Dominating the menu at APH was something called Italian Mince – so much so that they must have bought in the buggerdly stuff by the tonne.
While I failed to detect the slightest Italian influence (it was basically mince with a hint of tomato), I did get a feel for what they were trying – and failing – to do. The problem was one of cowardice in the face of robust flavours, resulting in something way too close to spag bol – but without the Spag! Precious little Bol too.
Firstly, it needs good meat. Not too good, a proportion of fat is desirable both for mouth feel and flavour, but not bargain basement either. I have a pack of mince I can use but, if I hadn’t, I’d buy casserole steak and cut it up small, rather than mince it, to give it a more definite texture. I’d be inclined to add a couple of handfuls of red lentils to thicken the sauce and add depth – cook them out in just a little water before adding any tomato –they’ll cook better , and if you have any, a splash of wine won’t go amiss. A dry red is traditional, but as I always add a little sugar to a tomato-based sauce, something sweeter will be fine – a shot of cream sherry, for example – and hold the sugar.
Then, being Italian, it needs tomato, in the form of Napolina passata, a little garlic, a hint of chilli, and a solid hit of alliums, in the form of Echalion shallots, chopped and sweated off in olive oil. To that I’ll add 3 or 4 dried Shiitake mushrooms, the tops deeply cross-hatched with a sharp knife so they give up their flavour more easily (discard after use). Plus a good dose of basil (I have steam-preserved dried basil which has an amazing flavour), and oregano. Season well with celery salt (home-made), adding black pepper at the end so its spikiness doesn’t cook out. A splash of soy sauce and Nam Pla (fish sauce) adds character – and no, it won’t taste fishy!
Towards the end I’ll add some diced red peppers (grilled and skinned if I feel up to it), the long, pointed ones which are far better than bell peppers in terms of taste and texture.
Right at the end, they cook fast – and this is a personal foible – I’ll toss in 2 or 3 shredded Pak Choi, depending on size, for no better reason than I like greens in a stew, along with a little freshly-grated nutmeg.
And that’s pretty much it. It will, I feel, better justify being tagged as Italian Mince, and taste a hell of a lot better than the APH version, even though it is not insistently, traditionally, Italian. And, of course, if you get the urge there is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t serve it with pasta – conchiglie or rigatoni will carry the sauce nicely.