Regular readers will know that there are many ways to make a pasta sauce, and Jamie fuckin Oliver's version is pretty crappy. In the time since we made that episode (holy crap that was three years ago today) I've improved on his methods, combined them with Hugh's, and improved on those too. This, then, is how you make a proper pasta sauce.
- First step: make sure your knives are sharp. You're going to be seeing a lot of them over the next half an hour.
- Bacon, and lots of it. Even if you've got mince or something that you're going to add at a later stage—in this case, it's going to be meatballs—you still want a couple of rashers to get everything started off right. If you've no other meat then you want a full packet of bacon. Cheap shitty supermarket bacon is good for this. Chop it up small and fry it off until it's not quite crispy.
- If the bacon has produced a load of water, drain it off and keep it for later. Dump the bacon into a big saucepan. If a bit of the frying grease gets in there too, no harm done.
- Two or three peppers. Get yellow ones if you can: they're sweeter. Cut out the seedy bits and the weird spongy bits on the inside. Dice the flesh up small; the smaller the better, but you're going to cook all of this down into a mush, so the size doesn't matter too much. Dump them into the pan.
- Chillies to taste. For me this is three or four finger-sized ones. Tescos do handy-sized packets of three. After a bad experience with airborne juices once, I use safety goggles for this step (i.e.: an old pair of glasses). Chop the chillies up the same way as the peppers, removing most of the seeds. Dump them in the pan.
- Now you want something dark and salty. No sniggering at the back, there. A splash of soy sauce is good: nam pla (fish sauce) is better if you have it. I like to add a dash of mushroom ketchup while I'm at it. Worcestershire would also work, but be generous.
- Now you can put the heat on underneath the pan, as low as possible. Let the pepper-chilli mix soften gently while you get on with the next few steps. The fruits have tough skins, so you want to give them longer than the rest of the ingredients.
- An onion, chopped small. I resisted using onion for a long time, because I hate the damn things. Only recently have I discovered the point of onion: it's to add deliciousness to other food.
- Carrot. One big one or a couple of small ones. Scrub the crap off the outside and grate it into the pan: use a cheesegrater. Carrot is important, but I can't quite put my finger on why. It adds a sweetness and a richness to the finished sauce, but all of the carrot disappears and you'll forget it was ever put in there.
- Garlic. Two or three cloves. This is where you get to show off if you're as good as me with a knife. Cut the clove in half lengthwise so you can get the skin off and remove the green shoot from the middle—the green bit is bitter; you don't want that. Chop the white part up as finely as you can and drop it into the pan. If you've got cubes of garlic more than a millimetre to a side, then you need more practice or a better knife.
- Tomatoes. A can or two or ready made, or the equivalent weight of fresh ones. If you're using fresh tomatoes, chop 'em up. If they're in tins, you should be able to open the tins and dump the contents straight into the pan—you might want to use the back of a wooden spoon to smush them around a bit. I like to take the lid off the can and slowly push a stick blender down into it to get a smooth puree, but that's because I'm persnickety.
- A couple of bay leaves. Some herbs if you feel like it. Rosemary is good and so is oregano. If you want basil, save it until the very last step. Basil is brilliant but it's very volatile and the flavour will disappear if you add it too early.
- A generous grind or five of black pepper.
- A squeeze of tomato puree to help things along is always a good idea. And if you've got leftover pig-slush from the bacon, now is the time to pour some of it into the pan to help keep things moist.
- If you've got mince, brown it off in a frying pan. Crumble a stock cube into it and add a dash of Worcestershire, or, even better, Angostura bitters. Add the cooked mince to the saucepan.
- Give the pan a stir and go away to do something else.
A couple of episodes of Doctor Who later, you should have something that looks like this.
If it's too wet, turn the heat up and let it bubble to reduce it for a while. If it's too chunky, mush it up with a spoon and add a bit more liquid if you think it needs it. If it's too pale, add a teaspoon of dark brown sugar: it will melt in and give it those rich treacly flavours. Remember that you put a shitload of salt in at the start, so a bit more sugar won't hurt.
Once it's done, add the basil if you're using basil and stir it through. Take the pan off the heat.
At this stage, you could cook some pasta and mix it up with some of the sauce, sprinkle cheese on top if you fancy, and eat it with some garlic bread. But that would be boring. I didn't title this post
meatball lasagne el diablo for nothing. Wash your pans up, because you're going to need them again.
White sauce is one of those things that people panic about, but it's actually a piece of piss to make, if lengthy.
- Do some stretching exercises. Particularly, limber up whichever is your wankin' hand. You're going to need it.
- Take a knob of butter and an equal amount of flour. Melt the butter over a gentle heat in a saucepan.
- Add the flour and stir it into the butter. You should get a yellow mess with a sort of fudgy consistency.
- Add milk, a tiny amount at a time, and stir it in until it's completely absorbed. Then add a bit more milk. Be patient and don't pour too much in at once. Continue adding milk very gradually and stirring it in until the sauce is the consistency you want.
- You got bored and added too much milk at once, didn't you? Now the sauce has gone lumpy. Don't panic. Get the whisk out and beat it smooth again. Be more careful in future.
- Heat the sauce through for a while until the flour is cooked. Don't boil it or it'll get too thick.
- Add a little pepper—this is what white pepper is for, if you have any knocking about at the back of the cupboard. Black pepper would sully the meticulously-constructed white glossy sheen that's the reason you've now got a cramp in your wankin' hand. A touch of ground nutmeg is good at this point too. Stir them through the sauce.
- That was a white sauce. Easy, no? For a cheese sauce, add some cheese. Easier yet, no? It's supposed to be parmesan but grated cheddar works fine. Let the cheese melt and stir it through the sauce until the sauce is cheesy enough for your liking.
- Turn the heat off and go and rest your hand.
And finally: meatball lasagne
You know, if you really wanted to, you can buy the stuff you get from the previous two steps in jars from the supermarket. It's quicker but it's not nearly as personally fulfilling. And if you do it my way, you get to have a ragu that's exactly as spicy and tomatoey as you like it, and a cheese sauce with a cheesiness that's perfectly aligned with your personal tastes. Most shop-bought sauces are a bit pathetic. These sauces are yours.
Now is the point when we get to assemble these ingredients into food.Why a meatball lasagne, pajh?you ask me. Meatballs are chunky: they add texture and make it more interesting.
- You want a packet of Swedish meatballs. If you buy the giant bags from Ikea, you want about half a bag, maybe a handful more for luck. If, like me, you bought a giant bag from Ikea a year ago and stuck it in the freezer, you'll want to defrost them for a bit in the microwave first.
- Cut the meatballs into quarters.
- Get some oil nice and hot in a frying pan. Brown the meatball bits in batches; add a dash of Worcestershire to help them along. You want caramelised bits on the edges—brown, but not too crunchy. Maillard reactions are your friends.
- Arrange a layer of meatballs in the bottom of your largest lasagne dish.
- Spoon ragu over the top. Pat it down so that the top is smooth and the ragu mixes with the meatball bits.
- Spoon cheese sauce over the top. Careful now.
- Now a layer of lasagne sheets. It is slightly better if you cook these beforehand, but it's hassle and it's not strictly necessary. Just use the dry sheets straight from the packet.
- Repeat! Meatballs, ragu, cheese. Brown, red, white. You're doing Italian cookery and hence you're probably making Germans quite angry. Germans in distress would fly the German flag upside down.
- If you've got enough stuff left, do a third layer of each, but you're probably at the top of your lasagne dish by now.
- On top of the final layer of pasta, another thin layer of cheese sauce. Sprinkle some grated cheese on top of that.
- Bake in a moderate oven (170°–180°C or thereabouts, gas mark 4. Does anyone still use gas marks?). After half an hour, have a peek and see if it's done yet.
Serve with crusty bread. It can be focaccia if you like, but it doesn't have to be. It will keep for ages in the fridge, and it'll cut more neatly into portions once it's cooled down.
Meatball lasagne el diablo is fantastic.