Dear reader, I had an elaborate plan for this blog post. Something seasonal and adventurous to compete with the high-brow food you find on Instagram these days. Reader, I was going to give you the recipe for butternut squash gnocchi, drizzled in rosemary and hazelnut butter, and a sprinkling of Parmesan. And it was a disaster. Oh cruel fate, how you spoil my plans.
Kitchen disasters are common place in my kitchen (just to set you at ease there…). It could be because I like venturing outside the weekly dinner staples and expanding my repertoire with little planning beforehand. In the case of butternut squash gnocchi though, I researched recipes thoroughly and collated a couple. Then, when it came to actually making the gnocchi, I threw caution to the wind and tried to wing it. The gooey orange residue around the kitchen can prove it. The orange-crusted bag of flour will never look the same again.
Aside from the squelchy wet gnocchi dough which stuck like a limpet to my hands and the work surface, the disaster zone of a kitchen and my muttered swearing, the resulting gnocchi didn’t actually taste of butternut squash. It tasted perfectly nice as gnocchi, which I wiped around my bowl to mop up the rosemary scented brown butter and the crunchy shards of hazelnut. But instead of wrestling with a butternut squash, clumps of doughy flour, and gooey orange sludge, I could have simply made potato or ricotta gnocchi for an easier life.
I will deliver you a gnocchi recipe at some point, dear reader, I hate to tease you so, however it may not be of the butternut squash variety. In the meantime, there is bolognese.
Everyone knows how to make bolognese. It’s intrinsic to Western cooking; every mum, dad and TV chef has their own, personal version of the Italian beef mince and spaghetti. So I apologise, do you really need another bolognese recipe? Um, yes, I’m afraid you do.
This is the best bolognese I have ever tasted (aside from my mum’s). Whenever I serve it for dinner Calum is in ecstasy, his head buried in the bowl and all I can hear is frantic munching and occasional moans. A couple of years ago, Calum and I flew to Florence for a mid-winter holiday and as a pleasant prelude to my birthday. It was utterly freezing and we warmed our cockles on pizza, pasta and carafes of wine. For my birthday present, Calum treated me to a cooking class (he knows me so well) where we, the only pupils, bashed out fresh pasta, tiramisu and bolognese. In comparison to the British tomato-heavy bolognese, lurid with glowing red tinned tomatoes, the spaghetti under the Florentine bolognese appears naked and exposed. There is no frivolity to this meat sauce. The moisture is incorporated gradually with splashes of stock, softening the meat and infusing it with sweetness from the mirepoix, omitting the acidity of tomatoes. This means the bolognese is a time-consuming task, gently sweated over low heat and treated like a risotto with regular ladlefuls of stock, thus perfect for a lazy weekend dinner for friends. To serve, the freshly cooked spaghetti is slopped into a frying pan, along with spoonfuls of the saucy meat, a drizzle of olive oil and the pasta water, salt and grated Parmesan. The cheese amalgamates the sauce and pasta, the oil gives it a rich glossy sheen and you swirl it on to plates with a fork. Let’s just forget gnocchi-gate, in all honesty I couldn’t ask for a better change of plan.
1 small onion
1 small carrot or half a large carrot
1 stick of celery
1l veg or beef stock
2 garlic cloves
1tsp dried or finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbsp tomato puree
500g minced beef
300g dried spaghetti
- Peel the carrot and finely dice along with the celery and onion. Heat some olive oil in a large, deep frying pan and, once hot, tip in the chopped vegetables. Sauté for a couple of minutes until soft and caramelised.
- Pour in a good glug of stock. Some of it will evaporate so top up to stop it drying out. Cover with a lid, reduce the heat and leave to simmer gently. Check on it occasionally to ensure the vegetables stay moist. Keep topping up with more stock, covering with the lid and leaving it to do its thing. There’s no urgency!
- Once the vegetables are buttery soft and sweet, the liquid among the vegetables appears creamy, and you have about half your stock left, crush the garlic cloves and add with the rosemary. Sauté until fragrant.
- Tip in the mince and break apart with your wooden spoon to brown all over. Add the tomato purée and mix in with the meat and veg. Dilute with a little veg stock to help mix everything together. Add another large splash of stock, cover the pan with a lid and simmer. Low and slow will keep the meat soft and succulent.
- Keep your eye on it, add more stock when you see it drying out. When you have finished your stock, taste the meat for tenderness. If you think it needs further cooking, make more stock and continue adding it to the meat. Look for creamy-coloured liquid.
- Once the meat is melt-in-the-mouth tender, keep covered over low heat as you cook the spaghetti in salted water according to packet instructions.
- When al dente drain the spaghetti, reserve a little pasta water, and toss in with the bolognese sauce. Drizzle with a little olive oil, some of the pasta water, a couple of pinches of salt and enough finely grated Parmesan to cover the pasta. Toss everything together to melt the Parmesan. Serve piled high in bowls under a shower of more grated Parmesan.