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My brother’s family gave me a terrific cookbook for Christmas this year. Titled Share: The Cookbook that Celebrates our Common Humanity, it’s a fundraiser for an organization called Women for Women International (WfWI), and it’s filled with recipes from women and families around the world. At first, though, as I leafed through it and saw the pages of gorgeous photos above celebrity quotations, I had doubts about its usefulness in the kitchen.
But I was wrong. Most of the recipes avoid the two traps of international cookbooks — too many inaccessible ingredients and techniques, or Americanization that alienates the food from its roots. Instead, this book highlights family food from Kosovo to South Sudan, made with easy-to-find staples. I’ve already stuck post-its on a recipe for jam-filled cookies, stuffed crab, Congolese Sticky Donuts, roast vegetables with peanut sauce, and a shepherd’s pie made with salmon, spinach, and sweet potatoes.
Surprisingly, the dish I decided to try first was the most familiar. With the holidays behind me, I don’t really feel like tackling any kitchen projects that would be overly challenging to my skills or my kids’ palates. In fact, I felt a wave of relief when I turned the page and saw Sir Richard Branson’s recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese (yes, Virgin Airlines Sir Richard Branson). It’s not a strict high-Italian Bolognese, delicately flavored with milk and white wine. Instead, it’s the kind of spaghetti sauce I grew up on, rich with tomato paste and garlic. It’s versatile, too: the sauce can form the base for either a cottage pie or a pot of chili.
This flexible attitude seems fitting for a book created by an organization dedicated to teaching entrepreneurship to “socially excluded women in countries where war and conflict have devastated lives and communities.” WfWI coaches women who enroll in their one-year programs to know their rights and exercise leadership in some of the last few decades’ most infamous war zones: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to name a few.
Sponsored women receive a range of benefits, including stipends, job training, financial counseling, and healthcare assistance. They’re taught artisanal skills — such as tailoring, soap-making, beekeeping, and gem-cutting — that give them a chance to support themselves and their families. They also teach women to raise their own food.
My kids have already picked the book up, lured by the vivid photos. But now they’re pointing to the recipes, and saying, “When can we make that?”
Sir Richard Branson’s Bolognese
Adapted from Share: The Cookbook that Celebrates our Common Humanity
1 teaspoon vegetable oil 1 onion, chopped 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped 2 lb. ground beef (I tried this with lamb for a shepherd’s pie, and my kids and I loved it) 2 carrots, grated 14-oz. can chopped tomatoes 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1 cup each of red wine and beef stock (or use all wine or all stock or even white wine if that’s all you have) 1 lb. spaghetti grated parmesan cheese, to serve
Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat, then saute onion till softened, 5 minutes or so. Add garlic and cook another minute, then add beef and stir till browned. Add all remaining ingredients except spaghetti, stir together and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it starts to get dry, add a little water.
When it’s almost ready, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Toss pasta with sauce and serve topped with grated cheese.
Note: If you want to make a shepherd’s pie, skip the spaghetti and cheese. Pour the sauce into a baking dish and top it with mashed potatoes made with 3-4 pound of boiled potatoes mashed with milk, butter and cheddar cheese to taste. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes, till the top is golden. For chili, stir a teaspoon or so of chili powder in with the garlic, and a can of drained and rinsed kidney beans in with the chopped tomatoes. Serve over rice, spaghetti, or with cornbread.