Duplicating a post from my food tumblr, about making mystery meat sauce.
“Meatsauce of Indeterminate Provenance” is what I call the thing I end up making when I feel a compulsion to cook a big vat of something and chuck it in the fridge for a few days’s nourishment. Often, this ends up being at most 2 days’s nourishment.
In the course of my cooking life, I have come closer to identifying it– names like Bolognese, Ragout, Meatsauce, Pastasauce and so on. But I’ve long given up trying to historicise it and think it’s an amalgam of impressions, everything from trips in Europe, to TV cooking shows to food court Western food stalls.
And because I do it differently each time, I prefer to think of it as a series of variable steps towards a fairly fixed idea of a product. The thing I want at the end has also changed over time. It used to be that I wanted lots of tangy tomato in it, and that was when I used red wine, vinegar and other things. There was a time when I wanted it to be unctuously creamy so there was milk and butter. There was once, in a carnivorous rage, I just reduced a cut of meat down to its juices and fibers and stirred that with some tomato sauce.
Nowadays, I want something that holds all three in some kind of balance, doesn’t require anything too out of the ordinary and doesn’t take too much effort [caveat– I have a very high threshold for “too much effort,” which I regret]: so no meat mincers, no particularly finely-chopped anything, especially no de-seeding of tomatoes god knows and something I can prepare leisurely over an evening, chuck in an oven overnight and leave mostly to itself.
This is the recipe, in vague steps:
1. Mince, shred, chop or slice, whatever, three medium carrots, three medium onions and about four stalks of celery (which you ought to peel). The only thing to do is make sure they’re about the same size. Sweat these in olive oil, covered, over low heat with just a pinch of salt while you potter about doing other things.
2. If feeling particularly leisurely, you might want to prepare the tomato sauce separately from the meat sauce. In which case, softly caramelise slices of two onions in olive oil and butter. If you can’t be bothered, just wait for them to sweeten, which takes about 15 minutes of involved stirring. [If by this point you’re turned off, skip step 2 entirely and go to step 3] In the pan with these onions, add one small can of tomato paste and let it cook for a few minutes, like rempah. Add tomatoes. [I always use canned tomatoes because cheap fresh tropical tomatoes aren’t good for this sort of thing, and the expensive “vine-ripened ones” with a vague European air about them are actually from Malaysia and aren’t always good. Canned tomatoes are reliably good, if you believe the story about them being picked while in season. I use a brand of tinned plum tomatoes called Cirio for no other reason than it looks kind of rustic, is mid-priced and is not American. For 1kg of meat, which this recipe eventually calls for, I use 2 such tins, which I imagine to be about 8 large tomatoes peeled, de-seeded and chopped. Your call.] Let the mixture simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce and combine, then pour over a liberal, an unmincingly liberal, amount of olive oil. This is a trick I picked up from Heston Blumenthal, which is essentially to fry the tomatoes– juices, flesh and all– in olive oil, to thicken the mixture and concentrate the flavours.
3. Into the pan with the vegetables, break up 1kg of minced meat. I always use a mix of beef and related four-legged animal, usually pork, though lamb also works. I sometimes use fresh English pork sausages, which I squeeze out of their skins. [Because of people like Jamie Oliver who have relationships with their butchers, I’ve always found the idea of choosing a fatty cut of meat and having it personally ground up very charming. This is an available service at neighbourhood wet markets, but usually only for pork. I have since stopped bothering, even though I have a meat mincer at home. Anecdote: I once asked the butcher at Culina, when it first opened at Fair Price Finest, if he could mince a fresh cut of beef for me to use in making a sauce like this and he laughed at me and told me the mystery mince was good enough. Haven’t looked back since.] Press the layer of meat firmly into the vegetables and let it sit for a minute or two. I’m not sure what this does, but it feels right. Then break it up and stir continuously and diligently until the meat is evenly browned and finely distributed. With these proportions, you should have a rubble-like mince. Season with a few pinches of salt and pepper– it is critical to cook with salt, never save seasoning for the end– and drop in, somewhat unexpectedly, two stars of aniseed. Aniseed lifts everything to transcendence. Because there is pork, I also add in some beaten-up fennel seed (sometimes I substitute the celery in the vegetable mix with fresh fennel). Add about 1/4 cup of dry vermouth or white wine or water, let it come to a boil, then drop to a simmer for about ten minutes, just for fun.
4. Add the tomatoes to the meat. If you’ve skipped step 2, I assume you can’t be bothered with fresh tomatoes so just add a tin of tomato paste and two cans of whole tomatoes (discard the juice, this is not a wet recipe). If you’ve not skipped step 2, then add your slightly more laboriously-prepared tomatoes to the meat. Either way, add a good glug of fish sauce, at least 4-5 tablespoons. I am not kidding, this is the clincher. Fish sauce. Not salt, not soy, not Worcestershire sauce. Fish sauce. Give it all a good stir, bring to a simmer, then cover (leaving a crack) and chuck into a pre-heated oven (90 degrees Celsius). Cook for 5-6, up to 8 hours.
5. Some magic should have happened in that time. Before the slow cooking, the mixture will look un-tomatoey and dry, but by the time the cooking is done, everything will have sorted itself out: you should have a fairly tender sauce, richly tomatoey and meaty. Finish the sauce over the stove, on low heat, simmering with fresh herbs (thyme, shredded basil, bay etc), then stirring in a knob of butter and a final toss of salt and pepper.
I enjoy this on its own. Really. I can eat spoonfuls of it. It’s always better after a day in the fridge.