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Fall is here!  Even on a rare sunny day like yesterday it felt different.  It’s crispy outside (or soggy if it’s raining).  It’s getting darker a little earlier than it used to and the shadows are long even midday.  I met up with a good friend on the top of the hill here yesterday very spontaneously for a 90 minute brisk walk.  Leaves are starting to turn, and the tall sunflowers in that corner yard we always pass by are now top heavy and tired from their own weight.

So while I always mourn summer as she melts away into fall, I DO love this time of year for the clothes and food.  Time to bust out the sweaters, boots, leather jackets…oh yeah.  And cooking!  Soups!  Stews!

Last year I purchased a slow cooker for the first time.  I remember our Crock Pot as a kid – my Mom made wonderful chicken dishes all the time – and they seem to be coming around in style again.  Kinda like fondue.  Anyway, mine was free actually.  Remember the Refrigerator Drama from last year?  I got a $100 Sears gift card, one of the few bright spots in that whole episode.  So I used it toward a slow cooker.  Very nice, stainless steel, 3 1/2 quart size.  And my folks gave me a Williams-Sonoma slow cooker recipe book for Christmas.  Love it!

And it was time to bust a move with it again.  Last weekend I had 3 lbs of ground beef in my fridge, just a couple days away from use it or freeze it.  I really wanted to make a Bolognese sauce – the cookbook recipe is wonderful – but, being a smart cook, re-read the recipe.  Ah yes, now I remember:  once you make the sauce it needs 4 hours in the slow cooker on high heat or 8 hours on low heat.  Hmmm…how do I cram that into my crazy week schedule?  I know one cool thing about a slow cooker is you can put everything in it in the morning, turn it on low and come home that night from work with your meal ready!  But for some reason I’ve been a little reluctant to do that.  What if I get stuck at work late or in traffic?  I know they shut off to a low simmer once the timer goes off, but anyway I guess I’m not comfortable with something “cooking” in my house when I’m not there. 

Last week definitely was burning the candle at both ends.  Sunday night was our first hockey game of the season!  Woo hoo!  With a 10:45pm faceoff!  Not so woohoo.  But that’s winter season for ya.  It was awesome seeing my teammates again, meeting a couple new faces and getting back on the ice.  I had not skated since around June and frankly have been woefully lame getting regular exercise.  But I actually skated and played a lot better than I thought I would.  And we had an 8-4 blowout win!

There’s something surreal about leaving the rink after a late game. That night, it was midnight.  Luckily this game was at the rink that’s just a 5 minute drive from my house, so no excuses.   Once I get to the rink, especially for a late game, time kind of stops mentally for me, except for our game clock.  I force myself not to look at the “real” clock…nope don’t need to be reminded it’s 11:30pm or whatever!  Crazy.

Now, it’s uber hard to immediately wind down and get to sleep after hockey, as much as I want to/need to, especially on a Sunday night (errr, early Monday I guess).  So that means an extra cup of coffee at work.  Those of you reading this who play hockey or other late night sports know what I’m talking about!

So Sunday night was out for making the sauce.  Onward to Monday.  Well, I didn’t get home as early as I’d thought, and so I got a late start getting the ingredients ready.  There’s a bit of chopping and prep time, plus you need to brown 3 lbs of ground beef and make a little extra sauce with some deglazing.  I honestly don’t mind doing a lot of chopping/prep work by hand.  Yeah, there are these really cool things out there called food processors, and I actually do own a couple – one large, one small – but when it comes to chopping, slicing or dicing relatively small amounts of ingredients, I’m good with my cutting board and a sharp knife.  My Mom says I’m my grandmother’s granddaughter…on my Dad’s side.  Right down to our mutual love of flour sack towels to get those last drops off of pots and pans after they air dry.

Getting the meat, veggies and deglazing sauce ready was all I had time for on Monday.  Even on the high heat setting, 4 hours in the slow cooker would mean finishing up at 1am.  And I just couldn’t do it.  So I put the cooked meat and veggies in a huge Pyrex bowl, poured the deglazed sauce in it, covered it with foil and put it in the fridge.

Tuesday?  Well, that was a night out with my Silpada team.  We meet monthly and normally are at our team leader’s house, but this time we changed it up and met at Purple, a wine bar in downtown Bellevue.  I loved seeing everybody and relaxing with some wine and munchies.  Someone even sprung for a round of salted caramels for dessert.  WOW.  We definitely were the most bling’d out table, and given it was a little noisy we just had a ton of chitchat rather than any kind of organized meeting agenda, and passed around eachother’s jewelry for everyone to try on.  

I got home at 10pm that night.  So that’s a no-go on finishing that darn sauce.

Wednesday night, anyone?  This HAD to be the night to finish.  I thought it would be OK, but a teeny part of me was worried that the sauce would turn out different or weird having been in the fridge for two days.  But, it turned out great.  Kinda weird getting steaming hot sauce to cool down and get divided up into Tupperwares…at midnight.  Ahh, blissful sleep.

So I learned that slow cooking is MUCH better done on a weekend.  Thankfully this sauce keeps beautifully in the fridge or freezer. (This sauce stores up to 3 days in airtight containers in the fridge or in the freezer for up to 3 months).  But it’s soooo good I bet you won’t be able to keep it around that long!

Here’s the recipe!

Bolognese Sauce
Makes about 12 cups (3 quarts)

2 T olive oil
2 oz pancetta, chopped
2 small, finely chopped yellow onions
2 finely chopped carrots
1 stalk finely chopped celery
3 lbs ground beef
2 C beef broth
1 1/2 C dry red wine
1 can (28 oz) crushed or diced plum tomatoes
1/2 C milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh Italian leaf parsley, minced for garnish (optional)   

In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil.  Add the pancetta and saute until it begins to render its fat, about 1 minute.  Add the onions, carrots and celery and saute until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the beef and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until it is no longer red, about 7 minutes.

Transfer to the slow cooker.  Add the broth and wine to the pan and raise the heat to high.  Bring to a boil and deglaze the pan, stirring to scrape up the browned bits on the pan bottom.  Pour the liquid into the slow cooker along with the tomatoes and stir to combine.

Cover and cook the sauce on the high heat setting for 4 hours, or the low heat setting for 8 hours.  Add the milk, stirring to combine.  Cover and continue cooking for 20 minutes longer.  Season with salt and pepper.

…now, how do you use this sauce?  Toss it with some fettucine and sprinkle in fresh-grated Parmesan cheese. 

Or try it with Polenta:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Butter a gratin baking dish (I actually just use a 9 x 13 glass casserole).  Take a tube of prepared Polenta (18 oz) and slice it crosswise into slices about 1/4″ thick.  Arrange the slices in the bottom of the baking dish, overlapping them.  Spoon the Bolognese sauce around the slices generously and sprinkle a 1/2 cup of fresh-grated Parmesan cheese.  Bake until the sauce is hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes.  Served with minced fresh Italian parsley for garnish.

from the Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast Slow Cooker Recipes book.