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One Good Meal Thu Jan 27 2011

Pre-Tomato Italy

Naples Onion Sauce

Italian food changed dramatically after the introduction of the tomato. In many cases, it is hard for historians and anthropologists to know what Italians ate before there were tomatoes. However, Italians traveled so much and for so long that their cuisine was heavily influenced by a wide variety of cultures.

How much is fact and how much is fable--but there is a dish common in parts of Naples that takes an obvious influence from French cooking: "Genovese" sauce. Genoa and Naples were trading partners for centuries, and Genoa had huge influences from French cuisine during the period from which this dish dates; however, even though this dish is no longer found in Genoa and it's French roots are reduced and altered, it is still delicious.

Imagine French onion soup sans broth, but with tender shredded beef served over pasta. Sound interesting? Believe me when I say that a few very simple ingredients, cooked low for a long period of time, turn into a delicious meal that will have you wanting seconds and will be more than suitable for a cold winter day. And leftovers will freeze incredibly well.


One of the best parts of this dish is how truly economical it is to make. The best cut of meat to use should have a significant amount of connective tissue (e.g. the shoulder). I used about 1.5 pounds of a cut called a paleron, which should be available from The Butcher & Larder. A few ounces of shredded Parmesan cheese won't set you back, and you'll be so happy that you spared most of a bottle of beer for use in the pot after you eat this. White wine is the traditional accompaniment (but a lighter-bodied red wine would go nicely), and a tasty brown ale really complements the onions and the beef. I popped into City Provisions and purchased their suggestion of Cabin Fever brown ale from New Holland Brewing Company. It was perfect when cooked in the dish, and was great to drink with the meal as well.

Genovese Onion Sauce
2 pounds of yellow onions (about 16 medium onions)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 - 1 1/2 pounds beef chuck
2 cups of a dry white wine, lighter-bodied red wine, or a brown ale
2 small carrots
1 celery stalk
1 tablespoon shredded Parmesan cheese per bowl
1/4 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound of pasta--gemelli or cavatappi would work best
1 tablespoon shredded Parmesan cheese per bowl

Slice the onions very thin. Place a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium heat. Add the oil to the pan with half of the onions. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon of salt over the onions and stir briefly. After they've softened and reduced a bit, about 5-7 minutes of cooking while stirring occasionally, add the other half of the onions and the rest of the salt. Stir and cook for another 5-7 minutes, or until the onions have softened and reduced in size. Lower the heat to low and cover the pan. Stir it every 15 minutes. You'll start to see the onions release their liquid and turn into the beginnings of a sauce.

Naples Onion Sauce

Once you've let the onions cook for about an hour, warm a skillet for browning your meat using medium-high heat with a teaspoon of oil. You may have to cut your meat into smaller pieces to fit into the skillet. Once the oil is heated, add the meat and let it brown on each side for 5 minutes without touching it. You want a crust to form before flipping it over and cooking for 5 minutes on the other side. Once the meat is browned, turn the heat off the skillet place it into the pans with the onions.

Browning beef

Cover the beef with the onions. Pour 1 cup of beer or wine into the skillet and stir to release any stuck-on bits. Pour this into the pan over the onions. Add just enough liquid so the meat is barely covered.

Place the cover back on the pan, reduce the heat as low as possible, and cook it for 6-8 hours. Stir it every 30 minutes or so to keep it from sticking. Toward the end of the cooking time, the meat should start to fall apart. About one hour before you're ready to serve, thinly slice the carrot and celery and stir it into the pot. Remove the beef from the pan and either shred or cut it into bite-sized pieces. Return it to the pan. The celery and carrot should cook thouroughly, but will maintain their flavor, which they wouldn't if you were to place them in for the entire cooking time. Boil the pasta according to the package directions.

Right before serving, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chopped parsley. Place a serving of pasta into a bowl and toss with some of the sauce mixture. If you want to make the presentation more impressive, sprinkle the cheese over the top of the oven-safe bowl and place in the oven about 6 inches from the broiler. Let it cook for 2-3 minutes, just long enough for the cheese to melt slightly and start to brown. this extra step isn't necessary, but the crunch of the cheese is a great texture contrast with the rest of the dish. Remove the bowls from the oven and serve while hot with a side salad and glass of the beer or wine you used for preparing the sauce.

Naples Onion Sauce

The simplicity of this dish, and the economy of the ingredients, belies how tasty and rich the dish becomes. The secret is truly the long cooking time. The longer it cooks, the tastier it becomes. If you like, you could prepare this dish in a slow cooker. Place a layer of onion in the crock. Brown the meat, deglaze the pan, and place the meat and liquid on top of the onion layer. Place the remainder of the onions on top of the meat, cover and let cook for 8 hours on low. Add the celery and carrot for the last hour of cooking and finish the dish as described above.

If you find yourself with leftovers, place a serving in a small zipper bag, remove as much air as possible and freeze. Now all you'll have to do is thaw out a serving and combine with a serving of pasta, and you'll have a tasty and deliciously brain-less weeknight dinner. If you like, you can even add a few tablespoons of jarred marinara sauce to the onion mixture. Just to make it even more Italian.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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