When I was in college, I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of women who loved to cook and eat. (I didn’t realize how good I had it until I spent a summer at another friend’s dorm, where all her roommates seemed to compete for who could eat as little as possible—and one once threw out MY pint of Ben & Jerry’s Tuskegee Chunk “because it was too tempting.”) In any case, we took turns cooking dinner for each other, and I had a special love for the food of my Greek-American roommate, Maria. To come home from class and see a huge stockpot of her lentil or beef barley soup simmering on the back burner was to feel like I had just hit the lottery. When she made roast chicken and potatoes, we relished its flavor so much that we would often arrange hunks of crusty bread face-down in the drippings, to sit there sopping up all the goodness while we cleaned the kitchen, only to have an insanely decadent after-dinner snack when we were done.
There was a common thread through Maria’s cooking: the best oregano I had ever tasted. I had grown up disgusted by oregano—to me, it was the bitter herb that poisoned pizza, that made most Italian-American tomato sauces inedible. But Maria’s Greek oregano—which had somehow mysteriously found its way back from the mother country, ahem—was subtle, clean-flavored, and had the quality of making everything it touched more intensely savory, more intensely tasting of itself. (The year I visited Maria in Athens, where her family spends summers, I developed a daily oregano potato chip habit—unthinkable to my childhood self.)
I started making this quickie meat sauce after college, when what I craved was a Bolognese ragu, but I didn’t have the time to devote to it. But over the years I have realized what it comes closer to is the meat sauce that Maria would sometimes make for us. There’s a catch—and that’s that you should really attempt to get good-quality oregano. I only recently ran out of a stash that Maria supplied for me (Maria, hint hint), so I’ve begun experimenting with store-bought oregano again. If I ever find one that comes close to the Greek stuff, I will post the source here, but for now, I rely on my Italian grandmother’s trick—to just use the tiniest pinch of it, and to put it in right at the end, when you’re about to turn off the heat under the sauce, to prevent it from going bitter.
Finely chop one yellow onion, one celery stalk, and one carrot, and sauté in a nice amount of olive oil in a large wide sauté pan, until everything softens up a bit. Add 1 pound ground beef and increase the heat, browning and stirring until all the meat is browned through. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add enough white wine to cover everything and simmer 2 minutes. Add tomato puree or a can of plum tomatoes (use a potato masher or some kitchen scissors to smash them up into little bits)—you can add a little or a lot, whatever is your preference. Simmer gently for at least 20 minutes. Taste and continue to simmer if you want everything thicker, or turn off. Season with more salt and pepper if it needs it. Add a pinch of the best oregano you can find. Serve over fettucine.