Spaghetti Van Horn

Monday, December 04, 2006

Not only have I not posted a recipe in quite awhile, but with my wife heading to Chicago until Christmas, I thought I'd finally make good on an old promise. My wife and her family, who love Italian food, like my recipe for spaghetti sauce and have asked me to post it to my blog so they can find it.

This amuses me to no end because I am a complete boob when it comes to Italian food. I know most people regard it as elegant and that this admission will seem uncouth, but.... It all tastes the same to me -- except some of the southern Italian fare one can order at Buca di Beppo, the only Italian place I have ever independently decided to go. The nuances of the apparently infinite varieties of pasta are wholly lost on me.

In fact, I usually serve this with macaroni or some other short, compact noodle. Spaghetti (and all its individually-named thickness variants) strikes me mainly as a great way to spatter tomato sauce -- tomato sauce! -- all over myself. It's also hard to portion out for leftovers after it's been in the fridge overnight. (And many of my recipes, being from my bachelor days, are intended to make decent leftovers. Call me utilitarian if it makes you feel better.) This recipe exists only because I one day wanted some spaghetti like my mother used to make when I was a kid and I somehow guessed correctly, as I confirmed years after the fact.

A salient fact about this recipe is related to a big part of why I normally dine at Italian restaurants only when it seems everyone else wishes to do so: I had to subsist on the real thing for a semester as a college student. Several aspects of this experience have conspired to make me less-than-wild about Italian food.

For one thing, notice that meat -- specifically ground beef -- features prominently in this recipe. There were, at best, a few slivers of veal in the sauce on most nights when we dined at my college's campus in Rome. Every night, we would be served some differently-shaped noodle, some kind of sauce, usually tomato-based, salad, and rock-hard rolls. Men need protein. I'm small to begin with and I lost fifteen pounds in four months on this diet. This was muscle mass! Among my classmates -- and this apparently happened every year -- the men would lose muscle mass for lack of protein and the women would gain weight through carbohydrate loading.

And then there's that old hobgoblin known as "variety". We were told before our semester abroad that we would have "typical Italian meals" at our cafeteria, and that some would grow to love Italian food and others to hate it. I am happy to say that I escaped without actively hating Italian food. But after months on end of it, I have been rendered permanently, perhaps, indifferent to it -- in addition to the fact that I look askance at it as a a source of actual nutrition. Typically, when I sit down at an Italian restaurant, the first thing I will notice is the lack of sufficient meat with most dishes before I make a bee line for the frutti di mare. (This is happily not a problem at Buca di Beppo.) In my book, Italian cuisine is the other English cuisine. And the low-protein version at that.

Having said that, I feel the need to back off from my culinary reverie cum famine flashback for a moment. (My! This account borders on sounding like it came from a prison movie!) I need to say two things. First, and this is for my wife's dear parents: I insist that we eat Italian as usual on all future visits. This ritual has become part of visiting with you and I am happy to continue doing so because I know that you love Italian food. Indeed, this might even eventually help me come to love it in the same way I did Mexican food: By having it every time my parents visited me in Texas for years. Second, and this is for everyone else: This is my imitation of my mother's recipe. That would probably be why a bunch of Italian food fans like it!

(1) Thaw, if necessary, one pound ground beef.

(2) Start heating the water for the pasta. This will ensure that everything is ready at once.

(3) While cooking the ground beef in a saucepan, chop 1-1.5 cups white onion.

(4) Place into a small bowl the following ingredients:
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon basil
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • 2 small bay leaves
Set aside.

(5) Drain the ground beef, then add the onion, the spices, minced garlic, and the following ingredients to the beef.
  • one 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
  • two 8 ounce cans tomato sauce
  • one 6 ounce can tomato paste
  • one small (2-3 ounce) can diced black olives
  • one small (2-3 ounce) can sliced mushrooms
Mix thoroughly and simmer for 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

(6) Shortly after the sauce begins to simmer, prepare 6-8 ounces pasta according to package instructions.
Enjoy! In the meantime, I am looking forward to my gumbo, which I rarely make because my wife isn't a fan.

-- CAV


Inspector said...

Looks yummy to me. But then again a good red sauce isn't too complicated; simplicity - and LOTS of garlic - rule the day.

And adding excessive amounts of meat? No complaints here, given I share certain dietary preferences with Kowalski...

Of course, this from a guy who identified with the "I put garlic on my garlic" apron.

But I have to wonder if your malaise with restaurant Italian is more an indictment of the restaurants than it is of you. I can't find a decent Italian pasta place out here in the southwest. (Other than Buca, which is a national chain) Whereas back in Chicago, I had plenty of options to choose from; my favorites being Portillo's (Barnelli pasta bowl, actually) and Tuscany.

Gus Van Horn said...

Very astute of you to allude to the one ingredient I left open to taste. Who am I to limit someone's enjoyment of that fine flavor?

My malaise with Italian restaurants is, I hope, due to an ignorance acquired from visiting too many bad Italian restaurants. When I was writing this, it occurred to me that I could try branching out a little from the seafood the next time I am in Chicago.

A couple of places I like that I neglected to mention are Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, but I wonder how "Italian" some of the things I order at those places really are. Probably something I could do some time is find a decent Italian cookbook and hunt for recipes that look interesting.

Of course, it could well be that Italian food just doesn't "do it" for me. Personal taste can be a funny thing.

Inspector said...

I'll remain optimistic on your personal tastes. If you like your sauce than I think that's a good sign.

Yes, Macaroni Grill is allright, but the true test of an Italian joint is whether I will order a straight red sauce dish. I don't do that at the 'Grill, but their stuff is still quite good, simply because you can custom order pasta. (Olive garden is okay, too. I like their cheese/sausage soup and breadsticks)

Now, I will let you in on one secret of the Macaroni Grill, but you will be in my debt for this one:

When they give you that bread, ask for them to bring parmesian cheese. (it's free) Now, get a plate and put the olive oil on the plate, along with black pepper. Now, dip the bread in the oil and get it nice and wet. Now, since the bread is oil-drenched, parmesian cheese will stick to it. Dab it in the cheese, and then eat.

Oh, yes, it is good.

But if you go to Chicago, you simply have to try the marinara at Portillos/Barnellis and at Tuscany.

Gus Van Horn said...

Your bread-dipping idea is good and reminds me of an Italian/Seafood place (Guess what I went there for.) that used to operate in Houston that had an outsanding garlic-y dipping oil for its bread.

Sausalito's, unfortunately, went out of business years ago and is only a fond memory now.

Inspector said...

Tuscany will actually give you an entire clove of roasted garlic that they will mix with oil, cheese, and black pepper when they bring the bread.

Gus Van Horn said...

Well, if you're ever in LA, you should stop by The Stinking Rose, which is a garlic-themed restaurant. (Even the ice cream has it!)

I went once and recommend it -- as long as smelling like garlic the whole day afterwards will not represent a significant handicap!

Inspector said...

Oooooo. Sounds good.

Usually my wife reigns me in on the garlic on account of the smell. But I am devious; I make sure that she eats plenty of garlic, too, and thus cannot smell it so much coming off of me.

Which reminds me of a sandwich I was more than once actually forbidden from eating: The garlic cheesy beef. If you've had cheesy beef, it's like that. But with garlic. (drooling noise)