Published in The Sanford Herald January 9, 2013
I am Scotch-Irish and English in my heritage, and have the pasty complexion to prove it, but I'm pretty sure that in my former life I was Italian. A Presbyterian minister speaking about being reincarnated…we’re getting scandalous now, y’all! I say this because, when I long to be comforted and satisfied, I dream of a heaping plate of homemade spaghetti with lots of fragrant basil and salty Parmesan. When I go in the grocery store with absolutely no clue about what I might buy to cook for supper, I nearly always wind up with fresh tomatoes if they’re in season, or good Italian canned ones if they’re not, and a crusty still-warm loaf of bread. After years of habitual spaghetti suppers, I have developed a sauce that is, in my mind, perfection. I made it for my cousins when they came to visit in chilly Belfast to warm us on a shivery, rainy night; I prepared it with basil leaves as big as my hand in sunny, warm Jamaica; I’ve made it for gatherings with friends and for little ol’ me on a regular weeknight. Once you taste this sauce – slightly smoky with a hint of bacon, sweet with tomatoes and onions and rich with a reduction of red wine – you’ll never go the way of prosaic Prego or routine Ragu again, my friends. You’ll believe you might just be Italian, too. Buon appetito!
Serves 4 with generous portions.
2 T extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to cook pasta
1 lb lean ground sirloin (I do not always put the beef in; this sauce is delicious without it as well)
¼ lb pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon) or bacon, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup dry red wine (go Italian and choose Chianti)
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano Italian tomatoes (If you have a hard time finding crushed ones, use the whole peeled variety and simply break up with a wooden spoon or potato masher as you simmer the sauce)
salt and black pepper
¾ pound spaghetti
½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. While waiting on that pot to boil (without watching, of course), get going on the sauce. Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat with 2 T of olive oil. Add pancetta and cook until beginning to crisp, about 5 minutes. Add ground sirloin and onions and break up with a wooden spoon, cooking an additional 7 minutes, until beef is nearly cooked through and onions are tender. Add garlic and cook an additional 3 minutes. Add crushed red pepper flakes, 1 t of salt and 1 t of pepper. Stir in red wine and simmer until reduced by half, 5 minutes. Add crushed or whole tomatoes, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. While the sauce is in its final simmering stage, cook spaghetti, with a splash of olive oil to keep from sticking, until just shy of al dente (firm to the bite), about 7 minutes. Drain pasta and put directly into your pasta sauce, cooking an additional minute or two, until al dente. Add Parmesan cheese and basil, remove from heat and stir well to combine. If you are so inclined, pour yourself a lovely glass of that robust Chianti, and serve with some good crusty bread, such as ciabatta, letting the golden light and melodious sounds of Italy wash over you. It’s the cheapest vacation you’ll ever take.