Every time I cook a holiday meal for my parents, I get a warning from my mother before hand. Basically the warning is "Don't cook too much food!" Translation: "Don't cook any food!"
"Mom," I say. "There are going to be other people. I have to cook something."
"People don't really like to eat"
No it's Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, whatever. People are expecting to be fed. "You don't like to eat, most people do."
"Well, just open a jar of something."
"Not gonna happen, ma."
"Well, then just something plain. Turkey roll."
"You mean that compressed log of pseudo protein with the yin/yang light dark meat pattern? No. I'm cookiing a turkey."
"Not a whole turkey. That's too much."
"There are 12 people coming."
"That's too many."
"That's the family."
"Oh. Right. Just don't cook too much"
She doesn't understand that some people love to cook and eat. I happen to love cooking. Next to my work as a writer, it's my biggest passion. But family holidays since I've taken over hosting, have become a minefield of likes/dislikes. In cooking any meal involving my parents, I have to be careful. They're both picky eaters, but my mother is definitely Guinness Book of World Records worthy. Her list of food dislikes goes on forever. This is not from any dietary restriction, nothing official. Just that once she's made up her mind that she doesn't like something, that's it. Finito. No amount of coaxing will get her to eat that particular food. The list of banned ingredients is long. Nuts, soup, raisins (except in Pannetone) pepper, chilies (except in Mexican food which she loves), dried fruit, most meat, most fish, most shellfish (except crab, salt (yes the woman doesn't cook with salt). I could go on and on.
I started exploring the various culinary corners of San Francisco by myself as a young teenager and then began experimenting with cooking for myself. If I hadn't, I might never have started eating three quarters of the things I do. Once I started cooking, of course I could never get my mother to eat any of it. It was all too strange for her. And it's not just my cooking. She's pushed the food around on her plate at some of the best restaurants in the US and Europe. She told me once, all she ate in Morocco was bread and tea...for a week. Whatever. In all this wilderness of forbidden food, there is one thing she absolutely adores. Mushrooms, and pasta. So this last Easter, I decided to give her a meal that I knew she couldn't refuse.
In his new James Beard-nominated cookbook Masala Farm, Indian master chef Suvir Saran brings all his big city cooking skills and knowledge together with his life in the country on Masala Farm, and offers up amazing recipes. Wonderful, fresh, healthy twists on America fare. It was his "I Can't Believe It's Not Meat Ragu", however that leapt out at me. This recipe had my mom's name written all over it. The mystery of Easter dinner was solved. The recipe is easy, simple and perfect for a family holiday dinner.
Meatless Mushroom Ragu
Here's what you need:
1 Large red onion
4 medium carrots
4 medium celery stalks
1 lb of cremini mushroom caps
1/4 cup olive oil
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/8 tsp dried basil
1/8 tsp of dried oregano
1/8 tsp of dried rosemary
1/8 tsp of dried thyme
2 tsp of salt
4 cups of canned or boxed tomatoes (I always use Italian San Marzano tomatoes which I believe are the best canned tomatoes one can buy)
1/2 cup of dried red wine
1 tsp herbs de Provance
2 Tbs of unsalted butter
2 lbs of pasta fresh or homemade
Good quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for grating.
Here's What To Do:
Process the onion in a food processor until it's finely chopped. Set it aside.
Process the carrot and celery separately the same way. Set them aside
Process the mushrooms the same way. You want them at hamburger texture.
I also took 6 oz of dried porcini mushrooms and soaked them in hot water for about 1/2 hour.
After the porcini are soft, chop them finely, and set them aside. Save the soaking liquid.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet.
When the olive oil is hot add in the cloves, cinnamon stick, pepper and the dried herbs.
Saute these things at a medium heat until the cinnamon stick starts to uncurl. This takes about 2 minutes.
Add in the onion and the salt. Cook it down until it starts to brown a bit, about 5 minutes or so.
Add in the carrots and celery
Cook these down until they also start to brown a bit, about 12 minutes.
Add in the chopped cremini and porcini mushrooms. Cook until they start to release their liquid.This takes about 4 minutes.
Add in the canned tomatoes.
If they're not crushed, crush them with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook them down for about 4 minutes or so.
Pour in 1 cup of water (I used the porcini soaking liquid)
Pour in 1/2 cup of wine
Bring the ragu to a boil then turn the heat down to medium low and let it all simmer together for at least 30 minutes. You can let it simmer for up to 2 hours (I did) for more deeply flavored ragu.
If it starts to get too thick, you can add an extra 1/2 cup of liquid.
I also added a pinch of dried red peppers, and about 3 Tbs of my home made 6 year old wine vinegar at the end.This recipe serves 8.
I didn't add the butter or the herbs de Provence as the ragu tasted absolutely amazing without it. It was like the gravy my Nonna used to make, only meatless! I cooked this ragu on Saturday afternoon for Easter dinner on Sunday. Letting it mellow overnight allowed the flavors to deepen and I highly recommend doing this.
I made fresh pasta as nothing is better than fresh. When my mom say the pasta drying on the rack she thought I was washing shoelaces. Right. On Easter Sunday, On the kitchen table.
The meal was simple. I served it with a Roasted fennel and blood orange salad and fresh baked artisan bread with a good olive oil for dipping.
I put the food on the table. Would it work? Would the pickiest of eaters finally eat?
You bet she did! She smiled. She said that finally after all these years, I'd made something she liked. She loved it. Another great thing about this ragu, it freezes beautifully! Now that I like.
Of course even the nicest Easter meal couldn't pass without a wise-crack, and that was my centerpiece of Avocados painted like Easter eggs.
I used non-toxic, water soluble paint. I let them dry and decorated them with more non toxic paint.
This was the very first time I did not cook a ham or lamb for Easter, and it was the most successful Easter dinner yet! A family of picky Italians were dazzled by a ragu from Masla Farm. Go figure! I was so excited I gave Suvir a tweet from the table. My mother wondered what else was in this magical book of his. We sat down together and looked through it and she started pointing out things she liked the looks of. I was shocked. Will this make her more adventurous? Will it make her actually start to cook and enjoy it? I have a feeling if anyone can, it might be Suvir Saran.
Coming up next, the weird and the funky, Peeps on Fire! Follow along on Twitter @kathygori