Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Sad Sunday

Life around our house has changed recently and painfully. Ann's father Bob suffered a massive stroke Sunday a week ago that has left him hospitalized and incapacitated. Dealing with all the emotions and issues has left us all trainwrecks, Ann most of all because she has borne the brunt of caring for her mother and staying with her father, wrangling with hospitals, doctors, and insurance providers. It is so new and still so raw that I'm not sure I can write about it; I'm merely going through the motions here at the keyboard.

This Sunday was the first time that I was able to go see him in the hospital in Fairfax. And we took Carter too, the Carter who had been asking to go during the week. He did some growing up on Sunday. Before we left, I insisted that we all eat breakfast, not knowing what the day would hold for us and when or if we would eat again.

Caramelized Onion and Pancetta Frittata with Cheddar
I rummaged the refrigerator and found a small piece of pancetta, an onion, some cheddar cheese, and some eggs. In no time, I had a caramelized onion and pancetta frittata in the oven. Carter and I ate it. Ann did not. I don't blame her. I was just going through the motions myself.

On the drive back home from Fairfax—we decided to leave before dark—we discussed dinner, no doubt mainly to take our minds off, however momentarily, the elephant in the room. Ann mentioned that she had taken some ground turkey out of the freezer. What to make with ground turkey? I've never worked with it before, but it behaves like most other lean ground meat.

We discussed a bunch of options: chili, meatballs, meatloaf, etc. But when things get rough for Italians, Italians go for pasta. Ann was pretty firm in her desire for meat sauce with pasta, so we stopped by the store on the way home and grabbed some tomatoes, some cream, and some pasta.

Rigatoni with Turkey Sauce
This meat sauce I make, while really good, is not a classic ragù alla bolognese which I made for years before settling in on making meat sauce the way I prefer it and that way I prefer it is more Southern, more akin to ragù alla napoletana. My meat sauce I usually make with cubed meat that cooks until it shreds on its own rather than with ground meat, but I am no stranger to ground meat sauce, which according to many authorities is the proper form of meat in a ragù. Ah whatever, this is my blog and my dinner and I'll do it however I please.

Here are my tricks for making meat sauce with ground meat:

Develop a great fond. Fond is a French word meaning many things but bottom most of all, and in a culinary context, the layer of brown bits accumulating on the bottom of a pan. In a heavy bottom pan, start by browning the meat. Once it is browned, remove 90 percent of the meat from the pan and continue cooking the remaining ten percent. Cook until all the water in the juices evaporates and a heavy fond appears on the bottom on the pan. The fond should not be burned but it should be thick and it should not scrape off readily.

Add the vegetables to the pan at this point. For a simple sauce like this one, I use only onion. For a more complex and more traditional bolognese, I use onions (or leeks), carrots, and celery. Add more oil if necessary; you can always take it back off the top of the sauce later as it simmers. Add some dried basil at this point. Basil is fairly oil soluble and it renders better flavor (says I) when it is cooked in the oil rather than in the water-based sauce. Cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until they are becoming translucent. Most of the fond will remain stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Deglaze the pan with a good shot of dry white wine. I am firmly of the opinion that meat sauce is better made with white wine than red wine. Scrape vigorously to get all the browned bits of fond off the pan and into the sauce.

Add a bit of tomato puree, maybe a couple cups per pound of meat, but remember, you are making meat sauce, not tomato sauce. Add a splash of heavy cream, say a half a cup per pound of meat. Many recipes call for milk. It's cream for me. I want the cream in the pan early on so that it caramelizes with long slow cooking. Add enough meat stock or water to just cover the meat: stock is naturally better but if you have built a good fond, you can get away with water if you have no stock.

Let it cook. Meat sauce takes a long time to mellow and caramelize and become that awesomeness that you seek. It takes a minimum of 90 minutes and four hours is better. Stir occasionally and be mindful of the liquid level. You want a sauce that is mostly meat with enough liquid to make it fluid. You may have to add more liquid as it cooks to keep it from scorching. Use a low flame, naturally.

Season towards the end and if it needs a splash more cream, splash it.

And that's it. It takes a long time to develop a good fond and an even longer time for the flavors to caramelize and coalesce into that luxuriousness called meat sauce. It's very simple but it requires a lot of patience.

And so we wolfed down big steaming bowls of rigatoni (Don't even go Bolognese on me and start talking about tagliatelle; I'm a thick-cut, no egg, dried pasta guy.). We were hungry after waiting for hours for the sauce to cook. And so we ate, but without a lot of joy. It was more going through the motions. What a sad Sunday.

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