Monday, February 18, 2008

It's Not Your Onions*

* The literal translation of the French expression, "C'est pas tes oignons!" but meaning "It's none of your business!"

Among my stacks of recipe books – owned and borrowed – and clippings from Bon Appetit, Saveur and now French publications, are a couple of thick three-ring binders and two boxes stuffed to the brim with recipes from various sources. Within those boxes and binders are some of my most precious recipes...if not for the gustatory results, for their soft-edged and stained condition that marks them as well loved...kind of like the Velveteen Rabbit. Although my cravings and tastes have changed significantly since living here and I’m much more interested in playing with my food in a Mediterranean/Provençal kind of way these days, sometimes the old stand-bys make an appearance...a test of their endurance.

It was just such a recipe that made the grade this weekend. In fact, I felt a renewal of affection. Successful transition into new life in France? Check!

A friend from London was in town and was coming in for dinner. I had planned to try out another recipe, but I offered my friend a choice. He chose spaghetti.

Since moving here, something about my old favorite just hasn't been the same for me so I’ve not made it for some time. It was just less than satisfying. Something was different and I’d not yet taken the time to play with it to figure out how to help it along in the transition to my new life. Here was the chance.

Okay, okay...I’m relatively confident that everyone has a favorite spaghetti sauce recipe of the bolognaise type. The recipe from my childhood was a regularly requested favorite of mine. I had only found a similar richness and hidden sweetness (from some unconventional ingredients – you’ll see which ones) in one other preparation. That of a fabulous cook whose Italian mother-in-law had given her the family’s “secret” recipe...which remains a secret to this day, I’m quite sure.

Pedestrian as it may be, I thought I’d share this favorite of mine along with the suggestion that I received from one of the vendors in the market. It was just the detail I was looking for to tip this dish into the favorite category once again.

The 4 onions called for in this recipe tend to surprise people but they cook down to a soft sweetness, lending to a lovely thick texture and depth of flavor that makes this sauce what it is. As I filled my little basket with onions at the marché, the youngster serving customers (I’m talking barely adolescent here) looked puzzled and asked me what I was making. I told him a spaghetti sauce and he nodded his comprehension, clarifying that it was a bolognaise-type. I confirmed his suspicion and he went on to suggest that I replace half of the onions with shallots. Hmmmm...a light clicked on in my head. He might be on to something here. I loaded up my tub with onions and shallots and he threw in a bunch of parsley that I would need and asked me to tell him about the results.

And those results: satisfying, indeed, if not downright tasty! “Gorgeous” was the adjective that my friend kept using. (I’m confident he was referring to the meal.) And you know, I think “gorgeous” works here. The shallots bring that sweetness back. Perhaps the onions in these parts pack a more powerful punch then I've been accustomed to. The entire mélange cooks down into the same lovely texture, of course. The young man at the marché has paid close attention to what goes on in his family’s kitchen and knows his stuff.

In the same way that the stains and soft-edges of my original recipe create all sorts of images in my mind’s eye of past preparations and even the original moments as I sat at the little kitchen table copying my favorites among my mother's recipes before moving out of the house, this sauce will forever more have another image accompanying it: that of the dark-haired, soft-spoken young son of my favorite lettuce vendeuse at the petite marché.

An added note here (and avert your eyes if beef details make you squeamish):
My request for ground beef at the butcher’s was made on the spot – ground in front of my eyes from a lovely cut of Label Rouge beef (highest quality).

When I got it home and plopped it in the pan to brown, it was red all the way through. I had to travel much further to a specialty butcher in my old life for that kind of quality. Now I walk a few blocks from my front door. I love this place!

Bon appétit(o)!

p.s. There is a move to an apartment upstairs in my future. If you are willing to help carry a few things up a few stairs, there is an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner in yours!

Sauce Bolognaise à La Fourchette (Adapted from Mama’s Spaghetti Sauce)

2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
2 medium onions, chopped
2 shallots (or whatever it takes to equal the amount of onions), chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup olive oil
16 ounces of tomato sauce
12 ounces of tomato paste
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 pound of ground beef
a few glugs of red wine (for the sauce!)
1 pound of spaghetti
parmesan cheese for serving

Cook parsley, onion, shallots, and garlic in hot fats until soft and translucent. Add tomato sauce, tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. Add meat browned in additional olive oil. Add wine. Cook slowly 3-4 hours on a low heat, stirring occasionally and adding wine to adjust consistency to your taste. Cook pasta in boiling salted water; drain and place on a warm platter. Pour sauce over and dust with freshly grated parmesan. Serves 8. (Although you may wish to add the drained pasta to the sauce pot to let the sauce really blend its flavors with the pasta before serving.)


Anonymous said...

If I were in your neck of the woods, I would gladly carry things upstairs for you!! Have a fun move! I am going to try this recipe very soon--thanks for the inspiration! AnnMarie ;o)

la fourchette said...

AnnMarie, If you were in my neck of the woods, I would gladly take you up on your kind offer! (And I'm quite confident you wouldn't be sorry for the fun at the end!)

I'm pleased this inspires you...especially knowing that you are one among many fine Italian cooks in your family. Thanks so much for stopping in...and saying 'hello'!

Bon appétit,

Leila said...

Leslie, thank you for posting your blog URL at Bitten. I've been amused by your comments there, and I'm delighted to find your blog. What a lovely window into your life in France!

la fourchette said...


Such a lovely compliment. Thank you! Whenever you fancy a breath of lavender-scented air from your nest in the Bay Area (another special place, non?), come on through that window into my French life. You are welcome any time.

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