Recession Meal #4: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

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 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.


The day my son figured it all out

Since my son was born with food allergies (or I guess he technically could have just developed them very early; he began to have severe eczema at four months old, reacting to proteins from the food I ate), and therefore had a restricted diet from the first time he ate solid food, he’s never really known what he’s missing. So his older sister has always been able to eat ice cream or cake or a sucker right in front of him, and as long as I gave him a banana or applesauce, he was happy. For his second birthday, I made him soy-banana “ice cream,” and he took one bite, and rejected it. I think he was thrown off by the coldness, and figured he’d just as soon eat a real banana. I’ve always considered his naivete an advantage, and often wondered how long my luck would last.

Last week, it pretty much ran dry. I picked him up from Mother’s Morning Out, and his teacher handed me a gift bag, from one of the other boys in his class. Townes was trying to rip the bag open, eager to get at his gift. We walked to a chair, and I untied the bag and started pulling out the contents. One after another, I pulled out and handed to my little guy pieces of candy, and with each one I had to say, “Sorry, buddy. You can’t eat this one.” So then we had a small pile of treats, gifts from his friend at school, that he couldn’t eat. And he started to cry — big, honestly sad tears.

Don’t get me wrong — this is not a complaint about the sweet mom who decided to give a small gift to the other children in his class. I never expect others to cater to Townes’s allergies, especially since they are so weird. I’ve yet to meet another child who is allergic to milk and corn (plus various and sundry list of other things, like peanuts and cherries). The milk is a bit easier to deal with, since it is easily replaceable in recipes, and is always labeled on food packages. The corn, well, it’s in everything (just as Michael Pollan), and — to my utter frustration — does not have to be labeled. So everything from maltodextrin to citric acid can be translated C-O-R-N. And while I am thankful that there are now many resources available to help a weary mother feed an allergic child, it doesn’t make it any easier to see your child realize, fully and finally, that he’s missing out.

So, I did what any mom would do: I held his tear-streaked face in my hands, looked him square in the eyes, and said, “Baby, I’m gonna make you some COOKIES!!!”

Which I’ve never really done before. After the soy-banana ice cream debacle, there didn’t seem to be any reason to find dessert recipes that fit his needs. Until late this summer, we also mistakenly thought he was allergic to egg, which made those efforts even more cumbersome. But yesterday I sat down and went to I don’t normally peruse that site in search of food ideas, but they have a great search feature that allows you to list ingredients that you do and don’t want included. So I plugged in the appropriate food friends and foes, and searched for cookies. And landed fairly quickly on a recipe that actually looked quite normal. Meaning, I and the rest of my family would probably enjoy them, too.

They are called Chocolate Crinkles. When I read the recipe, they immediately reminded me of a cookie they sell at a local bakery. The bakery calls them Double Chocolate Cookies, and look identical to the ones I made, with the addition of chocolate chips (hence the name). The ones at the bakery were always my first choice in their cookie selection — and while I don’t really think mine match up, they are still good cookies. Cakey, soft, rich chocolate. The powdered sugar adds some initial sweetness, but I think it’s there more for the powdery texture and color contrast. I wonder what would make mine as good as the bakery’s; maybe just the addition of chocolate chips, or perhaps it’s a different recipe altogether (perhaps they use cocoa powder rather than unsweetened chocolate?). I might not ever know — the place has new ownership, and now they stubbornly won’t discuss their recipes (I’m not a fan of recipe stingies).

But these cookies are a start. If they look good to you, you can find the recipe here. Note that the recipe doesn’t call for the chocolate to be melted and slightly cooled — but that’s what it should have said. If you’re feeling adventurous, add chocolate chips and let me know how it goes. Although I’ll probably be trying that myself, since these will become a staple in my newly-initiated “Little Man Treats” repertoire.

Pumpkin ice cream: 0 for 2

It hasn’t exactly turned out as I planned.

And what I planned was to make pumpkin ice cream in such a way that it would taste exactly like the same flavor I had at The Hop in Asheville. The Hop was a fantastic little ice cream place. It used to inhabit an old gas station (I think) on Merrimon Avenue near the UNCA campus. It was within walking distance of our house, and many not enough summer nights we made the walk after dinner to pick a flavor and eat in awe. They’ve now moved to a location with not nearly the charm, which I can forgive because I can no longer walk there, unless they decide to franchise (perish the thought!) and move into Five Points.

So at some point, they served me the best pumpkin ice cream I’ve ever had. Which isn’t saying a whole lot, since that flavor can be a bit hard to come by. But I feel certain that it would be up there at the top, even if pumpkin became the Chocolate Chip of the ice cream world. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to make. And why not? I’ve had many more successes than disappointments in my ice cream adventures.

I started, of course, with The Perfect Scoop. A quick scan of the P’s showed that David had not included a recipe. So, I emailed him (while I would like to imply by this that David and I are old pals, and he’s invited us to visit him in Paris next summer, the reality is that I posted to the “comments” section of his website, where he generously offers to answer ice cream questions). His quick reply said that I could substitute pumpkin for the sweet potato in his recipe for Sweet Potato Ice Cream. Of course, he did say to used roasted pumkin. I, of course, used canned. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, I don’t think — I prefer using canned pumpkin when making Pumpkin Bread or pie. It was a simple recipe, a pumkin-flavored Philadelphia style, with no eggs.

I knew the canned-pumpkin-substituted-sweet-potato-recipe was a failure before I even churned it. I tasted the chilled mixture, and it tasted like… sweet canned pumpkin. Not exactly what I was going for. And, in a somewhat latent lightning-bulb moment, I realized I wanted a custard. I needed the eggs, needed the heavy cream. So a google search was performed, and I ended up on a recipe from the Williams-Sonoma site. Eggs? Check (five, no less). Heavy cream? Two delightful cups. Pumpkin? It called for canned. Let the show begin.

It was better. Rich beyond imagination. Almost too rich, in fact. And a bit chalky. I’m guessing that’s the pumpkin. It was like a cold, frozen piece of pumpkin pie. Which can sound good, but it really isn’t. A pumpkin pie should just be a pie, you know?

So now I’m wondering: do I just want a vanilla custard ice cream, with a touch of pumpkin pie spice? Is that what they did at The Hop?

You might have to tune in next fall to find out the answer. I’m not being coy, it’s just that I’m moving on to more yuletide ice cream cheer. Alton Brown made egg nog on one of his recent episodes (now look — Good Eats is on at a prime unwinding time of day — is it my fault that I watch his show by default?) and mentioned at the end that you could use the base for Egg Nog ice cream. He even mentioned that, with the addition of bourbon, a serving could make the most Santa-hyped five-year old quite sleepy. Sounds to me like the beginning of a Carter Family Tradition.

Roux d’etat

There’s not much that’s militant about a cooked mixture of flat and flour. But doesn’t my daughter look like she’s capable of staging an organized governmental overthrow, wielding this culinary tool?

The tool on display is my favorite in the utensil bin. Not necessarily the most-used, but the one I’d take with me if forced to pick one. This is a roux stirrer. It was given to me as a Christmas gift by one of the Senior Art Directors at my old ad agency in Mississippi. Ron Despeaux (pronounced “despo”) was his name, and a bona-fide cajun he was. He gave all the designers this wooden tool, and around its neck was tied a tag illustrated with a rooster head. Get it? A roux-stirrer, or rooster, when said with a thick southern accent. It was before my days of actually making a roux, but I must have sensed its importance and usefulness, because I held on to it, moved it with me to four different states, before it found its intended use in my hand.

I love it because it’s such a well-designed tool. When cooking a roux, you must continuously stir it to cook it without burning. The flat tip, angled on side, is perfect for accomplishing this goal. It’s also great for general sautéeing, interchangeable with a thick wooden spoon.

Back to the roux. It’s the base for my annual Turkey Gumbo, the first recipe I ever created (inspired by a collection of sources). A roux is something that has a reputation for difficulty — a mysterious culinary bad boy, in the same family with soufflé and bouillabaisse. But it is no more than equal parts fat and flour, cooked to varying degrees of brown, depending on its intended use. Sometimes, as with a béchamel (white sauce), the flour doesn’t brown at all, but is just cooked enough to remove the flour-y taste; with a gumbo, the flour is actually browned. The key to making a roux without burning it is a good, heavy-bottomed pan. I currently use my Le Crueset dutch oven, and burned many a roux before I acquired that champion of enameled cast iron. It’s also easier with a gas stove, since the heat of those more controllable than their coil-electric cousins. And stirring. Constantly. But not all day — usually just about 10 minutes or so.

On to the gumbo. I make it once a year, the days following Thanksgiving. I’ve gone to great lengths to get a turkey carcass back home from Mississippi or Pennsylvania; we’d freeze the bones on-location, then pack them with ice in a cooler to stay frozen for the 8- to 10-hour trip home in the car. I usually brought home leftover meat, as well, to use in the soup. Having Thanksgiving at home this year made it easier to deal with the bones, but we had such a small bird that there wasn’t much leftover meat (after making turkey sandwiches for a day or so) — I ended up buying some turkey tenderloins to make up the difference.

So below is my beloved recipe for Turkey Gumbo. Like many soups, it’s a pretty flexible recipe, and I doubt I’ve made it the exact same way twice. I realize this post is probably too late to be utilized by many this year, unless you happened to feel an indescribable need to freeze your leftover turkey bones. But you can still plan ahead if you roast another turkey for Christmas dinner, or for a Thanksgiving in years to come.

My only disclaimer is that you should only try to brown a roux in a sauté pan or dutch oven that has a thick bottom and evenly distributes heat, especially if you’re working on an electric range. And use a heatproof spatula with a flat end that can scrape a lot of pan real estate with every stir. And if you happen to have some Cajun heritage, and can pass on a personal tip for making authentic gumbo, please, do post.

Turkey Gumbo

  • 8 cups turkey stock, made from a leftover roasted turkey carcass, meat removed and reserved.
  • 1/2 cup olive oil (or mixture of oil and rendered turkey fat)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup finely-chopped (1/2″ pieces) yellow onion
  • 1 cup finely-chopped celery
  • 1 cup finely-chopped bell pepper (green, or a mixture of green and red)
  • 3/4 pound andouille sausage (fresh or cooked, see below), chopped into bite-sized pieces if cooked
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 4 cups (or more) reserved turkey meat, shredded or cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/2 cup chopped scallions
  • one bag (appx. 10 oz.) frozen okra
  • salt and pepper to taste

*If using fresh (uncooked) andouille sausage, brown the whole links in a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil before beginning your roux. The cooking sausage can help flavor the roux. Once brown, remove the sausages, let cool, and chop. They will break up more than pre-cooked sausage, and have a more crumbled texture. Set aside and proceed with recipe.

Heat a large dutch oven or heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium heat. Add the oil, and once hot, add the flour (carefully! the oil can splash). Stir constantly over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent burning. Continue to cook, reducing the heat if flour starts to burn, until the mixture is a dark golden brown (about the color of coffee with cream). If you start to see black flecks in the roux, the flour has burned, and you should start over (I’ve done this, and it stinks, but you can’t use a burnt roux).

When the roux is dark enough, remove from heat and add the onion, celery, and bell pepper (the roux will bubble fiercely, so once again, be careful!). Once bubbling subsides, if you have used a sauté pan, transfer the mixture to a soup pot. Whisk in slowly the turkey stock. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce to a simmer and add your andouille sausage and garlic. Cook for 15 minutes. Then add reserved turkey meat, scallions, and bag of frozen okra (no need to thaw first). Cook another 10-15 minutes, until okra is tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Gumbo tastes better the next day — but if you’re making it the day you plan to serve it, it’ll still be good, and you should have plenty leftover to test that theory. Eat it over cooked white rice, best enjoyed on a cold, rainy day.


Oh, my.

I was at Earth Fare this morning, doing my weekly shopping trip. It was — I believe — the first time I’ve attempted this with all 3 children in-tow. It went surprisingly well. I had the wee one in a sling, and the older two were unusually well-behaved.

So while I might like to paint a picture of me being frazzled and overwhelmed, and therefore just needing to pamper myself with a treat, I can’t do it. But when I walked by the yogurt in the dairy case, this little cup called out to me. Plum and walnut? How could I resist that flavor, at this time of year? In a L’Oreal-inspired “because I’m worth it” moment, I bought it.

Fast-forward half an hour, and after making lunch for the kids while the baby screamed her head off, being torturously left in her carseat for five minutes, I sat down to feed screaming baby and simultaneously began scarfing down this heavenly yogurt creation.

Have you had this stuff? This is beyond what yogurt should be. It really shouldn’t be called yogurt; it’s more in line with some whipped delight, a confection of more disastrous coronary implications (disclaimer: there’s a reason it tastes so good… so if you’re avoiding saturated fat, it’s not the choice for you).

This is how good it is: given the choice of another cup of this yogurt or a Chocolove bar, I’d go with Liberté. Those crazy French-Canadians. They know what they’re doing with cultured milk. It was indeed:

It was good.

Thanksgiving dinner, that is. It might have been my favorite said dinner thus far; though I did miss the sweet potato casserole. Maybe the perfect T-day dinner, in my world, is the menu we planned with the addition of that casserole.

I was particularly pleased with this year’s turkey. Not only was it roasted in a brand-new way, but it was the first time I’ve roasted an all-natural (not organic) turkey. The primary difference this makes, practically speaking, is that the turkey has not been pre-injected with any sort of flavoring or seasoning. I like this; it’s like a clean-slate of poultry. Brining an all-natural bird makes sense, whereas brining a pre-seasoned bird doesn’t (brining requires an exchange of salt and water, via osmosis, between a high-sodium liquid and a lesser-so solid, i.e., the meat — if the meat is already full of “flavor,” or sodium, the brining does nothing). The all-natural turkey also tastes more like turkey, much the same as all-natural chicken tastes more chicken-y than the regular supermarket variety.

So, between the good bird and the good process, I loved this turkey. As I was applying the herb paste under, over, and around, I was a bit concerned that it would be too much. It was covered in herbs, and I didn’t want an overseasoned main course. But it wasn’t. The seasoning was darned near perfect. The very best part was that, for what you got, it wasn’t that labor-intensive. I brined for about 6 hours on Wednesday, then let the turkey air-dry (uncovered, in the refrigerator) until I took it out to prepare for roasting. You could make the herb paste the day before, too (which I should have done, but didn’t). It takes about 10 minutes to apply the paste, and then into the oven. Our turkey was 11 pounds, and it took less than 2 hours to cook.

The other recipe that is finding a permanent home in the holiday files was the one for green beans. Again, if you make the herb/butter mixture early, the side dish comes together in about 10 minutes. It multiplied easily to serve a small crowd, and seemed a lot fancier than it really was.

I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo of the turkey, in all its herbed, golden-browned, uncarved glory. But I did snap a quick pic of the table (notice that centerpiece??? — oh, and my 5-year old set the table) just before I sat down to consume massive amounts of food. We had a nice time, or so I thought; our friend Matt did join us, as did another friend, TJ. It was an eclectic mix of friends and family who’ve never met, and it seemed to be the way Thanksgiving should be. Or so I hope it continues to be, in our house, all-natural turkey or not. And just in case you were wondering: I was not in my pj’s while snapping that photo, nor was I nursing an infant. But we did miss our planned eating time by half an hour (still, better than the year I kept our friends and a table-full of side dishes waiting for over TWO hours… how embarassing).

A quick pumpkin ice cream update: I made a version, last week, that was a great disappointment. Details to come, but I’ll save the whole story for a post that can include a happy ending; I hope to try recipe #2 tomorrow.