Things have a funny way of hitting you all together just at the right time. September 1st signifies my family’s happy return from the land of no-flour (let’s be honest, a depressing world) into the land of happy flour consumers. Yes, we have rejoined the humanity in bread munching, pasta slurping and pancake gobbling capacity, oh joy, oh bliss! Ice cream has reunited with the cone, frittata went back to its origins of being a quiche, and while we did promise each other to earnestly pace ourselves in flour consumption, we all recognize that it’s very liberating to be back.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, a new bread recipe was tried (a post is currently pending), so that the family may enjoy a buttered toast this morning for breakfast, and we can happily report that it was a good way to [re]start.
Then, in the sermon today, among favorite dishes, spaghetti with meat sauce was mentioned by our priest and other members of the community, and that almost got me teary-eyed. Ok, maybe I was teary-eyed for other reasons — we were talking about being humble, feeding the needy, taking care of others, and paying forward, and suddenly I remembered my second grade school choir singing this sad Neapolitan song:
I am a homeless boy, wander barefoot in this world.
In the shops there are mountains of goods, but no money in my pockets.
Ah, If only a rich gentleman gave me some of his millions,
I would have given them without hesitation for a bowl of hot pasta!
Growing up in USSR, pasta was a food for the people who couldn’t afford anything else, it was the cheapest foodstuff you could find, besides the bread. I was surprised to find that in USA pasta is a staple food for the majority of the population, and is being consumed regularly. You see, my mom cooked pasta as a last resort, when we were out of anything else, and payday was not around the corner. She would buy vermicelli, which was a very thin spaghetti like pasta, clipped in short lengths. She would then fry lots of onions, mix them with minced boiled beef (a boring leftover from last night’s dinner), and sent the whole thing through the meat grinder a few times to give it smooth texture. Then a generous portion of black pepper was added, and finally this meaty goodness was added to the vermicelli. If we were lucky to have leftover cheese, a small quantity of it was grated and added into the plates, but most of the time, we went cheeseless. And that was just fine with us.
Mom called this concoction Pasta Navy Style. Don’t ask, I don’t know why and how this name came about. Russian Wikipedia hints at the Italian origins of the dish, which came to Russia some time in the XVIII century, but this is not what’s important here. We loved our Pasta Navy. It was ultimately un-fancy, but we loved it because it was a splendidly tasty meal made out of almost nothing — just pasta, onions and boiled meat — a beautiful manifestation of humility and taking care of the ever-hungry kids, and most importantly, making the best of the slimmest of means.
My perfectly American family loves Pasta Navy. I am lucky, because I can cook it on a whim and not because I have to; I am fortunate to be able to add fancy Parmesano Reggiano to it on any day of the week, regardless of when my pay day is; I am blessed to have thyme and basil readily available to flavor the meat. And for that I am grateful.
Pasta Navy (The Fancy American Way)
Should serve 6-8 hungry barefoot Italian boys
- 1 16 oz pack of vermicelli or thin spaghetti pasta
- 2-3 tbsp cooking fat, I used tallow
- 1 lbs ground beef
- 1 very large onion, preferably sweet variety, such as Vidalia, finely chopped
- a few sprigs of thyme
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp paprika (optional)
- 1/2 tsp dry basil leaves (optional)
- 2 oz Parmesano Reggiano or similar hard well aged cheese, grated
- fresh parsley to garnish
- Cook pasta according to instructions in lightly salted water with a few tbsp of olive oil added to prevent sticking. Drain and set aside.
- While pasta is cooking, prepare the meat. Heat the cooking fat in a large skillet, over medium-high heat.
- Add the finely chopped onion, and saute for a few minutes, until onion becomes translucent and very fragrant.
- Add the ground meat, stir well to incorporate onions throughout, breaking the meat apart with a spatula.
- Add thyme, salt and pepper, paprika and whatever herbs you desire.
- Saute the meat over medium-high heat, until it’s nicely browned and no longer juicy. We want an almost dry version here. It may take, depending on your onions and meat qualities, sometime between 10 and 15 minutes.
- Taste the meat and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove the thyme sprigs.
- Transfer the cooked meat in a processor and mince until smooth.
- Combine drained pasta, meat sauce, grated cheese and fresh chopped parsley in a pot where pasta was cooking. Mix very well, working the meat into the pasta. It will seem at first like combining them is impossible, but it will work, trust me. Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil if needed.