Never Trust a Skinny Chef

August 31, 2010 § 2 Comments

My mother-in-law has a pink ceramic placard hanging in her kitchen that reads: Never Trust a Skinny Chef. It’s cute enough but I have designs on rehousing it in my own kitchen in eyeline of dinner guests and milking the fact that I am British and, therefore, ironic. You see, I am undoubtedly a skinny chef (or, rather, cook), blessed with a metabolism which one day might make me a freak medical exhibit. But I like to think my cooking is anything but skinny, especially when it comes to feeding friends. For such occasions I tend towards big, rich and homey dishes. Any recipe which calls for hours of quiet simmer on the stovetop or in the oven is up my alley. I won’t deny the convenience factor of such methods: I distinctly prefer that all cooking involving real work happen well out of eyesight of said guests (and as we inhabit an apartment so small that you could practically stir a pot from the sofa with a long-enough spoon this means cooking ahead of time). But I also believe in the transformative power of time, the flavour of fattier cuts of meat that benefit so much from the long, slow heat, and the general satisfaction and comfort of sharing this kind of food with others.

My favourite of all such dishes is an unctuous ragu bolognese from Georgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy. The tome is worth the cover price for the risotto chapter alone, not to mention the beautiful photography from Dan Lepard. It’s a simple and, to my mind, rustic recipe which rewards a short time at the stove with hours of amazing smells wafting through the house. Make sure you have snacks at hand or the wait will be unbearable.

On this occasion I am using minced chuck beef from Marin Sun Farms. We hiked in Marin yesterday and any cow that grows up with those landscapes has to be one happy beast. Locatelli suggests variations with pork and veal which I wager are delicious too. The dish is really all about the meat, so it’s worth getting the best you can. Make sure you avoid mince which is too lean: the fat gives depth and succulence which I promise you want. When not making this for friends, I cook a large batch on a Sunday and we make our way through the leftovers over the coming week or turn half the batch into a lasagne. And it’s even better the next day: trust me.

Ragu Bolognese
Adapted from Georgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy

3 lb minced beef (ideally chuck)
5 tbsp olive oil
2 small onions
2 carrots
1 stick celery
2 cloves garlic
a sprig or two of rosemary and sage, tied together to make a bouquet garni
a bottle of red wine
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 litre passata (strained tomatoes)

Before you do anything, take the meat out of the fridge and lay it out to come to room temperature. This helps the meat to sear rather than stew when it is added to the pot. You will need to leave it out for at least an hour. In the meantime you can get going by chopping the carrots, celery and onion into fine dice. Add a couple of garlic cloves to the bowl after giving them a quick bash with the side of the knife to release the flavour.

Heat all the olive oil in a broad-based pan and add the veg and garlic, along with the bouquet garni. Do not skimp on the oil at this point, or it will come back to haunt you later. Cook over a high heat for around 10 minutes. You will need to stir frequently to stop the veg from browning. Once the vegetables are softened, season the meat with salt and pepper and add to the pan. You want to add it in a single layer that covers the surface of the pan. Your goal now is not to touch the meat until it is warmed through completely and seared on the underside. This stops the meat from leaching out its proteins and juices and boiling. You will be very tempted to prod at the meat but leave it alone for around 6-8 minutes, also taking some care that the vegetables underneath do not burn.

Once the meat is seared on the underside and heated through, you can start to stir it from time to time. Do this for about 10-15 minutes, until the meat is starting to stick to the bottom of the pan. At this point it is ready to take the wine. Add the whole bottle, stir, and cook until it reduces to just about nothing. Do not be worried by the slightly grey colour at this point. Add the tomato paste and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the passata along with a litre of water, bring back to a simmer and cook uncovered either on the stovetop or in the oven (at around 225 F) for 2-3 hours. You want the pan to have a gentle volcanic bubble erupting to the surface every once in a while. If it looks at any stage to be drying out, add a little more water.

Serve with pasta and parmesan, or use in a lasagne or other dish.

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