Recession Meal #4: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

December 28, 2008

Since 2009 could potentially, in that Chinese-calendar-sort-of-way, be known as The Year of The Financially Burdened (at least for us, anyway), I figured life was calling for another Recession Meal. I also thought it was about time I included one of a carnivorous variety, leaving the afore-utilized lentils behind. But just this once.

For old times’ sake, let’s begin this story with reminiscing my childhood. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I grew up on a diet consisting mostly of self-prepared meals boxed by Kraft. That was the case Saturday through Thursday, and every other Friday. Two Fridays a month, I went to my dad’s house for the weekend. He, in the early-to-mid-80’s, was in his “running phase.” So most Saturdays he ran a race (we always asked if he won, and he always answered with a short lecture on how ‘winning isn’t everything’ — hmmm…), and wanted to get in his carb-heavy meal the night before (not to help him win, mind you — Dad, are you reading this?) So he made spaghetti with meat sauce. Probably the squarest meal I had, twice a month. He would brown a pound of ground beef, and then pour a jar of Prego or Ragu over the top, and stir. We ate it most Friday nights, and I, for one, loved it.

And, again, for old times’ sake, fast forward with me. It’s sometime in the late 90’s, and I’m living in Knoxville. My roommate begins to make spaghetti one night, and opens a jar of something a bit more high-class than my dad’s fare — maybe Barilla? Another friend of ours walks in the door and — I believe — takes the jar from her hand, refusing to let her go through with it. She explains that homemade meat sauce is so simple to make, and here is my grandmother’s recipe we can make it right now! And that’s what they did. It was quite yummy, and I strolled for a bit down memory lane, back to all those spaghetti dinners at my (non-competitive) dad’s house.

So I got the recipe, and began making it for myself. Over the past 7 years, I’ve changed a few things, mostly adding a sauté step to bring out more flavors and shorten the simmering time. If I have an open bottle of red wine (um, right — a recession meal should most definitely not include red wine — but just in case) I add a quarter cup or so before adding all the tomatoes, and that makes it even tastier. This is not a bolognese sauce — but if you are interested there’s a fantastic one at cooksillustrated.com. This is a bit simpler, chunkier, and more along the lines of comfort food.

Oh, and the reason it qualifies as a recession meal is because you can make the sauce for about $8 (including pasta) and it feeds a family of four (sort of… small children included) for 2 nights. You’ll notice some optional ingredients — use them if you already have them on hand — they all add flavor, so the sauce is better with them, but is also good without). It also freezes well, and doubles well, so it can feed a crowd if so desired.

Meat Sauce for Spaghetti

  • 1 pound ground beef (lean beef works well here)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bell pepper (green or red), chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, chopped fine (optional)
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped fine (optional)
  • 4 to 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced (optional)
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 (14 oz) can Italian style stewed tomatoes
  • 1 (14 oz) can tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp dried oregano

In a large saucepan or dutch oven, cook the ground beef over medium heat until no pink remains. Remove the beef with a slotted spoon to a bowl and set aside. Discard all but about a tablespoon of fat from the pan, add olive oil, and return pan to heat. Sauté onions, carrot, celery, and bell pepper until vegetables are soft, about 7-8 minutes (try not to let them brown). Add garlic, and sauté for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until it starts to turn brown and is well-combined with the vegetables. Add the mushrooms and cook until they soften a little, 2-3 minutes. At this point, if you have that wine sitting around, pour in 1/4 cup or so and scrape the bottom of the pan. Let cook a few minutes to release alcohol, then add the stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, water, bay leaf, thyme, oregano, and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and let cook barely simmering for about an hour, stirring occassionally. Taste for salt and pepper, and add a few tablespoons chopped fresh parsley if you have it. Serve over spaghetti, topped with grated parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

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