. Anton & Anton’s is a bit like a tiny Whole Foods, except that every employee has a restaurant background and their entire inventory has been meticulously curated. In fact, as I was in there chatting with one of the staff, the co-owner of one of Helsinki’s best restaurants Ask (which just happens to be around the corner) came running in to grab a few things. Jimmy and I have not been there yet because, well, we haven’t found an occasion quite special enough to stomach the bill….
I also love this shop because nearly everyone who works there knows me. They address me in English, we talk about the weather, our trips and they feel free to give me suggestions and samples. I love walking in and telling them what I have in mind for dinner, and letting them suggest what I should buy. Or asking them for cooking suggestions and reporting back later that week. In all honesty, visiting this shop has become one of the highlights of my weeks.Generally, I only buy our meat and fish products and sometimes cheeses from them and save a bit on produce at the other basic stores, but tonight I wanted the good stuff!
So I ran down to A&A for some fresh pasta, a basic sauce base to doctor up, and some meats. Chatting with my favorite man-behind-the-counter, I left with some ground beef and spicy pork sausage to add to the pancetta I had at home. Add a half a loaf of fresh bread and some salad and I had the makings of a good night ahead! And, Oh Lawd! was it maybe the best sauce I have ever made. Ever. Jimmy ate his like a heathen, so I am assuming it was agreeable to him too.
So here it is: a basic formula for a hearty, sure to please pasta bolognese:
Start with Veggies.
Carrots, celery and onions are a classic and are usually sitting in the veggie drawer waiting to be used. Saute veggies until just translucent, then add a bunch of garlic. When I see “3 cloves” in a recipe, I use 6. This time I used the 3 biggest ones I had, first peeled and then crushed them with the blade of my knife before coarsely mincing.
Pasta for 2: 1 small yellow onion, 2 celery stalks, 2 small carrots.
Add the Meat.
Afterall, “bolognese” is, specifically, a meat sauce.
For really dynamic flavor, use more than one meat. This time is used chunked pancetta, ground beef and spicy pork sausage, released from the casing. Ground veal is a great option if you are jiggy with it; ground lamb works as well but will completely change your dish and make it very rich. For a lighter option, ground turkey is great, though sadly not available in Finland. However, adding some form of spicy Italian sausage is a big bonus. Bacon can work in place of pancetta, but I personally do not like the smokey flavor that it introduces.
Add pancetta first to brown up a bit before adding the rest of the meat. Crumble and stir together until cooked. My meat did not release much fat, but if yours does, drain a bit of that off.
Pasta for 2: 2 linked sausages, 2oo g ground beef, 75 g pancetta
Tip your Cup.
Toss in about 1/2 cup of whatever wine you are drinking while you cook- because you should be drinking wine (mmmaybe even singing) while you cook. Reduce until it doesn’t smell like booze.
Toss in the tomatoes! There are a few ways to do this- you can use just a combination of canned diced and crushed tomatoes and prepare to season away OR do what I did and do a small bottle of store-bought sauce and some canned crushed tomatoes. If you want to use fresh tomatoes, hey, I won’t stop you. I used A&A Arribbiata sauce, which is already a fairly spicy sauce of a quality I could trust. Stick to a basic flavor-Tomato and garlic or basil; you don’t want to add any competing flavors. I didn’t notice until later, but my crushed tomatoes also had chili, so that also helped!
Pasta for 2: 1 small (250 g) jar of sauce + 1 can (370 oz or approx 13 oz) crushed tomatoes
Spice up your Life.
Season and simmer. Oregano, basil, parley, garlic powder, pepper and a bit of salt. Meat heavy dishes naturally carry a bunch of sodium, so take it easy on the salt. I also like a small dash of nutmeg! Check your dish a few times as it simmers. If it tastes too tart from the tomatoes, add a bit of sugar and more seasonings.
I had intended on letting this simmer for a few hours, but Jimmy was acting as if he hadn’t eaten in 3 days and was hovering over the sauce like a fly, so we dished up after only 30 minutes or so of simmer. However, the longer you simmer, the deeper the flavor. Leftovers are even better, so don’t worry about making too much! Use a nice wide, flat noodle to stand up to the sauce- fettuccine or pappardelle are great options. Get them fresh refrigerated, if you can. Or if you are really adventerous, roll it yourself! (Perhaps when I am reunited with my pasta roller, I will make a post on pasta rolling…)
Add some high quality dipping oil, crusty bread, fresh shaved parmesan and a bottle of red wine, and that’s amore!
What are your favorite go-to recipes that “wow!” without breaking a sweat?