Getting Sauced!

There are few aromas that stick out more in my mind than going to my Grandma’s house and smelling her simmering pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove. I can still see that big, yellow pot sitting on her electric stove which contained the sauce that could make my mouth water. It was comforting, cozy, and familiar. Many good times were shared around the dinner table, while the sauce stayed warm over on the stove.

Before it was time to eat and I knew the coast would be clear, I’d take a spoon and have just a nibble to get a preview of what was to come. The taste was consistent every single time. There was never a bad batch. You could taste the warmth that she poured into the sauce with each lovingly selected ingredient. As I grew older, I was determined to learn her secrets to making the most delicious and flavorful spaghetti sauce. I still don’t claim to have worked out all of the details, because nobody can do it quite like Grandma. Regardless, here’s my attempt at recreating a classic meat sauce that will ever so deliciously adorn any pasta on this planet.

First, gather your ingredients. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

1 bell pepper
1 yellow onion
1 pound of ground beef (could substitute with ground turkey for a healthier option, or omit for a vegetarian sauce)
2 jars of whole button mushrooms (yes, from a jar – not fresh)
12-ounce can of tomato paste
29-ounce can of tomato sauce
5 or 6 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of ground cloves
5 or 6 cloves of fresh garlic
salt and pepper
pinch of sugar

Some of the ingredients you’ll need

To get started, take your pound of ground beef and add it to a skillet over medium heat, stirring and breaking it apart with a spatula.

Raw ground beef hits the pan

It’ll take several minutes for the beef to cook up and get browned, so while that’s going, turn your attention to your peppers and onions. You’ll want to dice them into cubes. I choose to go with a rough chop here, just because I like for the peppers and onions to be able to hold their shape and texture when they being to simmer. If you dice them too small, they’ll simply disintegrate into the sauce while they cook. After dicing the peppers and onions, give your garlic cloves a nice mince, using as many as you like in order to attain a wonderful garlicky goodness.

Dicing and slicing

Once you have gotten your peppers and onions diced up, your ground beef should be cooked perfectly. When it’s all done, it should look like this:

All ready!

Take your cooked ground beef and drain off the fat that was rendered out during cooking. Draining the grease is an important step because you don’t want your beautiful sauce to look like it has an oil slick on top of it! Put the strained ground beef aside and turn your attention to those veggies you have so diligently diced. Add a big splash of oil to a large pot. This pot will ultimately contain your finished sauce, so make sure it’s large enough to handle all of the ingredients and liquid that you’ll be adding. To the heated oil, add your diced peppers and onions.

Peppers and onions start to sizzle

Let them cook over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. After a few moments, add in your minced garlic and allow the mixture to continue cooking. After about 10 minutes, the vegetables should be starting to brown nicely and they’ll look like this:

Peppers and onions getting nicely browned

As everything begins to brown, it’ll develop a more intense flavor and trust me, it’s worth the wait! Now it’s time to bring this sauce together. Turn the heat down low and add your cooked beef to the peppers, onions, and garlic. Then take your can of tomato paste and add this to the vegetables and beef. This will add a deep, rich tomato flavor that will permeate the entire sauce.

Combining ingredients

While we are on the topic of tomato paste, do you ever have trouble getting all of the contents out of the can? Here’s a trick! Take a can opener and use it on the top AND the bottom of the can. Then just push down on the lid and ALL of the tomato paste will slide right out into the pot, without having to scrape endlessly with a spatula or a spoon. Here’s the proof of just how handy this trick is:

A neat trick to get *every* last bit!

Cool, huh? Now dump in your 2 jars of mushrooms and the 29-ounce can of tomato sauce. Finally, take the empty can of tomato sauce and fill it all the way up to the top with water and add that to your mixture. Then fill it once more, about halfway this time. Add the additional water to the sauce as well. This liquid will thin things out quite a bit and give you some room to let your sauce simmer and reduce, which will allow the flavors to really mingle and concentrate.

Adding the mushrooms to the mix

Thinning out the sauce with some water

Then it’s time to add a few seasonings to give this sauce some zip and personality. I like to add a few bay leaves (remember to remove these later, because they are most certainly NOT edible!) and a teaspoon or so of ground cloves. The cloves will bring a warmth and coziness to your sauce and keep people guessing about what exactly is in the sauce they’re eating! As with nearly every dish, add some salt and pepper to suit your personal taste and then a pinch of sugar to balance out some of the acidity that the tomatoes naturally contain.

Adding some spice

Our secret ingredient

Preparing to simmer

Now, all of the ingredients are in the pot and your sauce is ready to simmer! Partially cover the pot with a lid, but allow some room for steam to escape as the liquid evaporates and the sauce thickens. Crank up the heat until it comes to a low boil, then turn the heat back down to low so it simmers gently.

Simmering and thickening

Stir the sauce every 20-30 minutes, to prevent any sticking on the bottom of the pan. The longer you let this sauce simmer, the more it will thicken and the better it will taste. I recommend a good two hours of simmer time to get things just right. Your home will be perfumed with the delightful smells of the spices as the sauce’s flavor continues to intensify. When my kitchen starts to smell like Grandma’s house, that’s how I know it’s ready to go! When it has thickened to your liking, just ladle some on top of your cooked pasta and enjoy! Here’s a look at my final product that was served with some toasted garlic bread.

The pasta gets some of the thick, flavorful sauce

You can see how thick the sauce has become after all of the simmering. It will cling to your pasta and your bread as you sop up what is left over on the plate. The sauce freezes beautifully, or it can easily be transformed into another meal the following day. Take any remaining sauce and add some beans and chili spices and you have a quick and easy meal! Not only is this meal inexpensive and easy to make, it brings back some terrific memories for me. I am transported back to my Grandma’s kitchen on a cool autumn day, when leaves are piling up in the backyard. As I smell this sauce cooking in my own kitchen, I can close my eyes and go back to those moments from my childhood. This sauce reminds me that although time continues to march along and things change all around me, some things will always stay the same – just like a Grandma’s love.

Birthday celebration with Grandma!

Happy eating,

The Taste Bud

So Long, Summer!

It was 3:30 in the morning. I heard the alarm clock going off in my parents’ bedroom. I knew by 3:31 my dad would be coming down the hall into my bedroom to find an 8-year old me, head buried beneath a pillow and several dinosaur-covered blankets.

“If you’re coming with me, you need to get up now,” he would say in a very firm voice.

“Ok, ok, I’m waking up,” I would mutter back, still very much half-asleep. Pulling myself away from the comfortable bed on those early summer mornings was nothing short of barbaric, but I knew that a sweet reward wasn’t too far away. As I threw on a shirt and some shorts and made my way downstairs, my dad would already be jingling his keys, signaling the beginning of our pre-dawn trek. Where could we be going so early on a July morning? The produce market of course!

Once or twice a week, my dad would make the hour-long journey to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables for a few small produce markets closer to our hometown of Burlington. The produce markets would expect their deliveries around sunrise or shortly thereafter, which is why such an early departure time was required. Somewhere along the way, my presence was requested on these visits – but what 8-year old child would willingly spend a day of his summer vacation waking up at 3:30 in the morning? He had to find a way to entice me, to make me feel like this trip would be worth my while. He did this through watermelon. Yes, watermelon.

After we had picked up the produce from the hub in Winston-Salem, he would always take the biggest, sweetest watermelon he could find and smash it open. There was no finesse here. The melon was very unceremoniously dropped in the parking lot, shattering into bite-sized pieces for us to enjoy. The sweet, juicy melon tasted so refreshing on those early summer mornings, when the heat and humidity were still hanging in the air from the previous day. With hints of sunlight on the horizon, we made fast work of the watermelon, leaving nothing but some rind and seeds behind. It was then time to get back to Burlington to deliver the goods we had picked up.

Now, I realize those mornings were about more than just slurping down watermelon in the parking lot of a produce hub in Winston-Salem. They were about spending quality time with my dad. Bonding over delicious food in such a non-conventional way is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. This experience inspired the recipe that I will now share below.

Just the other night, I found myself craving watermelon – but in more of a grown-up way. The gears in my head started turning. How could I quickly transform watermelon into something even more vibrant and flavorful without losing the integrity of the melon? With a few simple ingredients, I think I figured out the answer to my question.

I like to start this recipe with a seedless watermelon. If you’re feeling ambitious and don’t mind picking seeds, go for it. I opted for the easier solution this time. I cut the watermelon flesh into bite-sized cubes. I arranged those cubes on a plate. Then it was time to dress the melon up a bit by adding some citrus to the party. You should take three small limes and zest them. Zesting a lime refers to the process of scraping off the outermost part of the lime – the bright green part. If you start scraping down too deep, you’ll run into the bitter white portion of the lime, which you do NOT want. Using a fine grater should be able to achieve the results you want for this recipe. Once you have gotten a tablespoon or so of the lime zest, add that to a small saucepan. Then it’s time to juice those three limes for all they’ve got! Squeeze ’em hard and get all of that juice. Pour the juice into the saucepan with the lime zest. Now to add a little spice, get out a piece of ginger root. You’ll only need about a teaspoon of very finely grated ginger root. All you need to do is peel it and then grate it until it’s almost a paste. You don’t want to bite down on a big hunk of ginger, because it would totally overwhelm your taste buds – plus, it’s spicy! Add the teaspoon of finely grated ginger to your lime zest and juice.

Now to add some sweetness, take about 1/4 cup of your favorite honey. I used a local wildflower honey that I found in Rappahannock County. The honey will very nicely balance out the tart flavor of the limes and the spicy heat of the ginger. Stir the ingredients over very low heat on the stove just for a minute or two until the honey has thinned out and everything is evenly mixed. It’s ok to pull this off the heat as soon as all of the ingredients are incorporated.

In a small pan, pour in a handful of your favorite nuts. I used walnuts, but you could certainly use sliced almonds, pecans, or even pine nuts. Toast the nuts in the pan, just for a few minutes until you can start to smell them. It should only take a few moments over low to medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally. While the nuts are toasting, take a few basil leaves and roll them up, like a cigar. Then take a knife and start shredding the basil into ribbons. Now you’re ready to assemble your watermelon salad.

Take a few spoonfuls of your dressing and drizzle it over the watermelon cubes. You should see a few flecks of green as the lime zest clings to the watermelon. The honey will almost seem to shine over the chunks of melon, giving everything a nice glossy sheen. Then for a bolder green color, sprinkle some of the basil ribbons over the watermelon. Add some of your toasted nuts on top of everything to give a nice crunchy component to your salad. Think of the toasted nuts as the croutons for your salad – giving a vital crunch to an otherwise soft dish. Finally, add a dash of salt and a tiny amount of fresh black pepper. The color contrast will delight your eyes and the flavor profiles you’ve combined will tickle your taste buds.

Juicy and bright!

It’s the perfect dish to make during the summer season and it can serve as a light lunch or a snack to carry you over until dinner. It only seemed fitting to make this on Labor Day, a holiday that many people view as the unofficial end to summer. It’s a dish that combines so many of our favorite summer ingredients into one simple, but elegant dish. So as I bid this summer a fond farewell, I’ll do so by giving a tribute to my favorite melon. As I do this, my mind will be transported to those early summer mornings spent with dad in the produce truck. So long, summer.

The colors of summer

May all your melons be sweet,

The Taste Bud