One of the great things I like best about being in the “EAT/ART” exhibit at the Atlantic Gallery (in addition to supporting Just Food, of course) is getting to know some of the other artists, many of whom like to cook. Some, such as Adam Van Doren, are fathers too, and he has offered to share the tale of one of his favorite dishes, Bolognese.
Van Doren, who has two children, is a kind of Renaissance man (he studied architecture, paints watercolors, draws cartoons (that's one of his, above), and has made two documentary films about The New Yorker magazine), and his Bolognese is different than any I’ve ever known. It’s made with beer, for one thing. It’s spicy, for another.
I’ve written before about the complex history of what makes a Bolognese a Bolognese. In Bill Buford’s “Heat,” his book about learning how to cook Italian food, he observes that “a Bolognese is made with a medieval kitchen’s quirky sense of ostentation and flavorings.”
Van Doren understands this. His recipe comes from a cousin, Robert Ashby, an actor who was raised England, but also lived in India as a child. “Strictly speaking it is an Italian dish,” Van Doren says, “but this version is a sort of hybrid, a kind of ‘Michelangelo meets Gandhi,’ if you will.”
I was a teenager in the 1970s when I first met my cousin, who was traveling through New York City as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I have seen him every few years since then, whenever he passes through Manhattan, and he always makes a point of making his famous spaghetti sauce. From his days in India, he was used to very hot dishes. For a long time, I tried valiantly to eat what he made for me, but my tongue initially couldn't handle the strong, intense curry. My mouth would burn, and my face started to sweat. Eventually, I developed an ability to handle it, and loved it.
I actually found it intoxicating and couldn't stop once I'd started. He was proud of me when I could eat his creation with gusto (without having to run to the sink every five minutes for a glass of water), but he used to rib me that what I had sampled was what he considered MILD. The REAL stuff--which I don't touch--is beyond my reach, and he eats that himself.
In any case, I have since then created my own improvised variation of this sauce, which is different from my cousin's in terms of the specific recipe, but not in the overall concept--that is, of being somewhat fiery and spicy. My preparation requires a couple of hot pans working at the same time, one which has a pound of ground beef sizzling in butter to a nice brown; the other simmering on a low flame with sliced garlic, yellow peppers and chopped onions in oil and butter. Once the beef is cooking nicely, I mix in whole tomatoes from a can, and add a small jar of tomato paste. After churning that over with a big spoon, I add two cans of canned spaghetti sauce into the ground beef--both from Patsy's famous Italian restaurant in New York: one is a jar of creamy vodka sauce, and the other a jar of spicy marinara.
As these sauces start cooking, I mix in a bottle of beer for flavor, and of course for consistency. Soon after that, I pour in my garlic, onion, pepper mix from the other pan, and let everything work together. Then I start adding some salt, some healthy dashes of curry power, and a good bit of ground pepper. Oregano also is sometimes added. I add a little more beer or water sometimes to make sure the texture is nice and gooey without being watery.
My family loves it, though I have had to be careful and modify it somewhat so that it doesn't get TOO spicy hot for them. They get a charge out of it, and really enjoy it. It is really tasty the next day, heated for a bit in the microwave, with the sauce nicely imbedded into spaghetti noodles!
The Artful Bolognese
- 1 lb ground beef
- 8 gloves of garlic, chopped
- Half an onion, chopped
- One yellow pepper, chopped
- 1 28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes
- 1 six-ounce can tomato paste
- 12 ounces Patsy’s creamy vodka sauce
- 12 ounces Patsy’s spicy marinara sauce
- Four pinches curry powder
- Ground pepper, to taste
- 1 12-ounce bottle of beer
Sauté the ground beef in butter in one pan until a nice brown.
In another pan, sauté the garlic, yellow peppers, onions in butter until the onion is soft.
After the beef has browned, add the tomatoes and tomato paste.
Add the jars of tomato sauce to the beef.
Add the beer.
Add the sautéed garlic, peppers, and onions.
Add salt (to taste), curry powder, ground pepper, and more beer or water, if necessary.
Also, oregano, to taste.