It seems like yesterday I packed up an impressive collection of shoes, more than a couple fake Chanel jackets and several gingerly rolled posters of Pre-Raphaelite redheads. I was headed to college and I didn’t intend on returning home to California at any point during this lifetime. At the time, it didn’t matter whether I liked it here in Seattle or not. It was a city on the west coast and it wasn’t home. A two state buffer zone sounded perfect. I was so thrilled to start my new life I nearly raced off the stage during high school graduation. The only thing that stopped me was a terrible blistered sunburn dotting the back of my legs and four inch platform heels. Both things severely hampered my ability to walk, let alone run anywhere.
All this is really ancient history. However, the feelings of newness and wonder came flooding back to me last weekend as I chatted with my niece. She’s a freshman in college now. It’s truly hard to believe and quite interesting to behold. She’s still youthful, but just beginning to dip her toes into the adult world. Her excitement about her classes, her boyfriend, and her brand new apartment are simply contagious. She talks breathlessly about these subjects for hours on end with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm only a teenager can muster.
I love hearing about it all, but it’s especially fun to hear her talk about cooking for the first time. All signs suggest she is a budding foodie. She’s making curries. She’s cooking scrambled eggs with farm fresh eggs. She’s perfecting her cupcake recipe. And mishaps that would certainly test the patience of any wearied adult do not phase her in the least. She tells me the quiche she made with the graham cracker crust wasn’t half bad. The brownies that failed to set? Of course, they were still edible.
I beam when I hear her discuss these things. My transition into cooking was a bit slower. In the dorms, no longer restricted to my mother’s bulk purchased puffed rice cereal, I feasted on vats of sugared cereals. There was an omelet bar, pizza whenever I wished, and baked goods everywhere. It was heaven until it wasn’t. I gained weight. I felt sluggish. That’s when I realized it was closer to hell.
Once I had my own apartment, I was thrilled to begin cooking. However, I didn’t really know where to begin. I burned a lot things. I undercooked others. I bought processed foods and, for a time, lived on a near exclusive diet of marshmallows and diet coke. I’m not proud of this. If I had to do it again, I might work on the staples. You’ve really got to have a few foolproof recipes in your repertoire. These are the recipes you can whip up from your pantry or a quick trip to the market.
It never occurred to me to write about my basic meat marinara sauce until my conversation with my niece. Everyone needs a starting point and this meat marinara is an adaptable recipe. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. What you need is a basic recipe. Once you have it under your belt, you can explore and get creative. You can adjust the seasoning. You can use different herbs at different times of the year. And, when summer bestows upon you a bounty of garden tomatoes, you can toss them into the mix or even roast them.
I make this recipe for meat marinara often. It’s great when I have little time or energy to do much more. It’s perfect for a budding foodie or a busy mom who wants nothing more than to avoid the jar of tomato sauce at the market.
Enjoy your weekend.
Meat Marinara Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 shallots, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons fresh herbs, finely chopped (marjoram, rosemary, basil, and oregano)
2 cloves garlic
1 pound lean ground beef
1 teaspoon each (kosher salt, garlic salt, freshly cracked pepper)
1 28 ounce can of diced organic tomatoes*
Pour the olive oil into a large frying pan and heat on medium for about 2 minutes. Add the shallots and red pepper flakes. Cook until the shallots are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the herbs. Cook for another 2 minutes. Add the meat and break it up into the pan adding the the salt and pepper to it as you break it apart.
Cook the meat over medium heat until browned, turning often. This should take about 7-10 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and their juices to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
Adjust seasoning to your liking.
Makes 4 healthy portions (perfect for a pound of pasta).
* Muir Glen makes a wonderful canned tomato.