Sunday, March 8, 2009

Spaghetti, Sans Spaghetti

Growing up, "spaghetti" always meant mom would doctor a can of store-brought Prego with browned ground meat, onions, garlic, and a variety of vegetables. Thanks to her, I always start every dish with garlic and onions. She might add a bit of sugar or salt. It always tasted the same, and it's the only sauce we ever had accompanying pasta. It was sometimes watery, and never as tasty as in the Italian restaurants.

In late high school, I took to piling my spaghetti on top of salad veggies. This made the vegetables more palatable. At the height of the "carbs are evil" media blitz, I began forgoing noodles altogether, and putting the sauce directly on top of the salad (usually lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and cheese). I still prefer this method of downing raw vegetables, but I have not yet acted upon it in Okinawa.

Which brings me to another question: What is the difference between spaghetti sauce and chili? Meat sauce and chili? Tomato sauce and spaghetti sauce? Spaghetti sauce and meat sauce? Especially made local (Hawaiian) style, the different varieties are probably pretty interchangeable: all are a slightly tomatoey excuse for eating ground beef. With chili, I suppose you sometimes had the red beans, which most of my friends would pick out because for some reason they hated beans--I, on the other hand, hated meat).

I believe that after several attempts at tomato-based meat sauces, I have finally got it right. It is a big improvement over my mother's spaghetti, at any rate. (Spaghetti was probably my most-requested, and most-favorite food growing up. I always added extra sugar to my sauce...and I have always liked soft vegetables melding into sauce like beef stew, pot roast, spaghetti, etc.)

Anyway, I have a few slight edges over my mother with respect to the preparation of this favorite childhood food of mine. I've lived with an "Italian" (in scarequotes because this "Italian" only ever lived in Italy for medical school) for a few months, and I had the chance to both observe and taste some of the delicious pasta sauces that tasted better than any Italian restaurant on Kauai, and very different in theory from what came out of my mother's kitchen. I also have that vast and wonderful resource the internet. Most European-based pasta sauces are much simpler to prepare than I ever could have thought. With quality ingredients, simple can indeed be grand. However, I've recently been experimenting with so much Indian food, I can't stay away from the spices. And this, I believe, is where to find the terrific flavor I love so much. The final edge: a (for practical purposes) unlimited budget for herbs, spices, and other ingredients. What did I do?

  • 3-5 T. olive oil
  • 277yen worth of leanish ground beef
  • 298 yen of little sea scallops
  • 1 onion 50yen
  • 1 entire head garlic (~a dozen cloves)
  • 2 small green peppers 128 yen
  • 2 Japanese eggplant 128 yen
  • 6 shiitake mushrooms 258 yen
  • 140yen of micro cherry tomatoes (about 1 pound? or is it more like 1/2 pound?)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 of a quart of previously frozen ginger chicken carrot pumpkin soup
You could really use any vegetables that you personally like in your tomato sauce. It's a good way for getting rid of odd leftover vegetables you may have sitting in your fridge. These are just my favorites. I imagine spinach could be nice and healthy and melt down to nothing in the sauce. Or no vegetables at all, if meat is your thing.
  • 100 yen of sweet basil, about 20 leaves
  • several tablespoons cumin
  • black pepper to taste (1 T.)
  • chili powder to taste (1/2 t.)
  • at least 1 tablespoon paprika (has nice red color without the hotness)
  • 1/4 t. tumeric
  • 1 t. oregano (not sure how much I like it, so I only add a bit)
  • small sprinkle thyme (I hate it, but I feel bad that I never use my jar of it, so I add just a little bit)
  • 1 T. salt, or to taste
  • 2 bullion cubes
  • 1/4 cup sugar, or to taste (add it with the tomatoes, unless you like your sauce really sour)
  1. Dice garlic. Sweat on low heat in a large, flat, open-mouthed bowl-pan in olive oil. Using a large-mouthed pan reduces cooking time! Chop onion and add a bit at a time. While it's cooking, add cumin, black pepper, chili powder, paprika, tumeric to ground beef. Mix it up.
  2. When garlic and onions are translucent, add meat and spices. Brown the meat, breaking it apart into tiny pieces with a wooden spoon (I dislike chunks of meat. I prefer it to flavor the sauce). Take it all out of the pan and hold it in a separate bowl.
  3. Add salt to scallops. Add them to the already-hot pan with a bit of olive oil. Fry them for a few seconds until a bit undercooked. You can eat scallops raw, and they get stringy if overcooked. Save them to add to the finished sauce at the very end. Remove and set aside. Add meat onion garlic back to pan.
  4. On medium high heat, chop eggplant into 1/2" pieces. Add. Chop shiitake into 1/2" pieces. Add. Dice bell pepper. Add. Mix all every time you add a new batch. Cook.
  5. Remove tops from tomatoes, slice them in half. Add. Stir. Add canned tomatoes. Stir in sugar at the same time as the tomatoes. Add all other herbs and spices except for fresh basil (oregano, thyme, parsley more cumin or whatever you want). Stir, reduce.
  6. Let it simmer on low for at least half an hour or so, until all the vegetables and meat come together into a single stewy tomato sauce. I covered it and added the previously made chicken carrot kabocha soup and bullion cubes. When I saw it was too watery, I left it uncovered and evaporated away the liquid. I like my sauce full of chunky vegetables, and not watery at all. Remember, it won't have any pasta to absorb the liquid. Just lettuce. Plus, if it's chunkier, the flavor will be more condensed and overall more tasty.
  7. At the very end, add salt and pepper to taste. Then stir in scallops and torn basil. Serve over torn lettuce salad. I recommend a mild lettuce such as butter lettuce (which I just so happened to have in my fridge). Also great as a sandwich. Or, of course, with pasta. Or plain . . .
The sauce will probably be better after resting a day in the fridge--if you can wait that long. I swore I wasn't hungry when I made this, because I'd just gone to a curry buffet (Indian, Thai, and Japanese curries!) and stuffed myself to the point of "it hurts!" Then I'd seen a beautiful pastry filled with whipped cream, covered in blueberries and raspberries. Then I'd seen a horn danish filled with strawberries and whipped cream. Already full, I ate them. I told myself I would cook spaghetti for tomorrow and the rest of the week, but alas, I ended up eating two bowls of the stuff. At least it has lots of vegetables?

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