Sustenence is more than a word

There are dishes that I’ve cooked for my family since the kids were small. Oh, I’ve tarted them up a bit over time, but there are just some dishes that you don’t mess with. Possibly because they work, possibly because you remember the smiles on the faces of your friends and family when they eat, possibly because you’re lazy! 🙂 Nonetheless, there it is – you serve this dish and everybody sits down to table smiling, knowing they will be. . .sustained, and not just by eating tasty calories.

So everybody, and I do mean everybody – every “recipe” blog and food site on the Web (at last count, over sixteen trillion of the things, so thanks to those of you who visit mine – it’s a needle in a haystack. Or a pin bone in a very very large salmon fillet) – everybody, as I was saying, has a recipe for meat sauce. Ragu Bolognese. Spaghetti sauce. Gravy. Call it what you will.

I’ve been making this dish for my family for decades, and although I’ve learned a few tricks, the essence of the dish remains the same, as do the smiles on the faces of family – and on the faces of those friends who we know well enough to feed ’em “family food”. That’s one thing that sustains me. Watching people chasing after the last little bits of sauce on their plate with a scrap of bread is a beautiful, nourishing thing. The look on their faces is one usually reserved for when you’re trying to figure out how to get a little extra edge on your tax return, or reading a really great novel – so concentrated, so intent, so focused. Only without the worried part – just happy concentration. It’s beautiful.

What?? I Can’t Smell You

Here’s a little trick – smell is one of your most important tools, but there’s a small problem with smell. If you’re in the kitchen, working away, humming a merry tune, chopping, slicing, frying, dreaming, you might notice that. You. Can. No. Longer. Actually. Smell. What. You’re Cooking. Your brain has a self-defense mechanism – really, it’s just doing it for your own good. It’s a mechanism that works for most senses – after you’ve smelled something for a while, or listened to something, or seen something long enough, the sensation just fades into the background. You can still smell, hear, or see something, but it’s a pale shadow of what’s really going on.

Since this isn’t a philosophy blog, that’s as far as I’m going to take that notion. However. . .when you’re cooking, there’s a workaround. Step back from the stove. If you can, step outside. Look at the flowers (or the cars or whatever you see outside your home), breathe deeply. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Try and stay outside at least a minute or two. When you step back in, the true aroma of what you’re cooking will smack you on the side of the head and you’ll say “Marjoram!! I *knew* there was something missing.”

How About You?

What do you cook that you may have cooked for years and still just totally love? By the way, it doesn’t have to be a family dish. If you’re a single person, what do you cook when you just want to be happy and eat something good, and don’t want to go to a restaurant, but want badly to be in the comfort of your home, eating something you love.

The Recipe“Spaghetti Sauce”

You’ll need the following for 4-6 good servings. Cut in half and you’ve got a meal for one, with awesome leftovers. I urge you to consider making this the night before or even two nights before. It is so much better the day or two after it’s first made.

  • A large fry pan. Saute pan. Some kind of pan
  • A large bowl that can handle having hot vegetables and oil poured into it.
  • One medium-sized white onion, cut into a medium dice
  • One good-sized carrot, finely diced. Old carrots are good!!
  • One stalk of celery, sliced thin
  • A handful of minced parsley

    Fresh ripe tomatoes add brightness to your sauce!




  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced (I actually use more like 8-10 cloves, finely minced, but that’s just how I roll. Find the amount of garlic that makes you smile.)
  • About an ounce of tomato paste (TIP: Get tomato paste in the squeeze tubes. That way you can use just what you need – which is always less than what most recipes call for – and the rest will keep indefinitely in the refer)
  • Two pieces of Parmesan rind. These are the rinds that are left over at the market when they cut up the Parmesan. They are goodness, and they are cheap! Most good supermarkets will have them, sometimes you have to ask.
  • 3-4 firm ripe tomatoes, your choice. You don’t need to remove the skin – but it’s a good idea to quarter them and scoop out all the seeds and pulp. Medium dice.
  • Extra virgin olive oil (I always thought you were either a virgin or you weren’t, but I guess it applies differently to olive oil.)
  • One large tin of good quality crushed tomatoes (they vary by region, Muir Glen are quite reliably good – here’s a link to a nifty Chowhound forum discussion on just this very topic!)
  • Red wine. Doesn’t have to be an awesome vintage – these days, I buy the “two-buck chuck” at Trader Joe’s and find it quite acceptable.
  • Brandy or cognac or bourbon. You’ll only need a tablespoon of this potent flavor additive. Note: In cooking, you’ll vaporize all (or almost all) the alcohol – this is a dish you can serve to anybody.
  • About 3/4 lb. of the cheap ground beef. It has more fat. You’ll drain away most of the fat, but the flavor you’ll get is far better than the ultra-lean ground beef that costs so much. Everything has a purpose!
  • Oregano. Dried is fine, truly.
  • Thyme. See the note about dried oregano.
  • Basil. Dried is not a good idea. Get a handful of fresh, rinsed and patted dry basil leaves and tear them with your hands into tiny bits.





    Fresh basil, please!

  • A pinch or two of nutmeg
  • Optional – a teaspoon of dried marjoram. It’s dry, dusty and, with the cocoa powder and maple syrup (or sugar), adds depth to the sauce.
  • A tablespoon of cocoa powder – the real stuff, just plain cocoa. This is optional, but so so good. You won’t even taste the chocolate – you’ll just feel a dark, rich “undertone” to the sauce.
  • Maple syrup – about 2-3 TB to taste. Or sugar. If you’ve got maple syrup, it’s a huge plus!
  • Lemon juice. These days, I favor Meyer lemons, they’ve started to come down in price, but any fresh lemon juice is just fine)
  • Salt, pepper
  • Shredded Reggiano Parmesan for serving

Cook it up

Put a large fry pan on the stove and get it hot. This is important. Heat the pan over medium hot (you’ ll need to figure out what that means for your range-top, for me, it’s about 3/4 of the way to totally on), then add about two turns of oil (Note: that means pour the oil from your container around the pan twice – the dispensers on the containers are generally pretty standardized, this should give you about 2 oz. of oil or so.

When the oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add the onions and carrots. Turn the heat down a bit, and toss the onion carrot mixture about a bit, playfully, to coat everything with hot oil. Cook for about 4-6 minutes, stirring now and then, until the onion has turned translucent, and the carrot is softened. Add the celery and stir until the celery is softened – about 2 minutes or less. Add the garlic and stir until you can really smell it – should be a minute or so. Add a pinch of salt and a couple of twists of freshly ground pepper. Stir one last time and move all the veggies into that big bowl we talked about. Sprinkle a pinch or two of nutmeg on the veggies as they rest in the bowl.

Put the pan back on the heat, wait until it gets hot again – this won’t take long – and add the meat. With a large fork, press, smoosh, stir, and generally break up the meat. There will be a lot of steam at first, then, the steam will go away. Steam’s like that. Once you’ve heated most of the water out of the meat, it will start really cooking. Continue to stir, smoosh and scrape the bottom of the pan with the side of the fork tines. The meat will form small crumbles of goodness. There should be a healthy sheen of fat. Once the meat has just started to brown, drain the majority of the fat. I just tip the pan and use a large serving spoon to scoop up the fatty liquid. Leave a little fat in the pan, you can discard the rest.

Add the veggies back into the pan, and about an ounce or so of tomato paste. Again, using the fork, stir everything up, “cooking” the tomato paste and mixing it thoroughly with the other ingredients. At this point, you’ll have  nice lot of browned stuff on the bottom of the pan. This is goodness. Fancy folk call it the “fond”, in Asian cooking it’s known, more beautifully, as “the precious” (also applies to rice!). Now it’s time for the wine. Take about 1 cup of wine (to start) and pour it into the pan. Sizzling and steam will happen. Technically, this is known as “deglazing”, though it has nothing to do with glass.

With the side of your fork, scrape up as much of the good brown stuff as possible into the boiling winey mix. Add more wine if you like. I do. Cook the wine down by about half.

Add the crushed tomatoes, stirring to mix. Add the pieces of parmesan rind. Add about a TB of oregano (crush the dried herb between your palms to break it up even further. This gives it more surface area and – more flavor! Add about two tsp. thyme in the same fashion. Stir them in. Add the parsley. Taste the sauce, and add a little salt and freshly gr ound pepper. Just a little, because the sauce will be cooking down. You’ll fix the salt and pepper balance right at the end.

Turn the heat down to simmer and let simmer for an hour or two. Or three. Three is good. Four is better. If you can let it simmer all day, that’s awesome!! Just add a little water whenever it looks like the sauce is getting dry. Stir occasionally, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan for any stray bits. Continue to simmer.

Tip: If you have one of those little pan screens – this is exactly what they were born to do. The sauce, even at a simmer, will tend to splatter and give you some extra cleaning work to do in the general neighborhood of the pan. Or you can use a pan screen.

By the time you’re done, the sauce should be moderately thick (for example, if you put a spoon into it, the spoon will come out with its back coated with sauce). Add the brandy and lemon juice (juice of about a half a Meyer or other lemon) and stir. Add the diced fresh tomatoes – they’ll brighten everything up beautifully. Add the torn shreds of fresh basil.

Stir everything into the mix and continue simmering for another 15 minutes or so. Remove the Parmesan rinds. Or don’t, just advise your happy eaters that the large knobby chunk of gooey goodness in the middle of their sauce is a piece of cheese. Taste and correct for seasonings. In other words, see if you’ve got the salt and pepper right. Err on the side of caution with these two key seasonings, as everybody has a different tolerance and it’s easy enough to put a salt cellar and pepper mill on the table.

If you’ve prudently made this sauce a day or two in advance, pop it into a large, sealable container and put it in the refer. Bring it out when the time is right, put it into a pan – probably the same pan – and heat it gently until it’s nice and hot. Have a large pot filled with boiling salted water (about 2 TB. salt per gallon of water – no worries, virtually all the salt will wash away when you drain the pasta).

Serve with – hmmm, my favorite pasta for this dish is fettuccine, but really you can use any pasta you like. Long noodles are generally preferable, and more fun! Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, then drain the water, add a little bit of sauce to keep it from sticking, and fish out the individual servings with tongs, and add more sauce. Or just drain in a colander and put back in the pot, again adding a little sauce to keep it from sticking.

Fresh green salad. A bit of toasted, buttered baguette. A red wine that you like. A nice bowl of freshly shredded Reggiano Parmesan cheese for people to use as they will. Salt and pepper at the table. Happy people, which is really the best part.

I just can’t prescribe specific wines. I don’t like abstract expressionism. You love abstract expressionism. I don’t like almost any zinfandel, you adore zin of all kinds. I say potato. Wine is a personal matter. If you don’t think so, try doing a completely blind (brown paper bag) tasting with some of your wine-loving friends. 🙂

I’ve been making this sauce for almost three decades, with minor variations here and there as I feel the urge to experiment. And I’ve been watching family and friends smile as they sit down to eat a little bit of love on a plate. My wonderful niece Sarah, the executive pastry chef, calls great food “sex on a plate”. I’m older and think of love. Come to think of it, I’ve always thought of love.

A brief note – although I’ve made this sauce a million times, I. Have. Never. Taken. A. Picture. What’s wrong with me. So, after a good bit of research using Bing Image Search, I’m prevailing on the kindness of my blogging friends and using this lovely shot – which looks a great deal like what your own finished labor of love will look like. It’s from the nice peeps at What’s For Eats. Their recipe, which is also a good’un, is here.

Are you hungry yet?