Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking
Not the Italian Job, you see. Just one of them. You could call it Bolognese if you like. Spaghetti Bolognese is probably still the standard pasta dish, known all over the world and made in private homes because it is so simple.
Mince, tomatoes and herbs, that’s about it. You can add your individual twist if you like. You know nothing is set in stone around here.
As an observant person, you will notice that this starts off like loads of other recipes: fry some onions and garlic, add some meat.
Q. Why always the onions?
A. Because they produce a ‘savoury’ flavor that gives lots of dishes a head start but doesn’t overpower everything.
So without further ado, let’s make what could be called a ‘generic’ Italian meal – in other words everyone knows it’s Italian, but you can’t pin it down to a town or even a region, let alone a particular woman who looks like Sophia Loren and has been giving this to her family since she was married at the age of 18.
But if that mental image helps, so be it. Signora Bolognese is beautiful, sexy, warm and kind. She cooks this dish and then, when the kids are in bed, she and her husband make love with an intensity and passion undimmed by the passing of the years.
A small stick of celery
Dry wine (white, rosé or red)
Spaghetti (or penne, rigatoni, farfalle, macaroni, etc.)
My late older brother was very conservative with his food, and the only vegetable he would eat was peas. He was suspicious when I made an Italian Job for him and his family because he didn’t know what I was slipping in as I carried out my sorcery, unseen in the kitchen. And he was right to think that, because if there is a green, red or yellow pepper that needs eating, a courgette or some other vegetable asking to be chopped up small and thrown in, or a bottle of beer that just happens to be open and I need some more liquid, any or all of those could find their way into the dish.
In addition to the onions and garlic for the basic ‘savoury’ taste, chop up a small carrot and a little celery. Chop them very small and put them in to soften with the onions.
Put in the mince and fry it fairly quickly until it is just cooked, breaking it up as you go. Sprinkle your herbs (basil and oregano) onto the mince, along with some celery salt and black pepper, so they get into the meat, not just the sauce.
Splosh in some wine. The colour doesn’t matter, as long as it is dry, but white is generally a lighter flavour and some Italian reds can be very thick and bold. If you’re not sure, taste some.
Use decent wine. Not expensive, but tolerable. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. If it’s corked or has been open for days and is sour, that will come through in the dish. As this is Italian, you might go for a Pinot Grigio, Frascati or Soave. We’ll have a good look at wine in a week or two.
While the wine is releasing the tasty stuff from the pan, stir it with a wooden spoon to help it along, then tip in a can of tomatoes.
Nowadays canned tomato producers ‘helpfully’ add herbs and spices before the stuff is packed, so make sure it’s a can of plain, unadulterated tomatoes and you’re not accidentally adding chilli or something to your Italian Job – unless you want to, that is.
Now, TASTE IT. Nice? Need something extra? Stock cube, even? It shouldn’t, but if you’re using cheap ingredients it might need some help. Add, taste, add, taste until you’re happy. Then let it simmer gently with the lid off for as long as you’ve got – 15 minutes if all you’re going to do is cook the pasta and eat, but ideally an hour or more.
Use a bigger pan than you might think you need. Loads of water and room to move, so it doesn’t stick (particularly spaghetti). Add a pinch of salt. Cook it according to the instructions on the packet or just check it after five minutes or so.
Unlike rice and potatoes, you need to get the water boiling before you put the stuff in.
The pasta needs to be not hard but not squidgy. Al dente, they call it. So you can bite through it easily but you can feel it happening.
Drain the pasta well in a colander. Shake it. Get the water out. If there’s still water in it when you serve, it will dilute your wonderful sauce.
To serve, most people put the pasta on the plate and a neat dollop of the sauce on top. Very pretty. But if you want to get the basically tasteless pasta coated in delicious sauce, mix it up before you serve it. Then if you like you can tart it up on the plate with a sprig of parsley or a curly ring of sweet pepper (cut the bottom off a pepper and then take a thin slice across what’s left.)
And don’t forget the Parmesan.
Q. Why do we sprinkle parmesan cheese on pasta dishes?
A. Cheese contains protein, so that might be a nutritional bonus, but I don’t think that’s the real reason. Parmesan is salty, so it lifts the flavor without the frowned-upon adding of actual salt.