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Sunday Night Supper: Feel Better with this Holiday Meat Sauce

This bolognese sauce is a delicious and glorious way to heal and celebrate.

Why is that mothers can’t stay in bed and be sick?

I felt ill one afternoon and went to lie down. There it was. The saddest scene of all. Mom. Lying down. During the day. When other people in the house are awake and need her for…nothing, everything, something incredibly minor and meaningless but also absolutely crucial and pressing.

Actually, it was a cloudy, winter afternoon and no one needed me for anything at that moment so I went upstairs. Our dog Roxy followed me. She is a yellow labrador retriever and not the sharpest knife in the drawer (she can't retrieve anything except food) but she's smart enough. I closed the shades. Roxy must have sensed I was in distress because she started to bark. “Woof, woof!”

I willed her to go away. She barked at me again. “Woof! Woof!”

I didn’t need a translator. The bark went like this: “Mommy, get up! You look dead! Show me you're not!" I silently barked back: Shut up.

“Woof, woof!”

I closed by my eyes. “Shut up!” I yelled. “Go downstairs.” Roxy looked at me with her big brown eyes. She stared at me hard. It was a look that said, “Move it, girl!” Coming from her, that was pretty nervy because she does next to nothing. In the mornings, we run or go for a walk. She spends the rest of the day napping in the family room, or waiting in the dining room for someone to ring the bell. She only comes to see me if she needs to go outside or wants a snack. Hours go by, and she doesn’t stop by to say hello. But the minute I am prostrate, she gets hysterical.

Nobody wants to see Mom lying down. Adults are supposed to be busy. Except when they feel like crap. I got out of bed, pushed her out of the room and shut the door. She sat in the hallway and barked and barked.

I couldn’t friggin' stand it. Nothing is louder or more persistent or sounds more anguished than a dog when it wants something. Meanwhile, I wanted someone to take care of me: An old Italian aunt, humming in her apron on a Sunday afternoon, stirring a big pot of meat sauce. She would say, “Come sit down, darling, take a load off, this is for you,” and she would hand over a bowl of meat sauce and a plate of buttered noodles, and give me a kiss on my forehead. This older Italian woman does not exist in my life but still I yearn for her. 

I hauled my butt out of bed. Maybe if I wandered around in a daze, I would feel better. I opened the freezer, and spotted a package of ground meat - veal, beef and pork. I did not feel like making meatballs, which I always ruin, or meatloaf, which I love but have trouble persuading my children to love too. I wanted the sauce my imaginary aunt would have cooked for me.

Who, besides vegans and vegetarians, doesn’t love Bolognese meat sauce? This recipe comes from Mark Bittman's book, How to Cook Everything. That book is a God-send and everybody who has a kitchen should own a copy. I mashed up some baby carrots, onions, celery and turkey bacon in the food processor and sautéed them in olive oil. I added ground meat, and white wine, then took a can of whole tomatoes, crushed the tomatoes in my hand, and sauteed those too. I let the sauce cook and cook. At the end, I added a cup of cream. You don’t need to use cream in this recipe. I have made this before with skim milk and it works just as well. You could use real bacon too, and it would taste divine, but the turkey bacon makes it taste just awesome. And at the end, you can add Parmesan cheese, which makes it even more delicious.

This sauce takes a long time. It involves a lot of standing and stirring. Because I wasn't feeling great, I chased it with a diet Coke. If you were feeling festive, you could invite people over, sip some wine while you stir the sauce and have yourself a delightful few hours. It's a great sauce to make on a holiday or a Sunday afternoon, such as today, which being Christmas, is both. The trick is to invite friends or family over and have them devour it with you, or set aside some containers and freeze the leftovers, because this recipe makes a lot.

There are plenty of nights when I'm too lazy to cook, or I'm teaching and I ask my babysitter to boil up some macaroni and cheese, or take a box of pizza out of the freezer. But there are also plenty of days when I cook - to make myself feel better, to avoid writing, to stir up my writing, or to have something tangible to share at the end of the day. By the time I was done making this sauce, I felt better. This sauce has a strange power; it makes you feel as if you've done everything right. It's that good.

The secret ingredient is the smoked turkey (or bacon or pancetta.) What makes it, and almost any ragu, delicious is the combination of mashed up carrots, celery and onions, garlic, salt and pepper, which, when combined with salt and milk or cream, and stirred in a heavy saucepan for a couple of hours, turns into a paste so delicious, with sweet, tart flavors that aren’t easily identifiable, but taste like love. Which dinner should.

I didn't give any meat sauce to my dog. But I bet my imaginary great aunt would have.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year, wherever, however and whatever you celebrate. See you in 2012.

Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style (Ragu), adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything

Takes about 2.5-3 hours, mostly unattended

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, minced

1 carrot, peeled and minced (I use a handful of baby carrots and mince them; the more carrots you use, the sweeter the sauce)

1 celery stalk, minced

1/4 cup minced bacon or pancetta (I used turkey bacon)

1 pound lean ground beef, pork or combination

1/4 cup dry white wine or juice from canned tomatoes (I used wine)

1 28-ounce or 35-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, drained

1 cup chicken stock

Salt and ground pepper to taste

1 cup cream, half-and-half or milk (I use a combination of cream and skim milk)

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional

Put olive oil in a large saucepan. Turn heat to medium low and a minute later, add onion, carrot, celery, bacon or pancetta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetbales are tender, about ten minutes.

Add ground meat and cook, stirring and breaking up any clumps, until all traces of red are gone, about 5 minutes. Add wine or tomato juice, raise heat a bit, and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes.

Crush tomatoes with your hands and add them to the pot; stir, then add stock. Turn heat ot low and cook to a slow simmer, stirring occasionally and breaking up tomatoes and any clumps of meat that remain. After an hour or so, add salt and pepper. Cook for at least another hour, until much of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce is very thick.

Add cream, half-and-half or milk, and cook for another 15 to 30 minutes, stirring occaisonally; taste and add more salt and pepper as needed. Sprikle Parmesan on sauce while it is warm. Serve immediately with pasta.*

*Sauce can be covered and refrigerated for a day or so, or put in a closed container and frozen for several weeks.

Ruthi Byrne December 26, 2011 at 03:50 AM
I laughed out loud reading this. Anyone who has children, a husband or a dog will totally relate!
Meg Beattie Patrick December 26, 2011 at 04:00 AM
What an enjoyable read. Can't wait to make this. Everyone has that imaginary aunt, I bet! The bit about the dog was so funny I laughed aloud.
Jay Bee December 27, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Great story by a wonderful writer who loves to cook as I do. I also love Mark Bittman and will definitely prepare the bolognese sauce recipe one chilly, wintry Sunday. I am a new Patch subscriber and I really enjoy reading articles and comments about life in Millburn-Short Hills written by locals such as myself.

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