Foodstuff: Homemade easy Bolognese recipe with rich tomatoes and ground beef
A casual riff on my mother’s perfect pasta sauce.
I recently spent Thanksgiving week at my mother’s house, and, when I’m staying with her, I only have one request: make meat sauce. My mom’s sauce is unrivaled. It’s an approximation on a Bolognese — thick and rich with tomatoes and ground beef, unadorned, straightforward, with few additional spices — and it clings perfectly to just about any pasta it’s paired with (Though, I prefer it with penne or shells myself). One of my very favorite memories of growing up was walking up the driveway to the backdoor of my house, past the kitchen window, and smelling the sauce cooking on a Sunday afternoon.
The thing is, despite eating it literally thousands of times and being what I consider to be a pretty good cook myself, I can’t replicate it. I am certain — even though my mother claims to tell me the recipe, and I’ve watched her make it — she is secretly leaving ingredients out then throwing them in the pot when I’m not looking. Trust me, I’ve known the woman for 44 years; I wouldn’t put it past her.
To that end, I’ve had to learn to make a version myself that I’m happy with. It’s pretty loose, and you can swap out the meats, leave the meat out entirely, add mushrooms, or modify it in other ways to suit your tastes. Unlike my mother’s pitch-perfect sauce, no two batches are alike. Keep it casual — it’s delicious any way you like it!
EASY ADAPTABLE MEAT SAUCE
1lb. lean ground beef*
1 small onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 medium stalk celery, peeled** and finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
1T tomato paste***
1 24oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed****
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 large bunch basil, chopped*****
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat. Cook ground beef until browned.
Add diced onion, salt and pepper and cook until onion is almost translucent. Add diced celery, carrots and garlic and cook until softened. Add tomato paste and cook for 1-2 minutes until nearly browned and fragrant.
Add crushed tomatoes, then rinse the can with warm water, about halfway full, then add that water to the pot. Stir in bay leaf if you like (removing before serving), and chopped basil.******
Bring ingredients to a boil, stir, then reduce to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally, or until the mixture is thickened to your liking.
*You could use ground beef, but, sometimes, I used ground pork or ground lamb — whatever I have on hand. You could also quarter a pound of cremini mushrooms and throw those in instead of, or in addition to, the meat. I like the meat and the mushrooms together.
**Trust me, it pays to peel your celery, removing the fibrous outer strands. Or, as my former co-worker likes to call them, “water-flavored hair.”
***I usually use more than one tablespoon to make this thicker and richer (sometimes two); just do what you like.
****These are better crushed by hand than buying a can of pre-crushed tomatoes, which lose flavor during processing.
*****Again, this can be to your taste. I like a lot of basil.
******At this point, for a real umami bomb, you could add a rind of Parmigianino Reggiano, then remove it just before serving. I keep a stash of rinds in my freezer for sauce.
This sauce is the perfect project for a cold weekend afternoon when you have a bit of time to let it simmer and fill your house with delicious, comforting smells. And, you can easily throw it over spaghetti squash or spiralized zucchini noodles if you’re cutting down on carbs (which, let’s face it, I never am). I also love this spooned over polenta and topped with parmesan cheese. It’s still not as good as my mom’s, but it tastes (mostly) like home.
Katherine Roberts is a midvalley based writer whose mother never criticizes her cooking, but she does seem to have a lot of opinions about her clothes. For cooking or fashion tips, Katherine can be reached via her marketing and communications firm, Carington Creative, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.