A little while ago, we had our first dinner party in years–I’m not exactly sure how long ago the last one was, but I can absolutely fix the date as sometime squarely before the “pre-children” dividing line of my life. I’ve told you about the pre-dinner drinks but not about the rest of the evening. We had a great time — one of the spring menus from David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs, exactly as he devised it: blanched asparagus in vinaigrette, roast lamb over flageolet beans, and babas au rhum for dessert. And plenty of wine.
But there were some hiccups–to understate things a bit, and wouldn’t you know it, all to do with the main course. I bought the lamb a week early, knowing that it was likely to sell out with Easter approaching. The butcher cut me three 1 1/2 pound portions of lamb roast, and advised me that I should begin the thawing process no later than Friday evening, but to be safe Friday morning would be better. Of course I went with the more cautious approach.
You can guess what happened. The lamb was still an arctic brick late Saturday afternoon. I tried to defrost in water–figuring (hoping!) that would work relatively quickly as the meat had already been thawing for 36 hours. I then used the “turbo defrost” feature on the microwave. Nothing. In a fit of frustration, and already an hour into the evening, I chucked the meat in the oven, jabbed in the meat probe I bought for the occasion, slammed the oven door closed and prayed. I was crushed to see that it was too cold for the probe to even pick up a reading.
My husband and I had a time-out in the kitchen. He asked if we should just order pizza: “we have to feed these people!” As the horror of calling Domino’s or the like settled on me, I remembered the bolognese sauce that I make in bulk and store in the freezer. I pulled out a few two-portion containers, ran them under cold water to loosen the ice, dumped them in a saucepan, and we were off.
Meanwhile, at some point in the process I shrieked in excitement from the kitchen–a number had appeared instead of the digitized “LoTemp” on my probe. My joy was tempered slightly at the fact that the number was 32F but it was a milestone, and it continued to uptick nicely after that.
Suffice it to say, due to the difficulties of choreographing pots large enough to boil pasta and blanch asparagus, the bolognese with linguine ended up being ready at exactly the same time as the lamb came out of the oven. So no one went away hungry, and my husband and I were eating lamb for a few days after that.
I stumbled into an important lesson–always have a plan B. (I didn’t, but just got lucky). And my bolognese sauce, that I’ve been making for ages now, was rechristened: salvation bolognese.
Salvation, for obvious reasons, but really it should have gotten that name long ago. Those days when you are too beat to cook anything are often those days when you are in most dire need of something home-cooked and soul-nourishing. Salvation. Those weekends when an afternoon activity with kids runs far longer than you’ve planned. Salvation. And oh, when you throw a dinner party for your husband’s colleagues to whom he’s been talking up your kitchen prowess for weeks, and you don’t want to cater from Papa Gino’s. Salvation!
I make a double recipe whenever I’m running low, and I’ve just started making it in my slow cooker, though I’ve been doing it for years just on the stovetop. The reason the slow cooker is now my preferred method is that, much like making a soup stock, the slower and longer, the better, and I’m no longer tied to the stove for hours–not that the kitchen isn’t an inviting place to be during the process.
There are a million twists on basic bolognese, but there are some constants–a mix of ground meats is best (and easy to accomplish if you double or triple the recipe, as I always do) but you can use just one type if you like. Milk or cream is either added early in the process or later on. A base of onions, carrot, and celery chopped fine; a variety of spices, ranging from herby marjoram to aromatic nutmeg add complexity. Mine is based on a Mark Bittman version, but I think as long as you follow the cardinal rule–cooking gently and slowly for as long as you possibly can–it will be delicious. I love seeing how the meat slowly breaks down even as the sauce comes together into this flavorful, delicious sauce. Check out how the sauce changes in texture from start to finish, and then I’ll give you the recipe.
- 1/4c olive oil
- 2 onions
- 2 stalks celery
- 2 carrots
- 6 ounces pancetta
- 1lb ground beef
- 1lb ground pork
- 2 cups white wine
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes
- 1/4 t nutmeg
- salt and pepper to taste
- cream or milk
Chop the onion, celery, and carrot very fine–I do this in the food processor since I’m making such a large batch. (If doing this, pulse and check frequently so you don’t accidentally make a puree). Heat the oil in a 5 quart skillet over medium and add the chopped vegetables. (If you are planning to use a slow cooker, you can just use a deep skillet as I do in the photographs). Sautee, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the pancetta finely (again, I use the food processor for this), and when the vegetables are ready, stir in the chopped pancetta along with ground beef. Continue to sautee until the meat has lost its red color and is cooked, around 5-10 minutes.
Add the wine, turn the heat to high, and cook until the the alcohol has evaporated (about 5 minutes).
If you are using a slow cooker, now is the time to transfer it over to your slow cooker. If not, continue to use the same pot.
Add the nutmeg, stock and the canned tomatoes. (Since you are using canned whole tomatoes, either chop them up or break them up in your hands as you add them; drain off the extra liquid in the can).
Turn the heat so the mixture simmers slowly, stirring occasionally. If using a slow cooker, cook on HIGH for 6 hours or on LOW for 8. If cooking on the stove top, cook for two hours but go longer if you can.
Before portioning for the freezer, I chill in the fridge (as I try to avoid putting heated food into plastic containers). I generally portion into 1 1/2 cup portions which is very generous for about a pound of pasta. You will note the layer of congealed fat on top. That’s OK.
When reheating to serve, allow about 20 minutes. Add a drizzle of cream or milk to the sauce and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes (you can skip this, but by the time you heat the water for pasta and cook it, you’ll be there anyway). Toss the ragu with the pasta and serve with plenty of grated parmesan cheese, and garnish with chopped parsley.
As for the picture below–when else do you get an excuse to pour out two cups of wine in the morning? This is wine from a Cape Cod vineyard
(really!) that I got at our new winter farmer’s market. And don’t worry–the owner of that little hand did not get any. I, however, had some with my pasta later that night.
For other takes on bolognese sauce in the slow cooker, check out the links here