Making great meat sauce is a momentous matter

January 14, 1998|By Rob Kasper

THE RECIPE called for ground beef. I had a slab of round steak. Casting a glance at the food processor, I decided to give modern meat grinding a whirl. I put in the metal blade, tossed in a few thick slices of the round steak, snapped the lid on the food processor and let 'er rip. The machine sprang to life, bumping into the nearby television set, almost knocking a football game off the air.

After about three minutes of commotion, I stopped the food processor and looked at its work. In the bowl was some extremely ground beef. If the machine had kept going much longer, I would have ended up with meat toothpaste.

For the next go-round with round steak I eased up on the power. This time, instead of going gung-ho, I let the blade whirl for only a minute or two. This time the meat had a texture closer to that of the ground beef found in grocery stores.

I was getting the hang of high-power meat grinding, and it was a hoot. After a few more bump and grind go-rounds with the food processor, I had transformed a boring hunk of meat into a textured montage of meat. This was not mere ground beef. This beef had been "personally ground."

I wanted to admire my work, but I was on a tight cooking schedule. Rather than being an object of admiration, this beef had to be promptly plopped into the bottom of a deep metal pot. I used all of the meat, even the batch that was almost toothpaste. In the pot it joined the aromatic trio of sizzling onions, carrots and celery.

The meat was the central component of a ragu, or Bolognese-style meat sauce. And according to the instructions set out by Marcella Hazan in "The Classic Italian Cook Book," a key to a successful meat sauce is to cook it, at the merest simmer, for a long time. Marcella simmers her sauce for at least 3 1/2 hours before she serves it over homemade pasta.

I have made this sauce many times and have never been able to wait that long before serving it. My personal best in simmering time is about 2 1/2 hours, which, by no small coincidence, is about the length of most televised football and basketball games.

I have noticed that the longer a meat sauce is allowed to simmer, the better it tastes. The other day I was trying to get as much simmering time as possible, so I hurried through the early stages of the recipe. I put the meat in the pot. I added wine, then milk, then chopped tomatoes. It was only after the tomatoes went in, and the sauce began to cook in an uncovered pot, that I relaxed.

The bubbling meat sauce filled the house with an enticing aroma, and it quickly attracted kitchen visitors, the kids. "When are we going to eat?" the visitors asked. I replied that supper was still several hours away. I would serve no meat sauce before its time. The visitors grabbed some pretzels, watched some football and left.

I recalled that years ago, when I was a kid making forays into my mother's aroma-filled kitchen, I would occasionally get to grind meat. Our cast-iron grinder was a hand-operated device that, to a kid's eyes, represented a wondrous merger of the industrial and domestic worlds. Meat was dropped into an opening at the top of the device. The hand-turned auger moved it through the innards of the grinder. Strings of beef, looking like snakes, slithered out of its side, dropping into a waiting bowl. Sometimes, to appease the grinder after an especially strenuous session, it was fed pieces of stale bread.

I loved turning the meat-grinder handle. So did my three brothers. Mostly we tried to dodge all forms of kitchen labor, but when it came to operating the meat grinder, we fought over who turned the handle. Usually, we ended up taking turns.

The other afternoon, as I sat in my kitchen with the meat sauce bubbling on the stove and the football game dancing on the television set, I realized why grinding the meat in the food processor had given me such a charge. This time I had done it all by myself. This time I didn't have to share.

Meat Sauce

Serves 6

2 tablespoons chopped yellow onions

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons chopped celery

2 tablespoons chopped carrot

3/4 pound ground lean beef


1 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup milk

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)

2 cups canned Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped, with their juice

Use the deepest pot you own. Put in the chopped onion, with all the oil and butter, and saute briefly over medium heat until just translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook gently for 2 minutes.

Add the ground beef, crumbling it in the pot with a fork. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Stir and cook only until the meat has lost its raw, red color. Add the wine, turn the heat up to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the milk and optional nutmeg and cook until the milk has evaporated. Stir frequently.

When the milk has evaporated, add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly. When the tomatoes have started to bubble, turn the heat down until the sauce cooks at the laziest simmer, just an occasional bubble. Cook, uncovered, for 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and correct for salt.

Serve over pasta

From "The Classic Italian Cook Book" by Marcella Hazan (Knopf, 1978)

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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