Saturday, February 28, 2009

Prune is amazing...If you can get a reservation

Restaurant Name: Prune
Location: 54 E. 1st Street, New York City

After a month-long effort to secure a Friday night reservation at Prune (at least one that wasn't at either 5:00pm or 10:30pm), my husband and I finally got the chance to gorge ourselves at this truly tiny, truly great eatery in the East Village.

Upon arriving, the reasons for our difficulty in obtaining a reservation became immediately clear. We have dined in some seriously itty bitty restaurants since moving to New York, but Prune *must* have them all beat. There are perhaps 15 tables all squeezed into a space the size of our very-NY-sized living room. People literally have to get up and move so that you can access your table. The place is adorable, though, in a sort of down-at-the-heels, funky-charming, Alice in Wonderland slanting walls & mirrors, have-I-had-too-much-wine-or-is-the-room-shrinking kind of way.

This all gives Prune an undeniable character, but the flat-out, savory awesomeness of the food is probably what keeps people coming back and jamming up that wait-list. The menu at Prune is pretty brief - a handful each of small bites, appetizers, entrees, and sides. We ordered exuberantly, trying the Shrimp Toasts (small bites), Roasted Bone Marrow (appetizers), Lamb Blade Chop and Whole Roasted Branzino (entrees), and Escarole with Merguz Sausage (sides). All were excellent, made from high quality ingredients, simply prepared, and flavorful beyond anything one might expect from such unadorned dishes (don't expect foams, sauces, or fancy-pants garnishes here).

In particular, the Lamb Blade Chop was perhaps the most scrumptiously flavorful cut of meat I've ever tasted. We pressed two different servers for the inside scoop on how the chef got the meat so tasty (a brine? sous vide?) and both swore up and down that the meat was "aggressively" seasoned with nothing more than salt, pepper, and dried thyme just before being flung onto the hot grill. Well, if that is true than the kitchen at Prune is a chamber of mystical culinary skill to which I someday aspire to belong. The lamb meat had rich, savory flavor throughout (not just a crust of seasoning on the surface) and did not taste overly salty (though we noticed some serious dehydration that night and the following day that may support the claims of aggressive salting....or could just be a consequence of the bottle of Sancerre we downed).

The Whole Roasted Sea Bass was also remarkably flavorful considering it was nothing more than a roasted fish stuffed with fennel and lemon slices and served unadorned on a plate of warm olive oil. The flesh was silky and the preparation (though minimalist) was beautiful, too.

As will not surprise anyone who knows us, the Bone Marrow was probably our favorite dish. Like everything else we were served, the portions on the marrow were slightly obscene in size - particularly given its richness. The dish arrived as three huge long bones perched upright on a plate with big hunks of grilled bread and a salty, tangy salad of parsley, sliced cornichon, and capers (which helped offset the fatty, melty richness of the marrow). We had to admit defeat halfway through the third bone - unprecedented for us when it comes to animal products.

Dessert was, unfortunately, underwhelming. We ordered a "trifle," which I place in air-quotes because what we were served was a pretty broad interpretation of a trifle - some narrow sticks of housemade ladyfingers were arranged artfully in a pool of creme anglaise topped with creme chantilly with brandied cherries clustered at the based of the dish. It was....okay. I haven't done the research, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Prune doesn't employ a pastry chef.

In sum - call up at least a week in advance of when you want to eat and secure a dinner reservation at Prune if you love simply prepared dishes that are off the charts in terms of flavor and quality. You might want to save up for it, though - at least a little. Our dinner (including a bottle of wine and tip) came to $190 for two.

Prune on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 27, 2009

Cookbook Review: Il Viaggio di Vetri

I recently received Marc Vetri's newly published cookbook, titled Il Viaggio di Vetri, as a gift. Having been lucky enough to eat at Vetri's eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia several times, I was eager to try my hand at preparing his elevated versions of Italian cuisine at home.

The first thing I noticed as I thumbed through the fine, glossy pages (289 pages, including index) was that nearly all of the recipes looked like something I would want to attempt making. I often find that most cookbooks seems to contain roughly 50% of recipes that hold little appeal. Not so with Vetri's book - I found it hard to decide what to try making first.

The book is divided into the following sections: cold & hot appetizers, pasta & risotto, fish & shellfish, meat, poultry & game (as well as organ meats), vegetable sides, and desserts. Like many other serious cookbooks, this one also has a back section with basic/foundational recipes (stocks, sauces, etc.). There are two additional sections at the beginning of the cookbook that chronicle Vetri's experiences living and working in Italy (his "journey" to becoming the amazing chef he is today - hence the name of the cookbook).

Thus far, I have tried making four recipes from the book. This might not sound like a wide sample, but much like Thomas Keller cookbooks, Vetri's recipes are time-consuming and often require multi-day preparations. Few of the recipes can be whipped up in short order. All demand the highest quality ingredients and attention to detail.

My first attempts were favorites from when I had eaten at the restaurant - the Sweet Onion Crepe with White Truffle Fondue and the Spinach Gnocchi with Shaved Ricotta Salata & Brown Butter.

What I learned making the first recipe was that Vetri's cookbook lacks the exacting instructions of my other favorite tome (Keller's Bouchon Cookbook). There were several errors in the recipe description that - if you are lacking in substantial cooking experience - might cause disaster. First, in the instructions for preparing the crepes, Vetri directs the home cook to heat their crepe pan on low heat. This does not provide sufficient heat to properly cook and brown the crepe without drying it. High heat is required. Second, his instructions for preparing the onion confit resulted in dry and stringy onion shreds rather than a jam-like consistency. I had to puree them in order to salvage the dish. I will follow Keller's instructions for hte onion confit in the future. These small crises averted, however, the dish came out wonderfully. The White Truffle Fondue was truly awesome.

The gnocchi recipe was smoother sailing - probably the most fantastic dish I've created at home. I've always been terrified of making gnocchi and producing sad little rock-hard lumps. No worries on that front with Vetri's recipes. The gnocchi were more like mini souffles of spinach than anything else. They came out fluffy and flavorful (and a gorgeous bright green color). The incredibly simple sauce of nutty brown butter poured over the gnocchi (which were topped with melty, salty cheese) was perfect. Just be prepared for some major prep-work (2 lbs of baby spinach must be individually de-stemmed and pureed the day ahead!).

The other two recipes I've tried from the cookbook were new to me - a Lavender Gelato with Chocolate Shell & Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Rustic Rabbit with Sage & Pancetta.

The Lavender Gelato was a clever, fabulous dessert (you prepare a vanilla gelato with lavender flowers, scoop it in a clear glass, place a prepared chocolate lid over the top and then pour hot olive oil onto the lid - it melts the chocolate and makes a sauce for the gelato!). There were a few issues with this recipe, though. First, the amount of lavender called for seemed excessive and would probably result in too strong of a lavender flavor (I reduced it by half). Second, after making the chocolate lids, Vetri calls for their refrigeration. What he doesn't say, however, is that they must be allowed to re-warm to room temperature before being served; otherwise the olive oil will not melt through them.

The rabbit braise was very good - though incredibly rich (you essentially braise the rabbit - which you must painstakingly carve up into pieces beforehand - in butter, olive, oil, and herbs). It is served atop a simple (but tiring to prepare - all that stirring!) polenta (again, Vetri's instructions suggested cooking over too low of a heat; following them, it took me 3 hours to produce a creamy polenta).

Though I include some criticisms of his attention to detail in the recipe instructions, I found this cookbook incredibly inspiring and the dishes in to be original, interesting, impressive, and delicious. I look forward to cooking from it more often. I think, in the final analysis, I would say that Il Viaggio di Vetri is an excellent source of ideas and recipes for an already experienced home cook. To cook successfully from this book you need to be able to evaluate the instructions and feel comfortable deviating from them as needed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Meat Lover's Fantasy Island - The Spotted Pig

Restaurant Name: The Spotted Pig
Location: 314 W. 11th Street, New York City

Like a college girl on a Saturday night, the Spotted Pig stands chest-out on a corner in Greenwich Village, daring everyone to look; it is a loud, brash, riotous fantasy island for the lover of all things meaty and true. Just penning this review is calling up memories of rich, fatty, raw goodness. Excuse me, I need a moment.


Okay. The first thing, in case you don't already know, is that the Spotted Pig does not take reservations and always has a wait. Happily, it is well-situated in Greenwich Village and if you can't find a way to kill an hour in this neighborhood then perhaps you really should just stay at home. (My suggestion: while away the time down Bleecker at Murray's Cheese)

The second thing you should know is that this NO PLACE for a vegetarian. Yes, they have a fish dish on the menu, but the only true vegetable dishes are the sides, which are mostly potatoes (you can order a "meal" of 4 side dishes). I'm sorry for people to feel left out, but such is life. This is a meaty place. Embrace it.

After our requiste hour-long wait last Friday night, my husband and I were finally led upstairs into the labrynthine depths of the restaurant. The whole place is really a bar from top to bottom and it was crammed with bodies: bodies perched on stools, bodies hanging from the bar, bodies waiting on line for the ladies, bodies festooned with ridiculous cowboy hats and get the idea. Whatever the menu prices might lead you to believe, this is not a "nice" place. It is very loud. It smells like a frat party. It is also worth every penny.

But, of course, when we were first seated at a rickety table with two stubby stools as chairs set next to a mountain of coats, we were a bit nervous. The prices are not low here, not at all. But we need not have worried. No indeed.

We started out with the pork rillettes. They were served cold with a glistening layer of fat on top and they came with hefty slabs of grilled bread, cornichons, and mustard. They were so fabulously good - just the right amount of salt and a hint of something nutmeggy, but really mostly just awesome porky flavor. The fat alone was good enough to eat by itself. The mustard cut the richness perfectly.

For our entrees we had the skirt steak and the hamburger. The steak is served one way and one way only - medium rare. It glistens and is so flavorful that you want to get up out of your chair (I'm sorry, stool) and do a little dance. When we asked the server, he reported that after its extremely brief flirtation with a hot pan the steak was doused with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and finely ground chili flakes. Neither of us have any recollection of what the skirt steak was served with because it was totally, utterly irrelevant.

The hamburger was brought out on a plate heaped 100 miles high with shoestring fries (see photo above). They were really salty (in a good way) and had been tossed with crispy rosemary leaves, an ideal companion for the salt. My first thought when I saw the burger, though, was "what the hell is that lame-looking thing?" It was a bun, some meat, and a little mound of blue cheese looking lost and alone in an otherwise garnish-free land. I thought it was going to be so dry and boring that I almost wept. Then I took a bite. It was perfectly pink from top to bottom and so tender and warm that it felt a little (indecently) like eating a live animal might. The flavor was a mild, addictive, almost olive-oily beef taste. No pushy seasonings, just the highest quality, perfectly cooked ground beef. The blue cheese was all the adornment needed.

Now high on protein, we were somehow persuaded by our server to try a dessert called the "Banoffe" - a sort of layered puff pastry dish with sliced bananas, Dulce de Leche, and cream. The first suprise (not necessarily a good one) was that it was cold. After we got over this, though, we found it addictively caramely and didn't stop eating until the last bit of Dulce de Leche was swiped off the plate.

As for drinks, this seems to be a beer kind of place. I ordered a seriously over-priced glass of wine (they had a legitimate-seeming list, but the wine was not at all good). Next time I'll follow my husband's lead and get their housemade beer. It'll pair perfectly with all the meat I plan to cram in my face.

Spotted Pig on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Old School French Still an Experience - La Grenouille

Restaurant Name: La Grenouille
Location: 3. E. 52nd Street, New York City

For a recent special occasion (this blogger's birthday!), my husband and I decided to make a night of it at one of New York's venerable old French restaurants, La Grenouille. And let me tell you, this place is worth the experience - if only just one time.

La Grenouille is opulent in an Old World, Old School sort of way. Lush red banquettes line the walls; massive, towering, trailing gorgeous bouquets stand sentry; and hovering, suited waiters (a veritable army for each table) hop at the slightest sign you might need them (literally, glancing accidentally in their direction brings them running). Everything is bright, and fine, and beautiful.

Oh, and the other diners...let me just say that La Grenouille offers a fabulous people-watching experience! My husband and I were easily the only people under the age of 40 in the entire restaurant who were not the guests of carefully-coiffed parents or grandparents. I felt as though we had wandered into a strange alternate universe where the recession was simply one of those silly things that needn't trouble anyone.

For all these things (including, among others, the tiny mirrored bathroom - there were even mirrors on the ceiling), La Grenouille is an experience worth having only once. The food, while well-prepared, fresh, and flavorful, is not enough to warrant a return visit at the current prices, which are steep for what you get.

Offering an extensive a la carte menu, La Grenouille also allows diners to select three courses for a fixed price of $90 (some selections require a hefty supplement, though). The menu is just what one would expect (and demand, in fact) from this type of restaurant - classic dishes from a bygone era of French cuisine. There are fried sweetbreads (good but almost too much richness), Lobster bisque (fabulous flavor but a thin-ish broth that might have benefitted from being a bit more robust), blinis with caviar, escargot, and so on. Main courses included things like Chateaubriand and rack of lamb. All the meats were very simply prepared and served with almost garnish-like sides (definitely less thought and effort seemed to have gone into the sides than into the well-seasoned meats). Desserts were equally traditional - tarte tatin, for example, and Gran Marnier Souffle (which was so massive and towering that it would have been nigh on impossible for a single person to finish one themselves....yet, they had an even bigger version "for 2"). As this last implies, portions here were generous and my request for a take-home bag was not sneered at.

In all, I would say that even though I came full-well expecting incredibly traditional versions of French cuisine, I left every-so-slightly disappointed that the dishes weren't more innovative or interesting. While I think there is always room for greatness in classic preparations, restaurants like La Grenouille should be careful not to become complacent and bored with their own traditional creations. Therefore, while the food was all quite good, it lacked the kind of spark of interest that would propel it to greatness. Happily, the over-the-top ambiance of the place more than compensated for any shortcomings in the kitchen.

La Grenouille on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 16, 2009

Better Than "Better Than No Knead Bread" Recipe

I have been seriously making bread for about 18 months now and I think I have a pretty good handle on how it works now. I make some type of dough every few days - pizza, sandwich bread, rustic bread, flat bread, foccocia, rolls, boules - whatever strikes the fancy. I have discovered that lots of my friends also like to make bread and most of them are disciples (or perhaps slaves) of the Mark Bittman (NY Times)"Better than no knead bread" recipe. Obviously, as the name implies, no knead bread doesn't require kneading and thus is pretty easy and can be quite good as well.

I am a technique cook rather than a recipe cook so I am going to talk about how to make bread REALLY WELL rather than focus on a specific detail recipe. Mark Bittman's Recipe is fine to get started. Most of you have heard the statement that cooking is flexible and creative but Baking is a "science" where exact measurements are essential. While this is true, unfortunately, the exact measurements, and techniques, in a recipe are almost guaranteed to be the wrong scientifically because of large variance in the weight of a cup of flour, the potency of your yeast, the humidity and temperature of the air, the water temperature, etc. So, good dough is really an art and a matter of understanding what it should feel and look like.

So what are the ingredients in great bread (at least the type I am going to discuss here)?

Flour: Always use AP (all purpose) unbleached white flour. If you want "whole wheat bread" you have a large challenge to make it and not have a dense, heavy, unappetising bowling ball. My solution is to add some wheat germ to your white flour - you get the nutrition and the taste without giving up lightness. Bread flour also is generally too heavy for bread (ironically) made at home by hand.

Dry Yeast: Always use instant or quick rising yeast - never use regular yeast for anything (it is actually intentionally mutilated to reduce its potency which is why it has to be reconstituted by adding water and sitting around and waiting for it to activate - quick rising yeast is up to 10 times more active and is just added dry to the flour). Depending on what you are doing you use more or less yeast to get the result you want - great bread flavor and texture develops over time - more yest means quick rising which gives you easy, quick, predictable results that doesn't taste or bite as well as less yeast. Temperature also makes a huge difference - the higher the temperature up to 105 degrees the faster and higher the rise and the less flavorful and textural. Bread can be baked within 2 hours of mixing ingredients - but great bread requires starting a day or 2 ahead of when you want to eat it and/or using my secret ingredient.

Natural Yeast: Poolish, Bigga, Levain, Chef, Sponge Sourdough starter : Great bread always uses this magical ingredient. What is it? Basically, the various names relate to country of origin, amount of water in the mix and how it is stored. My technique, has refined over time to one I am now really happy with Basically, I have a Tupperware in the refrigerator with natural yeast in it - what is called by many a "sourdough starter". How do you get this magical ingredient? How much work is it? What if you don't make dough for a week or a month?
Basically, you start with a starter you buy or get from a friend or just by taking some dough you have made with instant rise yeast, add some extra water to make it like heavy pancake flour, throw it in the Tupperware and stick it in the fridge. The start either using it at least once a week. To use it you remove about 75% of it and add it to your next bread dough as the first ingredient. Add enough water and fresh flour to the Tupperware to bring it back up to original volume, stir it up and put it back in the fridge. Whether you get a starter or start with a instant quick rise yeast packet dough within a couple of weeks you will have a "natural yeast' starter that will continue to improve in flavor over time.
The refrigerated starter you use in your bread doesn't replace instant yeast, it adds to it and adds an unbelievably good flavor and texture to the bread. It is basically no work at all and it will raise the level of you bread completely.

Water: As I explained in my Post "How to Boil Water" this is a critical ingredient. I use well water but you could you Brita home filtered, bottled water, or good tap water that has set at room temperature for 24 hours (chlorine needs to dissipate or yeast is inhibited and taste is bad). The amount of water, in relation to flour, determines the texture, rise, and many other factors in your bread. More water is a lower loaf with more open texture - less a higher, denser loaf.
Salt: Kosher or Sel de Mer of course!. Never, ever, use table salt in bread or anything else. If you are following a recipe at least DOUBLE the amount of salt. I use at least a tablespoon, and up to 2 tablespoons per loaf. Salt is a critical flavor, and staleness prevention, element in bread. It stiffens the dough and inhibits yeast though so be sure NOT to add it to your Sourdough starter - that should merely be water, flour, and previous starter base. I also sprinkle coarse Sel De Mer over the top of the bread just before putting it into oven.
Olive Oil: I only use this in specialty breads except to coat the Le Cresuet pan. I will do another post of other types of bread.
Herbs de Provence: I almost always sprinkle liberally over the top of bread, with salt, before it goes in Oven.
1. The day before you want to bake take your starter out of the refrigerator and divide and feed it. What I do is leave about 1/2 cup of starter in the Tupperware, add a cup of flour and a cup of water and stir. Put back in fridge. The remaining starter I add to another Tupperware and add 2 cups flour and 2 cups water. Put the lid on and put on counter for a couple of hours to get going and then put in fridge till next day. This step takes less than 10 minutes work.
2. Morning I want to bake I take the 4 cup starter out of the fridge. I take my Le Creuset and add fresh water till it is bout 20% full. I put on stove for a minute or less to get water to somewhere under 100 degrees (use instant read or your finger "warm"). I then add the four cups of starter to this water and stir it up well. Note, if water is over 105 degrees you will instantly kill your starter which is not good.
3. Add flour to the pan, off stove of course, stirring it in with a big spoon until it will not stir any more - still wet but starting to not allow flour to stir in. Put some plastic wrap over pan and put lid on - Do something else for 20 minutes to an hour. this step is active time of maybe 15 minutes or less.
4. Come back and scrape the dough out of the pot onto the counter top. Sprinkle a half a packet of quick rising yeast and a tablespoon or 2 of slat over the surface of the dough. Using a pastry scraper, or spatula, start "folding" the dough over in all directions, adding flour as you fold. As the dough gets less sticky and more floury you can knead a bit with your hands continuing the fold and turn and fold. When the dough gets just not too sticky to handle stop adding flour and keep folding and turning. It will get more sticky again so add a little more flour - you just want to be on the edge of sticky surface. this process takes about 20 minutes.
5. Oil the Le Creusent with olive oil and put the dough in - put the lid on. Let the dough rise for a couple of hours until it has risen near the top of the pan. You can now sprinkle salt and herbs de provence on the top of the dough.
6. Preheat the oven with the Le Crueset lid in it to 450 degrees. When it is ready to do put the Le Creuset on top the stove over high heat for about 4-5 minutes to heat the heavy metal bottom of the pan, Put the Le Creuset in the oven, put the hot lid on it. Cook for 15 minutes and then remove the lid and lower the temperature of the oven to 375 and insert remote thermometer inserted in the bread. Cook about another 20 minutes until the internal temp of the bread is 200 to 210 degrees.
7. Turn the bread out of the pan onto a rack and let sit for at least an hour. If you cut it sooner the texture of the bread will suffer from the loss of steam/moisture.
8. Note day old bread is revived by heating it in the toaster or oven. SO even if making sandwiches for the lunch box toast the bread before you start. Also, bread MUST NOT BE STORED IN REFRIGERATOR or in plastic bags - it will spoil and lose all texture and flavor. Just keep on counter or in an open paper bag. The reason Mass produced bread stays "fresh" in the oven is that it is saturated with additives and chemicals that you don't even want to think about. Real bread is good on the counter for several days if revived for use.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Murray's Mom's Meat Balls - Pair with Miranda's Sauce

I love Miranda's recipe for Spaghetti and meat sauce - especially the tomato sauce. However I am a MEATBALL person since I was introduced by Amy to our joint friend Murray's Mother's Meatball Recipe. The recipe and technique follows and it makes enough to pair with 3 of Miranda's dinners. Just pop the meatballs out of the freezer and drop into the sauce where Miranda calls for adding the meat back - or if you are like me keep all of Miranda's recipe including the meat and add the meatballs TOO!
Murray's recipe and notes:
- 3 lbs ground beef
- 1/3 cup minced onion (if dried or 1 medium onion minced if fresh)
- 1 cup bread crumbs
- 4 eggs
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tsp salt
- pepper to taste
- garlic powder (or fresh, minced) and whatever herbs you'd like (my mom uses garlic powder (a tsp or 2) and dried oregano usually (~1 tblsp? crushed a bit in your hand))

Mix wet ingredients. Add bread crumbs, mix. Add onion + seasonings, mix. Mix in meat (probably with hands). Form balls. Steve's Note: critical to have the meatballs as "airy" as possible - as you mix keep as loose as possible and don't compress the meatballs when you form them.

Bake in 400 degree oven for 10-15 minutes (depending on size of meat balls, my mom usually goes for golf-ball sized). Bake on a rimmed cookie sheet (to catch the grease). If you have an old, beat up rimmed cookie sheet, use that. If you have a nice cookie sheet, line with foil. The meat balls tend to leave dark marks on the cookie sheet. Drain (if needed) on a paper towel. They might get slightly smokey in the oven, be sure to have the fan on.

Or you could brown them in a pan, but the baking method (according to my mom) gives a less greasy meat ball and goes faster since they all cook at once.

They freeze really well just in a freezer bag with one meal's worth. I don't know how long, several months at least. I defrost them in the microwave until they are warmish, then throw them in a pot with the tomato sauce to warm up the rest of the way.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

From Miranda's Kitchen: Sunday Spaghetti

An hour and a half of your time on a Sunday afternoon turns out this rich, hearty sauce - great for dinner that night or to be reheated with freshly boiled pasta during your busy week ahead. Leave the canned sauce behind forever!

Sunday Spaghetti
Serves 4 (plus leftovers)

1 28 ounce can of whole, peeled San Marzano Italian tomatoes
2 Tbs tomato paste
1 fresh Roma tomato (finely diced)
1 lb high quality ground beef (grass-fed is the most flavorful)
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
3 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and finely diced
2 tsp dried oregano (the fresher, the better)
1 tsp dried basil (again, fresh is best)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
3 slices of bacon, cut into lardons
3 dried red chilies
Olive oil

Heat a large saucepot on the stove over medium-high heat. Immediately add the lardons, stirring occasionally as they heat, render their fat, and begin to crisp. Once crisp, remove the lardons from the pot, but leave their rendered fat behind.

Shred the dried chilies and add them to the hot bacon fat (be careful not to burn them) and stir for about 30 seconds. Add 1 Tbs of olive oil and then the diced onion. Stir to combine and then add the dried herbs and garlic powder. Stir this mixture occasionally over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes or until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the minced garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 3 minutes.

Remove the onion and spice mixture from the pan and reserve in a bowl. Add another Tbs of olive oil to the pan and add the ground beef, along with about 2 tsp of kosher salt. Cook the beef, stirring and breaking up the clumps, until it is fragrant and beginning to lose its pink color (the beef should still be pink in the center when you remove it from the pan). Remove the beef from the pan and add it to the reserved onion mixture. Leave the oil and beef juices behind and let them reduce slightly over high heat.

Add the tomato paste to the beef juices and oils. Stir vigorously and then add the finely diced fresh Roma tomato - cook until the tomato is reduced to a paste.

Meanwhile, open the can of San Marzano tomatoes and separate the tomatoes from the sauce. Roughly chop the tomatoes on a cutting board into smaller pieces. After the fresh Roma tomato has reduced to a paste-like consistency, add the chopped canned tomatoes along with their sauce. Stir and bring the tomato mixture to a low but steady boil. Cover the pot and let it cook (stirring occasionally) for about 15 minutes.

After the tomato mixture has reduced and combined, add the beef, onion and spice mixture, and reserved bacon. Pour about a cup of water into the tomato can to capture any sauce clinging to the side and pour this into the pot. Stir to combine and reduce heat to medium low. Cover the pot and let the sauce simmer for at least 30 minutes. Add more water as needed if the sauce becomes too dry. Stir every 5 minutes or so.

Now taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings to your liking. Salt will definitely be needed. If the mixture tastes too acidic or sharp, add a pinch of sugar and some more garlic powder. If it tastes too sweet, consider adding more salt, pepper, and a dash of red wine or balsamic vinegar (just a *touch* - too much and you'll ruin it irrevocably). Remember, you can always continue to add seasonings, but you can't ever really take them away, so season gradually, stir often (sometimes the saltiest sauce is at the bottom of the pot), and taste often.

Once the sauce is ready, bring cold, heavily salted water to a boil in a large pot (see Steve's Cooking Techniques on boiling water). Add the pasta of your choice (traditional spaghetti is always a good route, but you can use penne, rigatoni, fusili, or fettucini too).

I like to serve this by spooning a big pile of sauce on top of the cooked noodles in a pasta bowl. I add a drizzle of olive oil and a grind of fresh pepper. You can also shave some fresh parmesan on top. Another variation is to add a bit of cream to the sauce near the end of cooking to make it a little richer.

And, of course, eat with lots of red wine in a big glass!

Bon Appetit!