Friday, September 16, 2011

Carpool Wars: Battle Bolognese

Most carpools are good.

Time saving.
Gas saving.
Sanity saving.
Life saving, really.

Some carpools are great.

NPR on the radio.
Being a fly on the wall to the whole thing.

My carpool is exceptionally great.

Hanging out on the weekends, with the kids running around, a few bottles of wine and hilarious stories.
Grown up outings to the Hollywood Bowl.
Field trips to Hole in the Wall Burger Joint.

and of course...

Cutthroat culinary competitions.

Wherein we normally gracious and laid back moms go toe to toe in the kitchen, the three families eat like kings, and my husband, the instigator*, has the last laugh and second helpings.  

Our first throw down, Battle Burger, was hard fought from the get go.  Ahi tuna burgers with homemade remoulade, hickory sliders with bacon and sharp cheddar, and burgers made from freshly ground New York steak with avocado mayonnaise.

Outwardly casual, the ladies were not playing around.  Homemade brioche? Driving over 45 minutes away to get to Huntington meats for the Silverton blend?  Purchasing prime steak and grinding it up to try and impress a couple of 12 year old judges?  

Oh yes, we did!**

After the combined votes of the kids and husbands crowned each of us a winner***, the "plating" queen suggested a rematch****:

"Bolognese sauce this time, girls?" she said, raising a glass.   We raised ours back. "You're on!"

My carpool is awesome!

Battle Bolognese - Report

Limited only by the requirement that our entry be some kind of ragu*****, I chose my weapons carefully.  Traditionally, true Bolognese sauce has things like veal and milk and celery.  Having seen the reaction among our younger judges to the fish burgers, I was going to go in a different direction.

Sausage.  Lots and lot of sausage.  

Then, a surprise substitution for the celery that would be unexpected, yet subtle.  Fennel.

Plus onions, of course.  

And my Roasted Summer Tomato Sauce, that I just happened to have on hand because I'd specially made it a few days ago.   I put the sauce in the oven and moved on to dessert.  Just in case the sausage didn't come through for me, I needed a back up plan to earn some goodwill******.

The evening arrived, and suddenly the stove was completely covered with enameled pots of incredible smelling sauces and vats of rapidly boiling salted water.  

Don't be fooled by the smiles, by the way.  These two were out to get me.  

Roasted chestnuts and fresh parsley are stirred in at the last minute in this sauce, deeply flavored with smoked ham and veal, along with cream.

The buffet opened, and the judging began.

My sausage and fennel entry

Fresh ricotta was spooned into this rich veal and beef sauce laced with porcini mushrooms, cinnamon and nutmeg.

I got out the extra large plates for the judges.

The votes were counted.

The results are announced:  
The smoky chestnut bolognese won for Taste, my entry for Creativity, and the Porcini/Ricotta platter for Presentation.

And then we had pie*******. 

And homemade S'Mores ice cream.  And salted caramel pudding with lacy pecan cookies.

No one could lift another spoonful.  Our bellies were bursting and we were practically slumped over the dining table after dessert.  Someone (probably my husband) piped up:


The chorus came back:

"You're on!"

Did I mention I love my carpool?

"Most Creative" Spicy Sausage and Fennel Ragu
Adapted from a post on The Kitchn blog.  I should also mention that this was only 1 vote away from a tie for first in the Taste category, too.

Olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
2 medium white onions, peeled and diced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 small fennel bulbs (should be about the same size as the onions), cleaned, trimmed, and diced.  Chop and reserve a few of the fennel fronds for garnish.
2 32 oz. cans diced tomatoes, with their juices (I used fire roasted)
3 c. Roasted Summer Tomato Sauce (or other tomato puree)
1 long sprig rosemary
2-3 inch piece of Parmesan cheese rind
1/3 c. prepared pesto sauce
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
red chili pepper flakes, optional
Cooked pasta and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Coat the bottom of a large Dutch oven lightly with olive oil.  Place over medium-high heat.  When the pan is hot, add the sausage, breaking up into crumbles and chunks with a wooden spoon as it browns. Don't worry if some sausage bits stick to the bottom for now...they'll come off easily later.  After 10-15 minutes, remove about 1/4 of the sausage and reserve in the fridge. You'll add this a few minutes before serving, giving the sauce a nice combination of long-cooked and freshly cooked flavors.

Preheat the oven to 275.

Add the diced onions, garlic and fennel to the pot, and stir to coat with the sausage and it's drippings.  Cook slowly over medium-low heat until the onions are translucent and soft, at least 15 more minutes.

Stir in the diced tomatoes and the tomato sauce.  Bring to a simmer, then bury the rosemary sprig and the Parmesan rind in the middle of the sauce.  Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Stir well, then cover the pot and move it into the oven.  Cook for at least an hour, and as long as 3 hours.  The longer it goes, the better it will be!

Take the sauce out of the oven, and taste it.  It should be thick, almost like tomato-rosemary jam with meat in it, and delicious!  Place over low heat on the stove, and stir in the reserved sausage and the pesto sauce.  Give those things a few minutes to simmer, then add salt, pepper, and chili flakes to taste.

To serve, remove Parmesan rind and rosemary sprigs.  Add cooked pasta to the pot, and stir to coat completely.  Ladle into serving bowls, and garnish with freshly grated cheese and a few fennel fronds.

* This whole thing started when he happened to drive carpool one day before a final, and took the boys out for burgers on the way to school.   He says to one of the boys, "Hey. Jasper says his mom can make a better burger than your mom."   The rest is history.   
** I had great photos of the whole thing, too, but they were on my camera when it was lost in NY.  Crap!
*** There were three categories (Taste, Presentation, and Creativity).  We may be watching a little too much Iron Chef at my house.
**** I was almost certain my husband was egging her on.  Then, when I heard what the battle was, I knew.  Sly like a fox, that guy.
***** A long and slowly cooked sauce, usually featuring ground or shredded meat and vegetables.
****** Great minds think alike.  One competitor fried up homemade arancini stuffed with sausage and mozzarella, and the other had homemade a Caesar salad dressing and brought wonderful wine.
******* Made by one of the high school boys using this recipe. ("But I also added a little ginger, some lemon zest and some coffee.  It brings out the flavor of the berries!")  The S'mores ice cream was his creation, too.  Carpool bonus points for having gourmet kids, too!!

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