Spaghetti alla Bolognese
Home for Dinner: “There is no sight on earth more appealing than the sight of a woman making dinner for someone she loves.” – Thomas Wolfe
I look at the clock. It’s 8 p.m. and I wait. I wait for that sound. The sound of our car as it crosses the second bridge and begins its ascent up our impossibly steep hill, tires set to four-wheel drive to make the climb, slowly crunching on the driveway gravel. The sound makes me happy. The car door slams and, from my chair, I spy my husband through the atrium window, the dappled evening light framing him and Bailey, who is gently tucked under his left arm, in a soft champagne glow, as he opens the garden gate for the girls so they can run around before I feed them. He exuberantly opens the front door and I smile. He mumbles something enthusiastically, but I can never clearly make out what he says, although by his tone, I know it’s something good. Inevitably, I hear him breathe in deeply. I imagine that his eyes are closed as he throws back his head, followed by a groan of pleasure and an occasional accompanying knee-jerk expletive. I smile again because I know why he’s moaning (and cursing…but in a good way). He’s responding to the heady perfume of whatever’s bubbling away on the stove. Or whatever may be braising in the oven, lustily filling the air with the delicious scent of wine, garlic, onions and herbs. Or the scent of fruity, sugary bliss gift-wrapped in some sort of flaky, buttery blanket.
As he plops his backpack down on the dining table and marches into the kitchen to peek under the pot’s lid, he questions me with a, “Hi, my beauty! What hast thou wrought?” This is how we begin dinner almost every night.
But on a particular evening a few weeks back, he says nothing as he comes in. He purposefully strides into the living room and makes a beeline for me. I close my book as he puts both his hands on the rolled arms of my navy leather wing chair, leans down close, just a few inches from my face, and looks at me intimately, intently with such seriousness.
He asks, “Do you have any idea what it’s like when I come home and walk through that door after a long, hard day?”
I meet his gaze, my brow slightly furrowed, my eyes threatening to tear up from the tenderness of his voice.
Adam continues, “As soon as I walk through that door, I’m flooded with joy. The way the house smells, the dinner, the dessert. I can’t even begin to tell you what it does to me. After a stressful day at the office, I’m met with all those amazing, intoxicating smells. They wrap around me and I’m overcome with happiness and love.”
With shiny eyes and a slight crack in his voice he continues, “And I know I’m home.”
I’m speechless. Stunned by his unexpected, beautiful but unusual expression of emotion. Warm, salty tears lazily stream down my cheeks as I cradle his face in my hands. I knew I might not remember any other detail about that night, but I knew with complete certainty that the look on his face at that moment would forever be burned in my memory.And just like that, gone were the thoughts of those nights when preparing dinner felt more like work than pleasure—feeling overwhelmed that every, single menu, every single dish had to be documented. Edited. Tested. Re-tested. Or the few, but dreaded, times when fatigue had such a vice grip on my soul that the very last thing I wanted to do at seven o’clock was to break out my All-Clad sauté pan. Those rare, whining evenings when take-out, and God forgive me, even mediocre take-out, was more appealing than my having to produce yet another home-cooked meal.All of that vanished like a thin wisp of smoke on a cool summer breeze. I thought, “This is why I cook. This is why.”
A Bolognese (boh-loh-NYEH-zeh) is a thick, full-bodied meat sauce that’s a staple of northern Italy’s Bologna region. It usually contains beef, tomatoes, onion, celery, carrots and garlic and is enhanced with wine, milk and seasonings. It is so delicious, hearty and so completely versatile (you can throw it on just about any pasta. Polenta! Gnocchi!) that you won’t hesitate turning on the stove (even on a warm day) because it will make your house smell so fabulous as it happily bubbles and glurps away.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 carrot, shredded
- 1 celery stalk, finely minced
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup hearty red wine
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 (29-ounce) can tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
- pinch of sugar
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- pinch of nutmeg
- ½ cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
- In a large sauté pan or cast-iron skillet, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery, season with some salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Add in the ground beef (I sprinkle it in with my hands) and stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate the vegetables into the meat, breaking up any clumps. Season with more salt and pepper and cook until the beef has browned and is no longer pink. Drain off any fat. Add in the milk and wine and let the mixture bubble away until the liquid has evaporated, stirring frequently. Don’t worry if it looks soupy at first, it will boil down in about 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, tomato sauce, sugar, red pepper flakes and oregano. Allow the mixture to simmer on medium-low to low until it’s nice and thick, at least 20 minutes.
- Remove from the heat; add the nutmeg and Parmesan and stir well. Toss with hot, cooked spaghetti and serve.
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