My Bolognese has a First Name, it's D-E-L-I-G-H-T

Growing up in the Garden State  allows people across the country to make several inferences about you, if not always correct ones:
1) we all talk like Joe Pesci (or Snooki)
2) it's law that you call it "down the Shore"
3) we hate all New Yorkers (not true; only hate Staten Islanders!)
4) we all have a cousin in the "business"  (re: The Sopranos)
5) we all eat pork roll like it's going out of style
6) it's state law that every town must have at least one 24 hour diner (see above)

And finally, my least favorite of them all, and unfortunately the most common:
We're all Italian. Or, as we say here, I-Talian (you natives know what I mean!)
      As sorry as I am to disappoint you, I myself am from German and Polish heritage, as is a good proportion of the north Jersey natives. Suck it, Tony Soprano! Sausage rules!
     HOWEVER, I will give it to my Italian friends - they do make a mean sauce, and pasta is a dish of statewide prowess. I happen to have a favorite though, and my love began not here in my home state, but in a little Italian trattoria in South Florida... see years ago, when I did college the first time (!), I paid a good portion of my way through hard work. This little place,  which I  shall leave unnamed for fear they might whack me for copyright infringement (damn Sicilians) made pasta dishes that would turn your stomach over crying Uncle before you even began. My love on the menu, however, was not your typical noodle. I was introduced, for the first time, to the gnocchi bolognese.
     If  you've never had one before, I highly recommend...a gnocchi is a tiny, pillowy puff of light and airy potato dough, boiled until  they just float, and usually sauced in brown butter and pepper, or used in baked dishes. They hold the line between dumpling and pasta in their own tiny universe of delight, a category of Italian genius all their own. In my trattoria, the gnocchi was not house-made, but the sauce certainly was - and this is where the story lies. Our gnocchi came smothered in bolognese sauce; here it was ground meat, pink like a blushing bride, laden with onion, garlic, and lust. It was meat sauce to the nth degree, and it was love at first bite. I ordered it nearly every day for the entire 4 years I worked there - needless to say, when I quit, I lost about 10 pounds. Just saying, it was THAT good.
     I immediately went to my bible, the Joy of Cooking, and looked up bolognese, and promptly made it. Was it the same? Not a chance! The JOY version used real cut meat, not ground, took hours, and tasted amazing....just not the same as my trattoria version.
     As I repeated this experiment, over and over, I slowly came to the realization...that it wasn't a real bolognese at all. The sauce they fed me was in fact a meat sauce mixed with vodka sauce, frozen peas, and sauteed onions; a line cook concoction. My idealistic Italian shattered around me like an amaretti cookie in a toddler's hands. It was  a fallacy, an elaborate hoax on the American consumer. I was, in a word, devastated.
     But like any good culinarian, I sludged on through recipe after recipe, hoping to recreate my love in  pure form, not a pre-fab one. I tried pork; I tried beef; I tried turkey. I ground fresh meat, used store-bought. I busted my hump to find the sauce I loved. And, I think I did it.
     Nowadays, I look back on that era of my life in hindsight splendor, the kind of idealistic visions you can only achieve from looking backwards on an otherwise ridiculous time in your life. But I will always remember my trattoria, and the nasty (but cute) Sicilians I worked for, and the smells and taste of Italian-American cuisine that shaped my early twenties. And I relish every bite of my bolognese sauce, ladled over steaming whole-wheat fusilli or spinach penne, for I have graduated the extra-calorie school of daily gnocchi. That, my friends, is reserved for special occasions only.

Ground Beef Bolognese with Spinach Penne

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 pound ground beef
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried marjoram
1 tbsp. dried parsley
2 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
½ c. red wine
½ c. chicken or beef stock
24 oz. canned diced tomatoes in juice
2 bay leaves
1 c. milk
1 large Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional)
8 oz. dry spinach penne, or similar fat pasta shape
grated Parmesan, for garnish
In a large saut√© pan with high sides, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add carrot, celery and onion, cooking 1 minute. Add ground beef, basil, marjoram, parsley, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes; cook until beef is all browned but not dry. Raise heat to high, add red wine and stock, and reduce by half. Add tomatoes with juice and bay leaves; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, stirring. Add Parmigiano rind if using. Cover pan halfway with lid. Add about ¼ c. milk every 15 minutes for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions in boiling salted water.  Drain without rinsing. When sauce is done, remove bay leaves and rind. Divide noodles among 4 shallow bowls, and top with Bolognese sauce. Pass grated Parmesan at the table to top. Serve hot.


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