On my last trip to the farmer’s market, I splurged on a pound of ground beef from Lucky Dog Ranch, a local meat supplier that sells grass-fed, sustainable meats here in the greater Sacramento valley. As I’d mentioned in my last SNAP post, I was not only surprised that “the meat people” were participating in the program that allows SNAP/CalFresh recipients to use their benefits at select farmer’s markets, I was also surprised at the prices of their meat.
Naturally, the really nice cuts of beef are far outside my price range, but I found the ground beef to be a pretty good deal for $5/lb. FIVE dollars a pound?! Okay, that may seem like a lot compared to grocery store sale prices that go for about half of that, but consider the difference in product: real, humanely-raised, grass fed beef, sans hormones or other scary things; or a pile of meat with pink slime. Hmmm… I think I’ll choose what’s behind Curtain #1! Clearly, the $5/lb for real meat works out quite well.
It’s funny… when I really think about it, I realize that I’ve never really been a big ground beef buyer, even before this whole pink slime hullabaloo started. It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve just never… trusted it. I helped my mom make many a meatloaf back in the day, and even then I wondered why the packaged ground beef looked so much different than the kind we’d grind ourselves from lean cuts of beef. Guess now I know why!
But I digress.
That wasn’t something I needed to worry about when purchasing from Lucky Dog Ranch. The ground beef I scored was that deep, rich red that only real beef can boast, and I could tell it would be rich in flavor and texture. The gentleman who sold it to me that Sunday assured me that once I tried it, I would never go back to grocery store ground beef. I smiled, fully trusting in that fact (real meat always tastes better than faux), but set my beautiful beef aside for a special day. Such tasty things shouldn’t be consumed all at once, and since I can’t always afford to buy meat, I like to save it for special recipes.
Then came the sudden, intense cravings for a gigantic, juicy burger. I mean, these were serious cravings! Fast food slop that’s been sitting in a heating compartment for hours, or a nasty monstrosity from a local greasy spoon would simply not do. No… I wanted a burger, the kind I could prepare my way, with all the seasonings and toppings my little heart desired. So I pulled my ground beef from the freezer and put it in the fridge for it to defrost.
It taunted me for the next couple of days, daring me to go for it and make burger heaven. But wait… what’s this? It also dared me to make meatballs. And shepherd’s pie. And bobotie. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with a thousand possibilities! And realizing I had no burger buns to make this burger masterpiece, I quietly set that idea aside and decided to make something else I’d been craving for a long time: a hearty, meaty pasta sauce.
Until I made my heirloom arrabbiata sauce for Project Food Blog a couple years ago, my from-scratch pasta sauces were a lot like this one in that they used canned tomatoes. In a perfect world, any tomato I consume would be fresh off the vine, but alas, that cannot always be. I went through severe tomato withdrawals last year because I was too much of a snob to get subpar tomatoes and vowed never to be that silly again. My tomato addiction is too severe. Yes, fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes are best, but I’ve decided not to make myself wait until summertime just to enjoy tomato dishes, especially if they involve cooked tomatoes.
What I have done over the past couple years though, is to switch from using canned diced tomatoes to whole ones. Those that already come diced are usually the lowest of the low in terms of quality. Basically, they’re the rejects. I figure if I have to go canned (I’d go jarred but those are still much higher in price), I might as well get the non-rejects, the whole ones that aren’t just discarded scraps. Sure, the can is bigger and you’ll have to actually *gasp* cut them yourself, but overall it’s a much better choice.
I’m a huge fan of a good bolognese, but because I’m an umami fanatic, I decided to amp up the hearty, meaty quality of my sauce with some mushrooms. They not only enhance the flavor & texture, they also help stretch out the sauce without having to spend extra money on more meat. Those of you who don’t like mushrooms can feel free to omit them, but if you’re a fan, by all means throw them in! They just make the sauce that much better.
As usual, I like a bit of kick in my food, so I added some heat in chipotle pepper form. QUE? ¡Si! Just one chipotle pepper in its adobo lends just enough heat to be noticeable without being overwhelming. Not to mention the fact that it just ties together the flavors of the meat & mushrooms together beautifully.
If you have the time and space, you can make a big batch of this and put it up in the freezer for quick access to easy meal time. I would suggest leaving out the mushrooms until you’re actually ready to use the sauce, so your mushrooms will retain their meaty texture, but otherwise, this will keep quite nicely in the freezer for a few weeks. Just be sure to freeze it the same day you make it, rather than letting it sit in the fridge for a couple days and then freezing, so you avoid any food safety issues.
I’m still having some serious burger cravings, and I will have to do something about them soon (like post a fantastic recipe for one in the next few weeks, lol), but for now, this meal makes me quite content. This basic sauce goes great on any kind of pasta, and it also makes a great base for a meat lasagna. It’s fairly easy to prepare and flavorful enough to please even the pickiest eaters. Let’s take a look!
Penne with Spicy Beef & Mushroom Sauce (makes 4-6 servings; total cost per serving: $2)
8 oz penne pasta
2 T olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, mashed
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 t dried oregano
1/2 t dried rosemary
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 lb lean ground beef
1 chipotle pepper in adobo, finely chopped
1 c red wine
1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes
2 t sugar
4 oz. white mushrooms, sliced
1. Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Drain, drizzle generously with olive oil to prevent from sticking, and set aside. Pour the tomatoes & their juices into a bowl, mash with a fork until chunky, and set aside.
2. Heat a large pot over medium heat and add the olive oil. When oil is hot, add the garlic and onions, sauteeing until tender & fragrant. Add the ground beef, oregano, rosemary, chopped chipotle, salt & pepper, and cook until the meat is browned. Add the wine, tomatoes and sugar, and cook for about 5 minutes. Next, add the sliced mushrooms, reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened to a rich, hearty texture.
3. Spoon generous amounts of the meat & mushroom sauce onto bowls or plates of pasta. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and enjoy!