Recipe: Spaghetti with Basic Meat Sauce
Time: Approximately 30 minutes
Skills: chopping onions, peeling garlic, cooking pasta, sautéing
For my first Cook In 101, I partnered with my friend Rich. He faces the kind of dilemma that keeps many families away from the kitchen. He and his wife work full time and they have two kids that attend different schools with multiple after-school activities. Although his wife is an excellent cook, to address scheduling needs, he's the one who gets home earlier. They have a beautiful kitchen, but like many people, feel the crunch of time and the need for ease when it comes to meal time. So he asked me for help in developing some kid friendly dishes that would be fast and easy to make but use real fresh ingredients. For our first meal, I thought about spaghetti.
Commercial spaghetti sauce is a big seller, but it's also loaded with calories and other evils of the food processing empire. Sugar is the fourth or fifth ingredient in many popular brands of pasta sauce, no doubt because the sweeter sauce is more popular with kids and sugar masks the inferior quality of other ingredients. These sauces also have a lot of salt.
And here's the rub: they don't save very much time. It takes about 20-25 minutes to cook dried pasta, if you factor in the time to boil the water. By adding just 10 more minutes to that, you can make a much tastier homemade pasta meat sauce with much lower fat and salt and no added sugar.
This recipe is based on my favorite spaghetti sauce, an adaptation from what my mom made when I was a kid. Our spaghetti sauce never came from a jar and when you can make it this good yourself, it's no wonder. The ingredients are limited and easy to come by: dried pasta, ground meat, canned tomatoes (diced and paste--look for low-sodium varieties), fresh onion and garlic, a couple common dried herbs and grated parmesan.
In addition to walking Rich through the recipe, I also wanted to teach him some techniques that he could apply to other dishes. Case in point was the onion. There are a lot of theories about the best way to do this. The technique I showed Rich is good for novice cooks, since leaving the root and stem attached to onion while chopping helps preserve its structure, improving its stability for chopping into dice:
|Top view of an onion half (with root): first make the blue cuts, then, starting from the outside and working in, the red cuts to dice an onion.|
- Holding the onion by its root and stem ends, cut the onion in half through its "equator."
- Using your fingers, peel off the dry skin and thin outer layers, keeping the root and stem intact.
- Place the first onion half cut-side down on a cutting board. With a chef's knife, make a row of parallel cuts along the bottom of one half of the onion, as shown by the blue lines in the figure above. Then, starting from the outside and working in, make cuts across the lines as shown by the red lines, making additional cuts on the sides as needed to finish dicing the onion. Repeat with the other half.
I also showed him how to peel garlic cloves by smashing them slightly with the side of a chef's knife and slipping the peel off. I use a paring knife to cut off the rough spot where the clove connects to the head before mincing the garlic, that is chopping it finely into pieces about 1/8-inch.
The pasta needs a large pot to cook properly. For cooking a pound of pasta--the amount in a standard-size box--you'll want to use about a gallon (4 quarts) of water. Although pasta will cook in less water, using less water increases the water's concentration of starch that seeps out of the pasta as it cooks, which can make the pasta stick together. Stirring the pasta occasionally with a pasta spoon also helps keep the noodles from sticking together.
Some people add oil to the pasta cooking water to help with this, but I recommend against it because coating the pasta with oil means that the eventual sauce that you'll toss the pasta with won't adhere to the noodles as well. I do recommend adding plenty of salt to the water, about 2-3 teaspoons. If you're concerned about sodium, remember that you won't be eating all or even most of that--it will stay in the cooking water, most of which is discarded--but the concentration is important for giving the pasta adequate flavor. Unsalted cooked pasta is rather bland, even when sauced.
When deciding how long to cook pasta, consult the package directions and aim for the shorter cooking time, which is typically recommended to make the pasta "al dente," an Italian word for "toothy" that describes perfectly cooked pasta: chewy, not too soft and no longer hard. If you'll be cooking the noodles for additional time in the sauce, undercook the pasta a bit so that it will reach al dente while in the sauce. Drain the pasta in the sink by pouring the entire contents of the pot into the colander (be careful not to pour too fast). If the sauce is still cooking, I put the pasta back in the pot with a little bit of the pasta cooking water (like 1/4 cup) and put the lid on it. Reserving a bit of pasta water is also useful for thinning out the pasta sauce if it gets too thick while cooking.
When making the sauce, be sure to use a pan large enough to easily contain the ingredients and allow stirring withing sloshing out the side of a pan. An enamel dutch oven or large saute pan with steep sides work well. A large (12-inch) frying pan also works but requires a little more care.
The princinpal method of cooking the sauce ingredients is saute, a basic, easy and often-used technique to cook ingredients over moderate heat in a little oil. It's important to keep the food moving, not constantly, but frequently while sauteing to promote even cooking and prevent over-browning from allowing the surface of a given piece of food to remain in contact with the pan continuously for too long.
When making a recipe like this pasta sauce, don't worry too much about measurement. Unlike baking, this kind of cooking does not require precision. If you really like garlic, feel free to add more. If you don't care for oregano, use less or omit it altogether. Other vegetables could certainly be added this sauce, such as celery, bell pepper, carrots and mushrooms. After simmering the sauce, be sure to taste it and add any additional seasonings if desired. Always taste your food before serving it. If you like it, there's a good chance others will too.
If using ground beef instead of poultry, you may not need to add olive oil for sautéing the vegetables, since ground beef is higher in fat and will render fat during browning. If you don't use a lean ground beef, there may be too much fat and some should be removed (if you're only removing a bit, I often use a paper towel gripped with tongs, since pouring hot fat out of a large, hot pan can be difficult to do safely without making a mess).
Basic Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
Equipment: large pot (6-8 qt.), pasta spoon, colander (for draining pasta), cutting board, chef's and paring knives, pan (Dutch oven, saute pan or 12-inch frying pan), stirring tool (spatula, wedge or spoon--use wood, durable plastic or sillicone if your pan is nonstick), can opener.
1 lb. dried spaghetti (may substitute linguine, fettuccine or other long, skinny pasta)
1 sweet onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground turkey (may substitute lean ground beef)
Fresh-ground black pepper
15 oz. can of diced tomatoes
6 oz. can of tomato paste
1 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried thyme
3/4 cup water
Grated parmesan cheese
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Good pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain pasta and set aside in the pot, covered if the pasta finishes cooking well before the sauce is done.
2. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook ground turkey until no longer pink (or ground beef until browned), breaking up with a spoon or spatula as it cooks. Remove meat from pan. Add remaining tbsp. of olive oil to pan. Add diced onion and minced garlic and sauté until softened, about 8 minutes. Add back the cooked ground meat and season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste (when seasoning "to taste," I recommend being judicious with the salt. Later, after tasting the sauce, you can add more, but it's not possible to "unsalt" food).
3. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, thyme and water. Stir until ingredients are evenly combined. Once the sauce begins to bubble, cover the pan, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 10-15 minutes ("simmer" means to cook over low heat. The food should bubble just slightly. Because the heat is so low, it does not require frequent stirring, although occasional stirring is recommended. For a 15-minute simmer, I might stir the pot 2 or 3 times).
4. Combine the cooked pasta with the sauce and stir to coat evening. Serve the pasta on plates or in large, shallow bowls with the parmesan at the table.