February 18, 2011

No football required

Chili is messy. It is not pretty or delicate and it flies in the face of all good food habits I’ve acquired in my almost twenty-seven years of life. I admit that my experience with the stuff is severely limited. I’ve never ordered it in a restaurant; my mom never made it for me as a kid and to say that I was not a school cafeteria/college dining hall type of a gal would be an understatement. Based purely on observation, to me chili always appeared to be this collection of ingredients that had no business being in the same bowl together.

And then one afternoon on the eve of what was probably a very important football game, Tom turned to me and asked, “Do you know how to make chili?” At the time we were still in our first year of marriage and I wanted to make a good impression so instead of responding with a look of repugnance I replied “um… sure... let me just go call my mom” (who will undoubtedly have no idea how to help me with this). Except that I was wrong. My mom’s advice was this, “call your Nonna, she makes great chili”. Of course she does. How else could something so wrong ever stand a chance of tasting so right?

It turns out that like me, Nonna can remember her very first bowl of chili. She and my grandfather were newly married and visiting with my Great Aunt Rosemary and her husband, my Uncle Harold.  Apparently they liked the stuff so much that Nonna decided it was worth making. And it absolutely is worth making. Especially if unlike me, your football team isn’t dead to you.

Company Chili

I should probably tell you that every time I make chili at home I have to call Nonna for a refresher and I swear to you she tells me a different way of doing it each time. So the following is an account of my most recent creation, which deviates slightly from Nonna’s instructions with the addition of pancetta and habenero peppers. Feel free to adjust the types of beans and the amount of chili powder to your liking, but do not omit the baked beans- they make all the difference.

You will be making enough chili to feed a football team so make room in your freezer and be ready with the Tupperware.

Oh and for the record this will be the first, and I promise the last recipe I offer to you that includes tomato sauce from a jar. I can feel your look of disgust and I understand. Honestly, I had my doubts about some of the ingredients in this recipe and every time I make it I still feel slightly dubious that it is going to come together and produce something edible. But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case the text message from my brother, which reads: “amazing chili”.

3 lbs. hamburger meat
.25 lbs. pancetta, chopped
3-4 TBLS olive oil
2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes (yes, I realize that in the past I have lectured against using crushed tomatoes, but per Nonna’s instructions chili is apparently an exception to many, many rules…)
1 jar tomato sauce
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
2 cans red kidney beans, drained
1 can pinto beans, drained
1 can baked beans, drained
3 onions, chopped
2 red peppers, chopped
1 habenero pepper, chopped (optional)
4-5 garlic cloves, chopped
2 oz. chili powder of your choice

In a very large stockpot heat the oil and add the pancetta. Cook over medium heat until crisp. Remove pancetta with slotted spoon and reserve for later.

Add the hamburger meat. Breaking it up with the back of your wooden spoon brown the meat thoroughly.

Add onions and sauté until soft for about 10-15 minutes. Add garlic and peppers and sauté for about 15 more minutes.

Push the meat and onions aside to create a hot spot for your tomato paste. Stirring frequently, cook the tomato paste for about 2 minutes and then mix it with the meat and vegetables.

Add your tomatoes, sauce, beans, pancetta and chili powder and stir to combine.

Let simmer for at least an hour. Add water as needed to get your desired chili consistency.

Serve with raw chopped onion.

February 11, 2011

And it's magic

Wow. It occurs to me that I’ve been puttering around this last year telling you all about soup bones, prune cake and fried cauliflower without so much as nod to that which sustains us. Pasta. Or rather in this case, pasta sauce. Surely my Great Grandfather Chinni would disapprove. It is my understanding that his dinner was never, ever served without a side dish of pasta accompanying it.

In my family we differentiate between “Sauce” and “quick sauce”. Sauce with a capital “S” has the meatballs, the pork chops, the sausage and the salt pork. Nonna makes Sauce the way maestros conduct orchestras- it’s a production where things bubble, sizzle and reemerge as a harmonious symphony of taste. But quick sauce is different. One minute all you have are tomatoes, olive oil and garlic and before you can even bring the pasta water to a boil a sauce appears as if by magic.

The very first time I tried making a quick sauce I failed miserably. I added all sorts of things that I thought were supposed to be in sauce like oregano, onion, and red wine. And those things do sometimes go in sauce but for goodness sakes one should never just throw them all into the pot, give them a stir and wait for a miracle. It was a very foolish thing to do.

I now know better. Nonna taught me that the most important thing to remember when making quick sauce is that you should always be able to taste the individual ingredients. It doesn’t need much fuss; all that’s required is the right touch.

I rely on quick sauce the way some people rely on boxed macaroni and cheese.  It’s my go-to meal when I have late classes, am unmotivated to “create” or if I just need some cheering up. It will indeed make you feel happy like an old time movie.

Quick Sauce

This recipe is a great foundation to build from. Nonna sometimes adds some of her pesto and toasted pine nuts. I like to add a few dollops of creamy ricotta and fresh basil to the pasta before tossing.

A couple of things to note before we go on. First, Nonna will tell you to always use whole peeled tomatoes (even if a recipe calls for the other) and crush them yourself. The reason being that crushed tomatoes are usually picked too early and aren’t as sweet. Second, I prefer this sauce with long pasta or ravioli preferably homemade, but it goes wonderfully with any shaped pasta you favor homemade or not.

2  28 OZ cans whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 6 OZ can tomato paste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, roughly 5 TBLSP
4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
Kosher salt to taste
Pepper to taste
2 sprigs of fresh basil
Good quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated for serving
1 lb of your favorite pasta

In a large bowl, using your hands crush the tomatoes. I like to leave them a little chunky but you might prefer a more pureed consistency. You can break them down further while they cook with the back of your spoon.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic cloves. Brown the garlic until they are lightly golden on all sides then push off to the side so they are not directly on the heat.

Add the tomato paste and let it caramelize for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently to keep from burning.

Add the crushed tomatoes, stir and let simmer for about twenty minutes stirring occasionally.

Add the basil, salt and pepper and let simmer for another five minutes. At this point you can remove the garlic cloves or do what I do- leave them in but warn the husband.

For the pasta, bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water generously. Add the pasta, cook until al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain pasta and toss it with sauce and cheese directly.