Photo: Melissa Adams
Our children are heading out into the world to find their place in it without so much as a glance over their shoulder - other than to make sure you have the bank account details right for the weekly drinking money. It's a life stage that seems to have come around a little too fast, and I watch her going off to university like she's still a kid learning to walk. Congratulations, you've grown an adult, I tell myself, now you can go directly to the fashionable retirement community for the young at heart.
I have always known this would happen and at times even rejoiced at the idea (especially when they were in their mid-teens and I just wished they'd go away). But now they have, well, it's just not as joyous as we had expected. We now hang around waiting for communication in any form: a one-word text with a happy emoticon, a ''like'' on Facebook to any random comment just so we know she is reaching out still, or, dare we hope, a phone call, even one about money.
When she does return home to hang out and hassle her brother, which she must be missing because she goes about it with such determination, you find out what food she misses on a diet of dumplings and burgers in Sydney. Having always cooked a pretty adventurous diet for her, I wonder whether she is missing abalone, truffles, aged balsamic vinegar. But no, she just wants homely dishes. Comfort foods, such as Sunday-night prosciutto and potato pizza, which, now she mentions it, we do have frequently on Sundays. She also wants corned beef and crispy cutlets. But the dish that she demands above all is spaghetti bolognese.
All the kids have been introduced to this dish by my mum, who, having seven kids, made a huge batch each week. Now she makes it for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren - don't worry, grandparenthood is still a long way away for me (you'll see it coming a mile away from the screaming).
So, due to popular demand, I make this dish regularly for the kids and they love it. They would eat it every night if they could, and sometimes do. For years, my go-to recipe was based on one from Antonio Carluccio - just three main ingredients, well-cooked onions, a good tomato passata and mince. Maybe a little garlic or wine and a bay leaf, but at heart it's a simple peasant dish.
The mince is of utmost importance. Beef chuck for flavour, veal leg for texture, and pork because, well, it's so good - about a third of each. The other factor of molto importance is a very long cooking time: three hours as a minimum, longer if you can.
So, until recently, that's the way I've done it, resisting the urge to take on Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection version, thinking ''ain't nobody got time for that''.
It's as though he's taking the piss sometimes. What's next? Blumenthal's perfect ham sandwich, for which you find the wild grain from which cavemen made bread in the Georgian foothills, grind it with a mammoth's tusk … you get the point. So that's why I kept thinking that, really, you can't perfect Carluccio's spaghetti bolognese, no way. But yet again, I was wrong.
The first time on the Blumenthal version, I gave up after using every pan, pot and bowl in the house, emptying the larder and spending half a day thinking, do you really need fish sauce?
But I pursued it like it was a whale and I was Captain Ahab. I found myself dreaming of it. The key is having everything you need on hand since the method is pretty easy and devoid of anything to do with pacojets, liquid nitrogen or straw. Now, I use Blumenthal's recipe every time, and it makes for an impressive dish when you get the hang of it. I've cut out a few ingredients and changed the process a bit, and I buy a veal, beef and pork mince, rather than sit around extracting the meat from an oxtail, then grinding it by hand, but this doesn't change the taste that much.
So here's my slightly changed version, a dish to keep your kids at home, if that's your desire.
Bryan Martin is a winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin.com.au
Cooking the meat
3-4 tbsp grapeseed oil
300g each of minced beef chuck, veal leg and pork shoulder
1 large onion, diced
2 tbsp butter
1 whole star anise, broken slightly
500ml full-fat milk
1 sachet spice and herbs (see below)
Heat a large ovenproof frypan to smoking point, add a tablespoon of oil and quickly fry the meat in small batches so it browns very quickly, rather than stews. Good meat won't release too much water at this point (if it does, change your butcher). Clean the pan, lower the heat and saute the onion in butter with the star anise (Heston Blumenthal uses star anise a lot as it adds a beefy richness to the dish). Cook until the onion is very soft and sweet.
Add the meat and milk and bring to a simmer. Nestle the sachet in the mix. Put in the oven, uncovered, at 90C and cook slowly for three to four hours. (I start this in the morning and come home at lunch to continue.)
1kg very ripe tomatoes or good-quality tinned tomatoes if it's not tomato season
2 tbsp olive oil
200g pancetta, diced very small
1 large onion, diced small
2 stalks celery, diced small
2 carrots, diced small
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pinch dried chilli flakes (optional)
1 cup dry white wine
¼⁄ cup tomato paste
another sachet of spice and herbs (see below)
Puree the tomatoes and pass through a food mill to remove the skin and seeds (or just leave them in).
Heat the oil and lightly fry off the pancetta. Set aside. Saute the onion, celery, carrots and garlic in the remaining oil until very soft. Add the chilli flakes, if using. Deglaze with the white wine, reduce a little, then add the cooked pancetta, the tomato puree and the tomato paste. Season with salt and add the sachet. Lower the heat to super low, cover and cook for at least two hours.
Putting it together
beef stock or water
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 tsp fish sauce
1 cup parmesan, grated, plus extra
3-4 tbsp butter
handful parsley, finely chopped
Add the tomato sauce to the meat sauce, leaving in the herb and spice sachets. Add extra stock or water - you shouldn't need much, perhaps only half a cup, plus the Worchestershire, vinegar and fish sauce. Put back into the oven and cook for a further two hours, which should be getting close to dinner.
Cook the spaghetti. Remove the sauce from the oven and taste for salt. Stir in the parmesan and butter. Garnish with the parsley and more parmesan.
Herb and spice sachet
For each sachet
2 tbsp whole coriander seeds
1 star anise, broken
1 tbsp black peppercorns
about 5-6 sprigs thyme
½⁄ bay leaf
Wrap all in muslin and tie up. You need two sachets.