My Really Simple Italian Meat Sauce

On a rainy summer day or a cold winter afternoon I sometimes get the urge to make my marinara sauce. It’s best made with fresh tomatoes and needs to simmer slowly for a couple of hours to let the flavors develop. I usually make a pretty big batch and we freeze it in pint and quart containers that we can use as needed. But no matter how much I make, it seems that we run out before tomatoes are in season, or I just don’t want to spend lots of time in the kitchen.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says the old proverb, but so is laziness. Here is a meat sauce with lots of flavor that you can serve a half hour after you open the first can. Start the pasta water when the meat starts to brown, and everything will be ready before the family starts whining for supper.

It is easier to open a jar of commercial sauce, but if you follow this recipe, you’ll be serving a sauce that tastes better with less starch, sugar and salt than commercial products. If you appreciate good food, are concerned about your health, have diabetes or other health issues, this sauce is for you.

This recipe makes six generous servings.

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 lb. lean ground beef
1/2 lb. hot or sweet Italian sausage
3 T chopped onion
3 T green bell pepper
1 16 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 8 oz. tomato sauce
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1/4 tsp. fennel
1/8 tsp. basil
1/8 tsp. oregano
1/16 tsp. cayenne
1/16 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. olive oil

PROCEDURE:

Brown the meat in a three quart saucepan, breaking it into pieces as it cooks. Drain any excess fat. Chop the onion and pepper to a quarter inch dice and add it to the meat. Cook for two or three minutes to soften the onion.

While the meat and vegetables are cooking, measure the spices into a mortar or coffee cup and grind them together a little with a pestle or spoon. Stir them into the meat mixture and sauté them a minute. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste along with the wine and olive oil.

Mix everything together, reduce the heat and simmer the sauce while the pasta finishes cooking. When the pasta is nearly ready, taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning.

Serve over pasta of your choice with a green salad and bread. Offer Parmesan cheese.

NOTES: Jerri says, “There’s a lot of meat in this sauce.” I say, “It’s meat in a sauce, not sauce with some meat in it.”

If you are concerned about the alcohol in the wine, simmer the sauce five minutes longer to make sure that you have driven off the “Devil’s brew.” You just want the flavor.

This sauce freezes well.

Easy Masoor Dal

Rice and bread are both rather bland foods. If you are a vegetarian, you don’t have the option of adding chicken to that pot of rice or topping your bread with beef gravy or barbecued pork to add some flavor. That may partly explain why dal was invented by some imaginative cook on the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago. The earliest references to vegetarianism from India are older than those from ancient Greece, which we find in the Odyssey, thought to have been composed about 800 B.C.

While never in the majority, a significant minority of ancient Greeks and Romans were vegetarians. The people of eastern and northern Europe who conquered the Roman Empire, however, were hunters who liked their venison. Vegetarianism virtually disappeared from Europe until the Renaissance when European scholars rediscovered the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome.

Vegetarianism in the United States was practiced by a few small Christian communities in the 18th century, and a few notable Americans were vegetarians. Among them was Colonel Thomas Crafts Jr., who was the first person to read the brand new Declaration of Independence from the balcony of the old state house in Boston.

Another was Benjamin Franklin, who became a vegetarian at the age of sixteen, but later began eating meat again occasionally. Franklin has more to answer for than abandoning his youthful enthusiasm for vegetables or burdening us with wise sayings like “Eat to live, and not live to eat.” He introduced tofu to the American colonies in a letter to John Bartram in Philadelphia in 1770. He sent some soybeans and passed on instructions of how the Chinese made “tau-fu.”

India, where vegetarianism apparently originated, is home to most of the world’s vegetarians—at least 250,000,000 people. There are far fewer in the United States, but one of them happens to be our grandson.

He is the person who first told me about dal. Dal (also spelled daal, dhal or dahl) in Hindi may mean lentils or a thick spicy stew made with lentils. Masoor dal means red lentils. The lentils contribute some important proteins missing in rice and wheat, and the spices add interest to those bland foods. Therefore, dal is not only good for you, but also makes things taste good—a perfect combination.

With a quarter of a billion people eating dal in India, there may be a million different dal recipes. Here is one that is easy and delicious.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup red lentils
2 cups water plus more if needed
3 T vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. garam masala
1/2 to 3/4 cup finely chopped tomato

PROCEDURE:

Rinse the lentils and put them in a two or three quart saucepan. Add about two cups of water, enough just to cover the lentils. Bring them to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, about twenty minutes. Skim off any foam as the lentils cook. Add more water if necessary, so you end up with a thick soup. Remove the lentils from the heat until you are ready to add the spice mixture.

While the lentils are cooking, peel and mince the ginger root and garlic and finely chop the onion. Put about three tablespoons of vegetable oil into a small skillet. Stir in the onions and sauté them over moderate heat for three or four minutes until they are translucent but not browned.

Wash and finely chop a small to medium tomato while the onions are cooking.

Reduce the heat to low and add the minced ginger, garlic, salt, turmeric, cayenne and cumin seeds to the onions. Cook this spice mixture for four minutes, then stir in the chopped tomato. Continue simmering and stirring the mixture for another three or four minutes to soften the tomato.

Stir in the garam masala, then stir the spice mixture into the lentils and bring the dal to a simmer. Simmer it for a few minutes to blend the flavors, stirring often to prevent scorching. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Serve over rice for a main dish or as a dip for eating with naan as an appetizer.

NOTES: The best places to find red lentils are food co-ops or Asian markets.

Some people add chopped cilantro and more spices to their dal. My advice is to start with this recipe and try adjusting it to suit your taste the next time you make it.

You can substitute butter for all or part of the oil for cooking the onions and spices.

Some recipes omit the garam masala, perhaps because like me, those cooks didn’t know what it was. It will, however, enhance the flavor of your dal.

Garam masala is a mixture of spices that Indian cooks make themselves or buy from a spice merchant. There are many versions ranging from mild to blazing hot. Curry powder, for instance, might be called a mild garam masala. Traditional garam masala starts with whole peppercorns and other seeds and spices which are toasted then ground into a powder, but you can make a pretty good imitation with spices you probably have in your spice rack.

This recipe makes about a quarter cup of medium hot garam masala.

INGREDIENTS:

1 T ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

Mix the spices together very thoroughly and store the mixture in a cool, dry place.