Spaghetti and No-Meataballs!

Many people learn how to cook through example as children, and I spent much of my childhood chopping onions or peeling garlic or stirring tomato sauce alongside my mother. I don’t wish to sound as though my mother put me to use in some sort of child labour, far from it. I have always felt at home in the kitchen, even other people’s – I suppose I’m a sort of portable kitchen utensil that can be used to rustle up a meal if everyone else is too lazy/drunk/incompetent.

I believe that if you grow up in a household where a kitchen is used for (gasp!) cooking and not just for microwaving ready meals or warming socks in the oven or looking like a showroom, you automatically become used to home cooking and nothing else will do. You utilise age-old family recipes, each generation adding their own minor adjustments to suit their lifestyle and that is how family histories are made. Many families have an old cookbook that Great Great Aunt Dottie started in 1850 and although some of the recipes, like those for brawn or pigs trotters stewed in blood of hare are not likely to be made anytime soon, there are recipes for fruit cakes, sponge cakes, peppermint creams, stews and casseroles, that are the best you will ever taste. Unfortunately in my family, all the recipes are scrawled on pieces of paper that my mother fastidiously filed away in a special recipe binder. Some of the recipes are written in faded pencil so it’s always pot-luck as to whether it calls for 2 tbsp or 2 tsp of baking powder. Many are splashed with milk or stock or chocolate icing.

When I was very small, my parents divorced and my father disappeared never to be seen again. As those were the days before single mothers had access to government funding, my mother and I had to live on a shoestring budget, and minced beef was always a cheap but versatile meat (still is). Back in those days (and I’m referring to the 70s and 80s), meat from the supermarkets was pretty much just meat. There was no organic meat, no lean mince, no 70% pure beef mince, very few 100% pork sausages; you paid 70p for a small polystyrene packaged of mince and that’s what you got. I rapidly gained a weak stomach for minced meat after several phobia-inducing episodes with small bits of bone or gristle finding their insidious way into my Shepherds Pie. It still amazes me that we always ate nutritious, delicious and filling meals on such a tiny budget, particularly when I consider how much money we can spend on preparing dishes these days.

I imagine that there is not one child from the 1970s who wasn’t served Spaghetti Bolognese on a regular basis and it was only recently that I discovered that this IS’NT the traditional meal of Italy (in fact it was developed outside of Italy, possibly in America during the 1950s as an extension of Spaghetti and Meatballs). Whilst Spaghetti benefits from delicate, herb-infused sauces, Spag Bol is a young kid’s dream food. It combines tomato sauce (and there are not many children that don’t love tomato sauce, as Ronald Reagan would attest to) and the permission to be messy when eating. It is also a good way to disguise such horrendous vegetables as carrots, or celery (both of which give tomato sauce or ragu a delicious, multi-layered flavour). Here is the Erickson family recipe for tomato sauce, to be used with or without minced beef, quorn or spaghetti (n.b. If you add chilli powder and kidney beans, it becomes a completely bastardised but still tasty chilli con carne, and in fact my Mother also adds a touch of cinnamon and a couple of squares of dark chocolate). Finely diced celery and carrot has also been known to have been added which gives a finer ragu.

The Family Basic Tomato Sauce Recipe
Large Onion chopped
3-4 Cloves garlic, chopped finely
1-2 tins Tomatoes
Large squirt Tomato Puree
Malt Vinegar (I have known orange juice to be used in the place or vinegar or red wine, it’s really just a hidden, pleasurable depth of acidity needed). Balsamic Vinegar would work but really isn't necessary.
Olive Oil
Basil Leaves or Parsley
Sauté the onion and garlic in a little olive oil over a low heat until soft and translucent. Add the tinned tomatoes and break up with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat up midway. Once the mixture starts to bubble, add a squish of puree, a splash of vinegar (malted or red wine vinegar will do), a good teaspoon of salt to taste, and, if you like your tomato sauces sweet, as I do, a little sugar (and by a little, I mean less than half a teaspoon, add more if you need it). Let this mixture simmer until it the watery liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated and you are left with a thick, rich red sauce. At this stage, taste again and add more salt or sugar if necessary. Rip up some fresh basil or parsley leaves and stir in before serving.
Freya's Note: To turn this into a vegan Puttanesca, add some chopped capers, crumbled dried chilies and finely chopped black olives.

Ridiculously Basic Tomato Sauce
This is my most favourite tomato sauce which I serve with stuffed pasta shells or cannelloni. It is also good as pizza sauce but you may need to add some salt. It is also obscenely easy.
Sauté 1 large onion, very finely chopped in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until very soft but not brown. Always heat the oil up with the chopped onions to avoid burning them. Add 2-4 cloves finely chopped garlic and sauté again until soft but not brown. Add two cans of tinned plum tomatoes, including the liquid and bring to the boil. In the meantime, put two tablespoons each of malt vinegar and castor sugar and dissolve over a low heat. Once the tomato mixture has started to boil, add the sugar/vinegar mixture, turn down to a low simmer and cook until reduced. The mixture will reduce down as much or as little as you let it. If I was very well organised and more importantly had a large freezer, I would make this in large batches and freeze it in washed-out ice cream or margarine tubs for a quick supper. Alas, I am neither organised nor have a large freezer so it remains somewhere near the bottom of my list of things to do one day. Besides, it really only takes about five minutes to prepare.
Tonight, Paul wanted to watch Repo Man so for a quick in front of the telly meal, I rustled up Vegan Meatballs with Spaghetti. 

I admit, I did not make the meatballs. Redwoods make a great vegan meatball which texturally a bit like a falafel. I cooked up the ridiculously basic tomato sauce and some spelt spaghetti. 
It was a great film, a great meal and even better, we have leftovers to make yummy vegan meatball subs for lunch tomorrow!

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