When they tell you that your city is in the path of a terrifying “superstorm”; when the Mayor declares your neighborhood a mandatory evacuation zone; when the certainty of a power and water shortage becomes undeniable - that’s when I start thinking about meat sauce.
Yes, meat sauce! It’s become a panacea and an obsession: I cook it whenever I feel bad, and whenever I feel good. It’s an opiate, a stimulant, an anti-depressant, and even an anti-psychotic (when I make it good enough.) My infant’s mind treasured the idea of being cooped up in a warm, dry pod with my wife, a pipe, a stocked refrigerator, and a burbling pot of my favorite thing to cook.
Why is meat sauce so close to my heart, not just literally but figuratively? I think it has something to do with how it long it takes to cook, how long it lasts, and how delicious it is even when made poorly - because meat sauce, at least the way I make it, is the most forgiving of dishes. The day of the storm, while winds blew outside and the rain pelted down silently on our thick soundproof storm windows, I applied a thick layer of protection between Danit and I and the coming disaster. We had been told, remember, that we were in a position of extreme peril, and at the very least were looking at days without water or power. I took to mincing carrots and onions and celery with my big Korin chefs knife, falling into its rhythm, and then cooking it in olive oil. Do I infuse the oil with thyme? Or garlic? Where did I put those Calabrian peppers? Maybe that oil is hot, and would be good to cook the onions in. One ingredient after another went in. Each one gave me something to think about. I put in a bottle of vinegar peppers, but too much of the vinegar went in. The sauce was nothing but vinegary. So it needed sweetness. I added Barillia marinara. Still vinegary. Then tomato paste. A little better. Finally I just did the unthinkable and added half a cup of Coke. Perfect! I started adjusting heat and putting in more fresh oregano, utterly absorbed in the process, oblivious to the wind, and knowing that an immense pot of nourishing greasy sauce awaited me, us, at the end.
Because, however fun it may be to have a gluttonous staycation, surrounded by cakes and potted meats. Everyone likes that; it’s the great consolation prize for being stuck indoors. But it’s a passive pleasure; it gives you too much time to think. Cooking absorbs not only your lust for food, but your hysteria, your emotions, your fears, and even, at its best, the parts of your mind that are not completely destructive and chaotic.
For the record, here is my meat sauce recipe, minus the coke.
2 sweet Italian sausages
1 hot Italian sausage
2 pounds ground chuck (80%)
Two cans good-quality tomatoes, one crushed, one diced
one bottle Barilla or other good-quality marinara sauce
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Fresh oregano, basil, and whatever other fresh herbs you have, in great quantities
Garlic, onion, carrot, celery
Wine or beer
whole milk or evaporated milk
one bottle vinegar peppers
Hot peppers in oil or good flaked pepporoncini
two bay leaves
- You can add other things if you want. Or not. Just keep adjusting and tasting. It will pass the time.
- Put olive oil at the bottom of a big pot. Throw in chopped garlic and fresh herbs to flavor it.
- Cook chopped up carrots and celery for a while. Then add chopped up onions.
- Keep cooking them and turning them. Recipes that say to do this for five minutes are absurd. This takes at least ten to fifteen minutes. You can speed it along by pour in a little water.
- Take the vegetables out. Jack up the heat. Add the meat. Don’t move it. Let it burn. Let it and the vegetables left in the pot start to crust up but not blacken. Then start moving the meat around, just until it loses it’s raw red color. Salt and pepper well.
- Now add enough wine to cover most of it. (Pull your head away when doing this as a mushroom cloud of vapor will erupt.) Turn the heat down and and move your spoon around. You are releasing all the crusty bits into the dish, so the meat won’t be bland and characterless. Put all the vegetables back in. Let the wine boil down somewhat. BTW - if you don’t have wine in the house use beer, or stout, or cider, whatever. Try them all out. Make meat sauce all the time.
- At this point it’s time to open the cans of tomatoes. This will be a huge nasty mess, but whatever. Have someplace to thrown the heavy, stiff cans, which will opress you until you get rid of them. Add both cans, as well as the marinara, a ton of fresh herbs, and some raw chopped up garlic. Mix it all up. After a while (say 20 minutes) add in a small bottle of vinegar peppers, minus most of the vinegar, plus the hot chili peppers and about a tablespoon of their oil. That oil is key. Add in plenty of salt, some MSG, the bay leaves, and whatever else you feel like. If it comes out bad, so what? You can just not use it next time. Adjust for sweetness and acid and heat. I like to use white balsamic as a sweetening agent. Tomato paste is also good, as it also adds thickness to the sauce. Sometimes I will throw in some paremesan rinds if I have themThat’s it. Just stir and cook on a low fire until you feel like it’s ready. It should be less than an hour. Make pasta, drain it, and add all the sauce you can right away while the noodles are still “thirsty.” Mix it all up well, throwing in a tablespoon of butter along the way, to mount the sauce properly. Grate in some pecorino (or whatever.)
Eat, drink, wash your hands. Repeat as needed.