Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My dad's famous spaghetti sauce

My mother actually taught me how to make this Spaghetti Bolognese recipe. In third grade, I had to write a recipe so my mother taught me how to make it. It became my first dish that I could cook for the family. Family legend had it that my mother learned to cook this while working in the galley of a big ocean liner that sailed around Africa when she was young. 

My father liked the flourish of having some signature dishes so took over the spaghetti sauce preparation. After my mother died, it became standard for my sister and I to be served spaghetti on our first night back home. Alyson and Dad even had it for Thanksgiving dinner once. It was the dish that signifies family more strongly than anything else in my life. Proust had his madelienes, I've got my spaghetti sauce. 

We ate it simply - very 1970s style. Plain spaghetti noodles (often the Winn Dixie or Piggly Wiggly brand) - never angel hair or penne or anything else. Kraft Parmesan cheese on top. A salad usually made with iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, bell peppers and served with a choice of store bought dressings and often, if we didn't have the frozen garlic bread , then white bread with butter. Remember, this is Sumter, South Carolina - the nearest place to buy arugula is a 60 minute drive away. We convinced my father to switch to curly green leaf lettuce and romaine when it became plentiful in the 21st century and he became quite a vinaigrette maker but the "Shake cheese" and frozen garlic bread were always a favorite.  

As my sister and I became older, the spaghetti and salad were joined with a glass of red wine - sometimes good and sometimes bad as he had a habit of checking out the sales racks at the local grocery store and buying his wine there. It always COULD have been good but sometimes it had gone bad. And he would often regale us with the story of eating spaghetti while as a young man in Italy. He would carefully chop it all up and then tell us about the Italian who was so appalled that he rushed across the restaurant to shout "Don't cut the spaghetti! Don't cut the spaghetti!". My dad would laugh and say - but I like it this way. American imperialism! I would shout as a 20 year old. Knew his own mind and didn't care about fashion, I thought as I mellowed and became older. My father knew his own mind - he didn't really care what other people thought about him. He liked the finer things in life but when it came down to it - he was a child of the depression and an American. He wasn't going to waste money on more expensive wine when this wine was "perfectly adequate" (plus I think he liked the thrill of perhaps finding an overlooked jewel in the wine bargain bin) and he liked to cut his spaghetti and wasn't Italian so who cared?
My father perfected this sauce and all my childhood friends had it one time or another. They always wanted the leftovers. Christmas 2008, my father was living with my sister in a house in Columbia, SC. A dream kitchen with a beautiful big gas stove, plenty of counter space, and a stainless stell refrigerator, dishwasher, and every type of appliance one could wish for were in that kitchen. He was quite frail from his repeated hospitalizations and couldn't stand as long as he used to. One of the most difficult things for him was having to be dependent on my sister who didn't really like to cook for his dinners. When I came home, I made him whatever he wanted for the Christmas holiday. I cooked elaborate breakfasts and his favorite lunches and dishes like Orange Fool that he had read about and was interested in trying (it was Winston Churchill's favorite dessert). He ruefully shook his head one day and said - I've never even cooked on that stove. 

I decided that wasn't a good state of affairs. We set him up at the kitchen table with the chopping blocks and the knives and the vegetables and in television chef style, we put everything in its own bowl. I put a chair next to the stove and we moved him over there with his walker. As he needed a dish, he shouted it out and I, his happy sous chef, handed it to him. We made a great batch of spaghetti sauce. And he got to yell at me like he always did when I was a child for "cooking the spoon" because I never take the wooden spoon out. 

Today is the one year anniversary of my father's death. In his honor (and in my mothers honor) I've cooked the spaghetti sauce. It never tastes quite the same as his sauce did but it puts me back in touch with him and happy days in the kitchen in Sumter, South Carolina. 

Martin Family Spaghetti Bolognese

1 pound of ground beef (the leaner the better)
1 green bell pepper (chopped)
1/2 container of mushrooms (sliced)
1 large onion (diced)
2 small carrots (grated)
1 can of tomato paste
1 can of chopped tomatos
dried oregano
2 or 3 cloves of fresh garlic (minced)
dash of "Italian seasoning" (basil, marjoram, oregano, sage mixture)
lots of fresh ground black pepper

2 bay leaves
2 cubes of beef bouillon
dollop of olive oil

Brown the beef in olive oil. Add 2 cloves or so of chopped garlic, the onion, the bell peppers and stir well. Cover the beef and vegetables with enough water and two small beef bouillon cubes to cover them all. Add oregano, italian seasoning mix, bay leaves, black pepper, and bring to a boil. Add two carrots grated very fine. After it comes to a full rolling boil, turn the temperature down to simmer and add the tomatos and mushrooms.

Stir well and simmer until reduced down. Tastes even better the next day!

My dad also added celery and fennel seeds or italian sausage from time to time but I don't care for those so my mother and I omitted those.