Beefy Bolognese Sauce

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These are the days when I think a lot about comforts….and comfort foods.   Which brings me to the question:  just what is a comfort food?

If each of you were to give me an answer, I would probably get over 400 answers, so that means everyone has their own definition of what comfort food is to them.  For me, comfort foods take me back to my younger days, when Mom was doing the cooking.  There were so many dishes she made that I loved, so anything that reminds me of one of those meals is a comfort to me.  Comfort foods are tied up with memories….the family eating together around a big table with lots of talk and laughter going on, and enjoying favorite foods.

Bolognese Sauce with penne pasta

Bolognese Sauce with penne pasta

One of my most favorite memories is the meat sauce that Mom always made from scratch, and served over pasta with lots of grated cheese over the top.  I’m guessing that pasta in some form is considered a comfort food by many people all over the world.  Therefore a recipe for a good meat sauce (Bolognese Sauce) should be in every cook’s repertoire.  It’s so versatile, it can be served over anything;  rice, bread, potatoes, polenta, and pasta, of course.  It goes with any pasta shape.

So welcome to my kitchen today while I prepare my best Bolognese Sauce for you.  This is not a sauce that needs to cook slowly on the back burner for hours.  What helps to speed up the blending of flavors is cooking it in a Dutch oven.  The Dutch oven, even with the lid on, allows the sauce to reduce a little, thus concentrating the flavors.  This method of cooking it also lets the layers of flavor come through, as the bacon, ground meat and veggies all get browned in the same pot, which is then deglazed with the cooking liquid.

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For anyone who might want to cook it in a slow cooker….I have done it that way, and find that the sauce is a little more liquid than I like it, so I would recommend using a little less broth, or omit the wine.  The end result will still be very good, but my first choice is the Dutch oven.

Also, since making this is so easy, I like to make double the amount, and freeze half of it, so it’s ready for a quick meal anytime…

BEEFY BOLOGNESE SAUCE

Yield:  Makes about 4 cups, or enough for 1 pound of pasta

Ingredients:

  • 3 slices center cut bacon, choppedIMG_9024
  • 8 oz. 90% lean ground beef
  • 4 oz. ground, lean pork, or sausage, casings removed
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped carrot
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup unsalted tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup unsalted chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup red or white wine
  • 1 ( 14.5-oz) can unsalted diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Directions:

1.  Place bacon in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat; sauté 5 minutes or until beacon begins to crisp.  Add beef and pork to pan;  cook 6 minutes or until partly browned, stirring to crumble.  Remove mixture from pan.

Browning all the meat.

Browning all the meat.

2.  Add onion, carrot, celery, and garlic; sauté 4 minutes.

Sautéing the veggies.

Sautéing the veggies.

Add tomato paste; saute 1 minute until it starts to darken.

Add tomato paste.

Add tomato paste.

Add chicken broth and wine; bring to a boil.  Cook 1 minute, scraping up browned bits from the bottom of the pan.  Return beef mixture to pan.

Add liquids, then return meats to the pan.

Add liquids, then return meats to the pan.

3.  Stir in tomatoes, salt and pepper.  Cover; reduce heat to low, and cook about 1 hour, stirring several times to prevent sticking.  Taste before serving and add more salt, if needed.

Serve over your choice of pasta.  In the photos here, I used penne pasta.  Grate some fresh parmesan or Romano cheese over each serving and garnish with fresh chopped parsley.    DEEElish!

Oops, in my haste to take the photos, I forgot the cheese.  How could I ?

Oops, in my haste to take the photos, I forgot the cheese. How could I ?

Making Lasagna with No-Boil Noodles

Lasagna with No-boil Noodles

Lasagna with No-boil Noodles

This past weekend I made lasagna, not one pan, but three.  Making a pan of lasagna can take quite a bit of time especially when you make your own meat sauce, then cook the noodles, then layer it all in the pan, followed by baking it in the oven.  So if I’m going to spend the time making a pan of it, without much additional time spent on the task, I can make two or three.   I usually cook one for us, give one away to someone who may be having some difficulty preparing meals, and freeze one for a later date.

Making lasagnas

Making lasagnas

There are a couple of ways that I have found to shorten the time involved.  I usually make my meat sauce a day or two in advance.  That way the flavors have a good chance to blend together.  This time I used the Slow Cooked Ragu that I wrote about here, but the recipe for my regular meat sauce is given below.    The other way that I shorten up on the time involved is by using no-cook noodles.  Cooking lasagna noodles has got to be one of my least favorite chores.  In the pot they clump together, when drained they slither around and tear, and then afterwards you have to wash a large pot.  So life is so much easier with the no-cook kind.

All you have to do is open the box, layer the sheets of pasta with the sauce and cheese and stick the baking dish into the oven to bake.  Easy.  Once you try it you will not go back to boiling lasagna noodles.  Honest!  More and more people are latching on to this easy method.  There are several pasta companies that are now making these noodles.  Look for them with other pastas in your supermarket.

No-boil noodles, easy to handle, easy to use.

No-boil noodles, easy to handle, easy to use.

You may be asking how are they different and how do they work?  Both traditional and no-boil noodles are made from water and semolina, but the no-boilers are precooked in a water bath before being dried and packaged.  They are also rolled out much thinner than regular noodles, so that they rehydrate quickly.  The lasagna’s sauce and other ingredients contribute moisture they need to soften and expand.  When layering your ingredients it is most important to be sure all surfaces of the dry noodles are covered -to the edges- with sauce, thus preventing dry spots in the finished dish.  I usually add a little more sauce than the recipe calls for, just to be sure the noodles rehydrate fully.  Keep in mind, also, that some vegetables will contribute additional liquid, such as spinach, mushrooms and zucchini.  Until you are comfortable with the amount of liquid to use, it is best to take your cues from the recipe on the back of a box of no-boil noodles.

You will also need to follow package directions on how to position the pasta in your pan, alternating the directions that the pasta sheets are laying.  Sometimes there is an illustration on the back of the box.  And always coat the bottom of the baking dish with a small amount of sauce before placing the first layer of noodles in the dish.

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Lasagna seems to be everyone’s favorite comfort food.  We just never seem to grow tired of pasta noodles baked with a hearty meat sauce that includes ground beef and sausage, plus lots of ricotta cheese, mozzarella and Parmesan.  When it comes out of the oven with the tomato sauce bubbling up around the edges, and the cheese melted all over the top, we can hardly wait  to dig in.  I usually keep it simple and serve a salad and some good crunchy bread with this meal, and no dessert!

The recipe that I use goes back to the way my mother prepared it.  I have tweaked it over the years, mostly with the seasonings that I put in, but basically it’s still hers.  Mr. D. loves this dish whenever I make it.

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BAKED LASAGNA  (With No-cook Noodles)

Yield:   10 – 12 servings

Ingredients:

For the meat sauce:

  • 3/4 – 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1  (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1  (15-0z) can tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup waterIMG_0118
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1 tsp. Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp. salt
  •  1/4 tsp. black pepper

For Lasagna:

  • 12 lasagna noodles
  • 16 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 3-4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 3/4  cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

1.  In a large sauce pot, cook sausage, ground beef, onion and garlic over medium heat until well browned.  Drain off any accumulated fat.  Stir in crushed tomatoes, sauce and water.  Stir in sugar, basil, oregano, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper.  Simmer, covered for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.  This can be made a day or two in advance to allow flavors to blend well.

2. In a large bowl, stir together the ricotta cheese, eggs, basil, oregano, and parsley.

3.  Preheat oven to 350*F.   Lightly grease or spray a 13″x 9″ baking dish or lasagna pan.  Spread about 3/4 cup sauce in the bottom of the pan.  Place 3 pieces uncooked pasta (crosswise) over the sauce.  Pieces should not overlap or touch sides of the pan since they will expand when baked.

4.  Spread about 1/3 of ricotta mixture evenly over the noodles.  Cover this with 3/4  cup meat sauce spreading evenly and covering the pasta completely, sprinkle with 1 cup mozzarella cheese.

5.  Repeat steps 3 & 4 two more times, alternating the direction the pieces of pasta are laying each time.  Top with remaining 3 pieces of pasta.  Spread the remaining meat sauce completely over the top layer; sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

6.  Cover with foil.  Bake 35 minutes; remove the foil and bake 10 – 15 minutes longer or until hot and bubbly.  Let stand 5 minutes before cutting.

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Extra pieces can be tightly wrapped and refrigerated, to be rewarmed at a later time in the oven or microwave.

A leftover piece rewarms with a little extra sauce.

A leftover piece rewarms with a little extra sauce.

To Make Ahead:  Prepare as directed above but do not bake.  Cover with plastic wrap, then foil.  Refrigerate up to 48 hours or freeze for up to 2 months.  When ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap, replace foil.   Bake cold lasagna at 350*F for about 40 minutes, and a frozen lasagna for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, removing foil during the last 10 minutes of baking.

SOURCE:  Family recipe

Slow-cooked Ragu

Slow-cooked ragu served over cheese-filled ravioli.

Slow-cooked ragu served over cheese-filled ravioli.

My slow cooker has been a life saver during the past couple of weeks.  I call it “Old Faithful” because I’ve had it for a long time and it just keeps on going and going, working for me, while I’m busy attending to other things.  On those days when I planned on baking several batches of cookies, I would get something started in the slow cooker early in the day, then not worry about dinner except for some finishing touches.

Maybe, like me, you’ve had some disappointments using a slow cooker.  Rather than getting an entree that’s luscious and tasty, it emerged rather tired, defeated and exhausted.  Unless you are following a recipe specially written for a slow cooker that can happen because of the added moisture that a slow cooker/crockpot produces.  Meat can also become dried out and stringy instead of tender due to overcooking.  So how do we solve those problems?   First I’ll talk about the four main ingredients, then I’ll give you a recipe for a well-seasoned meat sauce – a ragu- that you can use in a variety of ways.

1.  Meats:  For the slow cooker, select meats with a moderate amount of fat or internal marbling, such as chuck roast or pork shoulder.  For poultry that is immersed in liquid, try to keep cooking time to about 4 hours; longer than that you will get dry stringy remnants.

2.Vegetables:  Only hearty vegetables like root vegetables can survive 8 hours in a slow cooker and they need to be cut into large pieces, not bite-sized.  Place them in the bottom of the cooker with meat and sauce or liquids poured over the top.  Other vegetables, like tomatoes, will stew down nicely and become sauce-like.  Tender, more delicate vegetables like green beans, corn, squash, and greens should be added in the last 30 minutes of cooking time.

3.  Seasoning:  If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of oregano, use 2.  Slow cookers have a funny way of diluting flavor so you will need to add more at the start.  When converting a conventional recipe for the slow cooker, double the amount of herbs or spices you think you need, even ones that are intense, like crushed red pepper.

4.  Garnishes:   When something looks good, it seems to taste better, so sprinkling a fresh garnish onto a completed dish is an easy way to bring the meal to life.  Try using fresh herb leaves or sprigs, or ingredients with a crunch like bread crumb topping or crisp chips to contrast with the softer textures of the dish.

The recipe for this meaty sauce is great ladled over any kind of pasta.  I also use it when making lasagna, sometimes thinning it with traditional spaghetti sauce, and it makes the dish more hearty with veggies.  It makes a large quantity and leftovers freeze well.

SLOW-COOKED RAGU

Yield:  Makes about 12 ( 2/3) cup servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces pancetta, chopped.  Use bacon in a pinch.IMG_5942
  • 1 pound ground beef, 90% lean
  • 12 ounces ground pork
  • 1 (4-ounce) hot Italian sausage link, casing removed
  • 1 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 1  1/3 cup diced onion
  • 2/3 cup diced carrot
  • 2/3 cup celery
  • 1/4 cup unsalted tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp. minced fresh garlic
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • 1 (15-ounce) can unsalted crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. salt, divided
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf

Directions:

1.  Place pancetta or bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat;  cook 4 minutes or until beginning to brown, stirring occasionally.  Add ground beef;  cook 3 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble.  Place beef mixture in a 6-quart electric slow cooker.

Browning up the beef.

Browning up the beef with bacon.

2.  Return skillet to medium-high heat.  Add ground pork and sausage;  cook 5 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble.  Add pork mixture to slow cooker.

Browning the pork and sausage.

Browning the pork and sausage.

3.  Return skillet to medium-high heat once again.  Add oil and swirl to coat.  Add onion, carrot, and celery; sauté 4 minutes.

The big three:  onions, carrots and celery.

The big three: onions, carrots and celery.

Add tomato paste and garlic;  Cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add wine; bring to a boil.  Cook 2 minutes or until wine mostly evaporates, scraping pan to loosen browned bits.  Add chicken stock, tomatoes, 3/4 tsp. salt, pepper, and  bay leaf;  bring to a boil.  Carefully pour this mixture into slow cooker; cover and cook on LOW for 6 hours.  Discard bay leaf.  Stir in remaining 1/4 tsp. salt.

Everything together in the crock pot.

Everything together in the crock pot.

The hands-on time spent in the preparation of this sauce is about 30 minutes.  Then you will need a few minutes before dinner to cook up some pasta.   A great dinner without a lot of your time spent on preparation.  I hope you enjoy it.

Easy meal, yet so good!!

Easy meal, yet so good!!

SOURCE:   The Slow Cooker Recipe Book