Friday, August 11, 2006

Pasta sauce with a secret ingredient

Today's recipe comes from my friend Simon's kitchen in Romsey, Hampshire. I'm staying with Simon for a couple of days, before we head off to the Crawley Juggling convention.

Yesterday, while he was at work and I was working on my laptop, I made my classic pasta sauce. It's based on a recipe I found in a book published for the New Zealand Red Cross . The cookbook was published as a fundraiser in the late 80s, and asked then celebrities to contribute their favourite recipe. George Balani offered his Italian mother's pasta sauce, and it's from him that I got the secret ingredient (see below!) George didn't have vegetables in his sauce (as I recall), except maybe onion and a little garlic. The sauce can be very good with just the meat/tomato base, but it is a lot richer. It's more cost effective to extend it with vegetables, and I prefer the flavour. It's a good way of making meat go further, getting your 5-9 servings of vegetables a day.

Like most of my recipes it's very flexible.

The basic ingredients:
The meat:
Lean beef mince (you can use turkey or lamb too) About a pound/450 grams will go a long way - feeds 4 comfortably more if you extend with vegetables. Lean for preference - no-one needs the extra saturated fat.

The tomato base
The classic "balani" version had 2 cups tomato puree, 2 tablespoons tomato paste.
I've done it very successfully with Tomato puree, Tomato paste, and chopped tomatoes, even a few skinned fresh tomatoes.
Last night's had a jar of sainsbury's chopped tomato with olive oil, and 4 large vine tomatoes that I skinned. Around 500ml in some form or other is needed. The tomato paste makes a big difference. I've found that the tubes of tomato paste are very useful to have round the house, and last well in the fridge.

The vegetables
Always at least 1 finely chopped onion
1-3 grated carrots - for me this is the key "extender" ingredient.
1/2-1 cup chopped celery, finely chopped zucchini, courgettes, mushrooms or even cauliflower!*
1-3 cloves garlic

Herbs - parsley, oregano, basil if you like basil (I find I prefer it on its own, as a pesto, or as a garnish, rather than in a tomato sauce)
Sugar - 1 tablespoon. If your tomato base ends up a little acidic, a bit of sugar can lift it. Adding sugar is one of the four cook's cheats - I'll blog on that more later!
Red wine - if you like, instead of water.

The method
Saute the onion until translucent in a frypan with lid (I've found a large non-stick wok works really well). Add the mince and brown. Add the grated carrot and cook until it's starting to go a bit dry and caramelisey - the sugars in the carrot respond well. Add the tomato paste around this time too Just when it's starting to stick a bit, add the vegetables, stir really well to cook them by heat rather than steam (this really improves the flavour!). Leave them as long as you can, without them sticking (add the lid to keep the heat in - but keep an eye on it).

Before it burns*** add the liquid, dried or fresh herbs, tomato puree, and enough water or red wine to just cover. Then it's time for:

The secret ingredient
Time. And yes, that is T I M E not T H Y M E. Much as I adore the the smell of the herb** it's the long cooking time - 2 hours if you've got it - that makes the real difference to this recipe.

Keep an eye on it, simmer gently, give it a stir occasionally, if it tastes a bit sharp add a spoonful of sugar (white or brown). And let time and heat do its work.

The sauce can become quite thick. Thin it down with water (perhaps a dash of red wine) if you want a looser sauce. It's great for lasagne, or spaghetti. It also freezes well, so you can make a huge batch, freeze portions and reheat as you cook the pasta.


Random foodnotes below!

* This recipe is great for clearing out vegies which are sitting round in the vegetable drawer in the fridge. I learnt to make the best of what we had, on a limited budget, from my mother. We had a limited budget to feed a family, of up to seven including exchange students. We were good at using what there was to hand, and finding ways of using up the left-over vegetables in the fridge. My mum was also ahead of her time in seeking a healthier diet - we had muesli for breakfast and I was the only child in my class with brown bread sandwiches!.

** The smell of thyme brings back wonderful memories for me of a fantastic New Year's Eve sitting with my then boyfriend on the hillside overlooking the Clyde Dam, listening to greatest hits from the 80s. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the new job I was about to start, but the proclaimers were singing that they would walk 500 miles, and life felt good. Thyme also grows on the hills around Agios Pavlos in Crete. When I finally plant my own garden in my house I will definitely plant thyme in the garden..

*** Yes I know it's not helpful to say "if it burns you're too late!" But it really is a question of keeping an eye on it - you can tell if something's about to burn. The trick is to use the heat to get a little caramelisation going, without it burning. You get a richer flavour that way.

No comments: