Salvation Bolognese

A little while ago, we had our first dinner party in years–I’m not exactly sure how long ago the last one was, but I can absolutely fix the date as sometime squarely before the “pre-children” dividing line of my life.  I’ve told you about the pre-dinner drinks but not about the rest of the evening.   We had a great time — one of the spring menus from David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs, exactly as he devised it:  blanched asparagus in vinaigrette, roast lamb over flageolet beans, and babas au rhum for dessert.  And plenty of wine.

But there were some hiccups–to understate things a bit, and wouldn’t you know it, all to do with the main course.  I bought the lamb a week early, knowing that it was likely to sell out with Easter approaching.  The butcher cut me three 1 1/2 pound portions of lamb roast, and advised me that I should begin the thawing process no later than Friday evening, but to be safe Friday morning would be better.  Of course I went with the more cautious approach.

You can guess what happened.  The lamb was still an arctic brick late Saturday afternoon.  I tried to defrost in water–figuring (hoping!) that would work relatively quickly as the meat had already been thawing for 36 hours.  I then used the “turbo defrost” feature on the microwave.  Nothing.  In a fit of frustration, and already an hour into the evening, I chucked the meat in the oven, jabbed in the meat probe I bought for the occasion, slammed the oven door closed and prayed.  I was crushed to see that it was too cold for the probe to even pick up a reading.

My husband and I had a time-out in the kitchen.  He asked if we should just order pizza: “we have to feed these people!”  As the horror of calling Domino’s or the like settled on me, I remembered the bolognese sauce that I make in bulk and store in the freezer.  I pulled out a few two-portion containers, ran them under cold water to loosen the ice, dumped them in a saucepan, and we were off.

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (10 of 10)

Meanwhile, at some point in the process I shrieked in excitement from the kitchen–a number had appeared instead of the digitized “LoTemp” on my probe.  My joy was tempered slightly at the fact that the number was 32F but it was a milestone, and it continued to uptick nicely after that.

Suffice it to say, due to the difficulties of choreographing pots large enough to boil pasta and blanch asparagus, the bolognese with linguine ended up being ready at exactly the same time as the lamb came out of the oven.  So no one went away hungry, and my husband and I were eating lamb for a few days after that.

I stumbled into an important lesson–always have a plan B.  (I didn’t, but just got lucky).  And my bolognese sauce, that I’ve been making for ages now, was rechristened:  salvation bolognese.

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (9 of 10)

Salvation, for obvious reasons, but really it should have gotten that name long ago.  Those days when you are too beat to cook anything are often those days when you are in most dire need of something home-cooked and soul-nourishing.  Salvation.  Those weekends when an afternoon activity with kids runs far longer than you’ve planned.  Salvation.  And oh, when you throw a dinner party for your husband’s colleagues to whom he’s been talking up your kitchen prowess for weeks, and you don’t want to cater from Papa Gino’s.  Salvation!

I make a double recipe whenever I’m running low, and I’ve just started making it in my slow cooker, though I’ve been doing it for years just on the stovetop.  The reason the slow cooker is now my preferred method is that, much like making a soup stock, the slower and longer, the better, and I’m no longer tied to the stove for hours–not that the kitchen isn’t an inviting place to be during the process.

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (1 of 10)

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (3 of 10)

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (5 of 10)

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (8 of 10)

There are a million twists on basic bolognese, but there are some constants–a mix of ground meats is best (and easy to accomplish if you double or triple the recipe, as I always do) but you can use just one type if you like.  Milk or cream is either added early in the process or later on.  A base of onions, carrot, and celery chopped fine; a variety of spices, ranging from herby marjoram to aromatic nutmeg add complexity.  Mine is based on a Mark Bittman version, but I think as long as you follow the cardinal rule–cooking gently and slowly for as long as you possibly can–it will be delicious.  I love seeing how the meat slowly breaks down even as the sauce comes together into this flavorful, delicious sauce.  Check out how the sauce changes in texture from start to finish, and then I’ll give you the recipe.

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (6 of 10)

Salvation Bolognese Sauce (7 of 10)

Salvation Bolognese

  • 1/4c olive oil
  • 2 onions
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 6 ounces pancetta
  • 1lb ground beef
  • 1lb ground pork
  • 2 cups white wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes
  • 1/4 t nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • cream or milk

Chop the onion, celery, and carrot very fine–I do this in the food processor since I’m making such a large batch.  (If doing this, pulse and check frequently so you don’t accidentally make a puree).  Heat the oil in a 5 quart skillet over medium and add the chopped vegetables.  (If you are planning to use a slow cooker, you can just use a deep skillet as I do in the photographs).  Sautee, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the pancetta finely (again, I use the food processor for this), and when the vegetables are ready, stir in the chopped pancetta along with ground beef.  Continue to sautee until the meat has lost its red color and is cooked, around 5-10 minutes.

Add the wine, turn the heat to high, and cook until the the alcohol has evaporated (about 5 minutes).
If you are using a slow cooker, now is the time to transfer it over to your slow cooker.  If not, continue to use the same pot.
Add the nutmeg, stock and the canned tomatoes.  (Since you are using canned whole tomatoes, either chop them up or break them up in your hands as you add them; drain off the extra liquid in the can).
Turn the heat so the mixture simmers slowly, stirring occasionally.  If using a slow cooker, cook on HIGH for 6 hours or on LOW for 8.  If cooking on the stove top, cook for two hours but go longer if you can.
Before portioning for the freezer, I chill in the fridge (as I try to avoid putting heated food into plastic containers).  I generally portion into 1 1/2 cup portions which is very generous for about a pound of pasta.  You will note the layer of congealed fat on top.  That’s OK.
When reheating to serve, allow about 20 minutes.  Add a drizzle of cream or milk to the sauce and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes (you can skip this, but by the time you heat the water for pasta and cook it, you’ll be there anyway).   Toss the ragu with the pasta and serve with plenty of grated parmesan cheese, and garnish with chopped parsley.
As for the picture below–when else do you get an excuse to pour out two cups of wine in the morning?   This is wine from a Cape Cod vineyard (really!) that I got at our new winter farmer’s market.  And don’t worry–the owner of that little hand did not get any.  I, however, had some with my pasta later that night.
Salvation Bolognese Sauce (4 of 10)
For other takes on bolognese sauce in the slow cooker, check out the links here and here.

Black Bean Sweet Potato Chili with Quinoa

One of our favorite meals growing up was a soup of butternut squash, black beans, and assorted southwestern flavors that came to be known by the name “rubber band soup.”  A recipe originally passed along to my mother by a co-worker, we made it often enough to make it our own.  One time, though, there was one too many tweaks.  As we sat down to eat, we all noticed an odd flavor.  Everyone hesitantly sipped a few more  spoonfuls, not sure the rubbery taste was only their imagination.  A few askance glances around the table, and my mom got up to stir the soup pot to see what was going on.  And there was a rubber band, fresh from the local paper, floating in the inky liquid.

It turns out rubber bands can infuse their characteristic flavor into a broth as handily as any bay leaf or sachet of herbes de provence.  In case you were wondering.  And in case you were still wondering, I don’t recommend it.

We didn’t finish that particular bowl of soup, but the name stuck.  And I think we’ve all agreed to forget who had prepared dinner that night.  Moving on.  Ahem.

Sweet Potato Black Bean Quinoa Chili (2 of 3)

This chili I’m going to tell you about highlights all of the good parts of that rubber band soup, with none of the synthetic undertones.  And it nicely allows me to tick off two goals in one fell swoop: using my slow cooker, and sneaking more quinoa into my diet (remember, I’m still learning to love it).  Even better, it incorporates additional super-foods such as beans and sweet potatoes, is supremely economical, and can even be vegan if you so desire.

Oh, and it tastes really really good.

Though I only found (and started tinkering with) this recipe a few months ago, it’s been enjoyed not only by me and my husband, but also by both of our respective parental units, my aunt, and even my grandmother.  My children have thus far refused, but that’s par for the course.  (Remember, to my utmost chagrin, this is not one of those mommy blogs where I give you recipes that even the pickiest toddler will love.  Not for lack of trying.  Don’t get me started).

There’s a few factors working in concert to make this chili so satisfying.  Chipotle’s smokiness serves as a substrate to unify a colorful variety of  flavors.  Its charred, roasted flavor melds particularly well with sweet potatoes,  which makes this so much more than just a pot of beans.  The quinoa, meanwhile, is almost imperceptible and serves to thicken the sauce (and add extra protein) more than anything else.  (Even my mother-in-law, who is avowedly not a quinoa fan, loved this stew).

Sweet Potato Black Bean Quinoa Chili (3 of 3)

Each time I’ve made this slightly differently, but each attempt has met with success.  I’ve used Mexican oregano (pictured above) and regular dried oregano.  I’ve tried it with brown rather than black beans (though I still prefer black, the stew still managed to disappear in short order).  I’ve doubled it.  I’ve used fewer tomatoes than called for, thanks to pantry shortages.  I’ve even been lazy and skipped the first step of sauteeing the onions, garlic, and spices, instead flinging all ingredients in the slow cooker at once.  Perhaps due to laziness, or maybe it was me frantically trying to get things going before I left for the office.  It worked though.

And there are plenty of other ways to go about this.  My original sources, which I’ve linked to below, did not use a slow cooker–click through for instructions.  I almost always use dried beans, but I know I’m in the minority, so you might be glad to know you can even use canned beans if you prefer.

Just make sure not to add any rubber bands.

Sweet Potato Black Bean Quinoa Chili (1 of 3)

A note about chipotles:  These smoked jalapeño peppers packed in a marinade are key to this dish, but potent in heat–you’ll have lots remaining (unless you are made of truly tough stuff) and likely will not be able to use the rest immediately.  Simply freeze the leftovers — as a flattened out block that you break pieces from as needed or stuffed roughly into ice cube trays–and use as needed (what I also do with tomato paste).  Karen purees her remainders, stores in the fridge, and uses spoonfuls as necessary.  And she reminds me–chipotles do stain, but perhaps that’s just as well–certainly not something you’d want to accidentally rub in your eyes.

Black Bean Sweet Potato Chili with Quinoa From here, as tweaked by here, as tweaked for the slow cooker by me.  Do check those links if you don’t have or don’t want to use a slow cooker.

Serves 4-6; makes 3 quarts; doubles well if you have a 6 quart cooker.

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2-3 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 14.5-ounce can chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 pound dried black beans, rinsed well and soaked overnight
  • 1 chipotle chile from canned chipotle chiles in adobo, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano (Mexican oregano if you have it)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt + more to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups sweet potatoes (1 medium), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
  • 3 c water

For garnish:  sour cream or greek yogurt. chopped fresh cilantro or green onions

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Add the onion and cook until soft and beginning to brown, 6-7 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, and coriander and stir. Cook together for 1 minute.

Add this mixture, along with all the remaining ingredients, to the crock pot.  Stir and cook on low for 7-8 hours.  You may need to add more water at the end, though thanks to pre-soaking the beans, I have found it not to be necessary.

Serve with fresh cilantro and sour cream or Greek yogurt, if desired.

Black Lentil Dal in the Slow Cooker

I got a slow cooker for Christmas. All the cool moms-of-preschoolers have one these days. But I hadn’t used it much until now. Thanks to this “soft foods” diet that I’ve been on recently however (no, this is not the newest weight-loss fad, it’s a dental issue), I’ve finally set down to figure things out.

Black Lentil Dal (4 of 6)

I started browsing slow cooker books on amazon, and  Anupy Singla‘s  The Indian Slow Cooker jumped out at me.  Maybe most people think of chili as the slow cooker meal par excellence, but to me Indian food seemed the obvious choice.  (Though perhaps not just to me).  I’m no expert on Indian food, but the little I do know is that curries and dals benefit from a relaxed, gentle simmer that gives the flavors and spices plenty of time to comfortably meld and mix. Or at least this is what I was told at the Indian restaurant around the corner from our old apartment in London. (We went there, well, a lot).

This book is a slender volume, but with an entire chapter devoted just to lentils and a second for chickpeas and legumes, I am finding plenty for my slow-cooking roster.

Black Lentil Dal (5 of 6)

I admit I used this recipe to inaugurate my slow cooker out of the sheer novelty of using black lentils–dark like obsidian and shiny as liquid ink, diminutive like French Puy lentils.  But even with the minimal effort required, it was all the other ingredients that I got to use that made this dish so fun to make–the long neglected jars of turmeric, ground coriander, whole cardamom and fennel seed in my pantry.  It’s not that I don’t love all these flavors, but I don’t have the ease and facility with them that lends itself to experimentation while cooking.

Fortunately the author had figured it out for me.  And I loved coming home from work to a kitchen perfumed with sweet cardamom, spicy cloves, earthy cumin and warm ginger.

Black Lentil Dal (3 of 6)

As a dal, the lentils would have ideally melted and broken down into a thick sauce–much like what happens with red lentils.  However, since I could only find whole, rather than split, black lentils, mine clung fast to their shape as I ladled them out over rice.  I’m sure the gentle heat of the slow cooker allowed them to retain their disc form as well.  Not that I minded this slight deviation from authenticity.

Black Lentil Dal (6 of 6)

Black Lentil Dal adapted from The Indian Slow Cooker by Anupy Singla; Update 4/30 see her original post on this recipe here!

(Recipe for a 3 quart slow cooker, double for a 5 quart cooker; makes 7 cups)

  • 1 1/2 c (300g) whole dried black lentils
  • 3 shallots
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 dried or fresh chiles (I used chile de arbol)
  • 1 bunch (about 1 cup chopped) fresh cilantro (I used 2 heaping teaspoons dried)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala or 3 cardamom pods, 2 cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 2 heaping teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons red chile powder
  • 6 c water
  • plain yogurt, cilantro, and rice for garnish

Chop the shallots, hot peppers, garlic, and cilantro together in a food processor.  Add this, and all ingredients but the garnishes to the crock pot.  Cook on low for 8 hours.  Season and serve over rice, with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream on top and fresh cilantro leaves.

Black Lentil Dal (1 of 6)Black Lentil Dal (2 of 6)