Friday, January 6, 2017

Think you know what Bolognese sauce is? I thought I did.

If you’re in North America, you no doubt ate plenty of “spaghetti with meat sauce” over the course of your life. I certainly did, and up until a few years ago, I made it a lot since it was a great meal with a growing family and not much time to cook.

Vicki and I went to the UK first in 1990, and there we discovered the Brits call it “Spaghetti Bolognese”. Same dish, different name. Eventually with the rise of “foodie-ism”, the British name crossed the Atlantic and began appearing on menus here, even in Italian restaurants. But the dish was not close to being an accurate representation.

Don’t get me wrong. Spaghetti with meat sauce is decent food, but as I discovered when I started doing in-depth research into this famous dish, what the inhabitants of that northern Italian city consider their most famous dish and what the rest of us thought it is are two completely different things. The Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina even went so far as to designate an Official recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese in 1982 and filed it at City Hall.

Going back to this source ( and following the recipe, I can see why they felt forced to do it. Most of the world knows nothing about how this sauce is made — and that’s a shame. Spaghetti Bolognese is a worthy meal. Real Ragù alla Bolognese is an exceptional meal.

First thing you notice: not much tomato. What’s there is mostly for color. Second of all, there’s not even a hint of garlic or herbs. Then there are some other eye-popping ingredient choices: carrots, celery, and milk! I (and many others) was used to this dish being marinara with some fried ground beef thrown in it. Real Bolognese is a different creature altogether.

The second important thing to point out is that, outside of Italy, it’s never served over spaghetti. (What?) The pasta used is almost always tagliatelle or its slightly wider cousin, fettucine. And there’s a very good reason for not using spaghetti. The sauce tends to fall off the thin strands. It sticks to the wider pasta much better. That makes a big difference in how you experience the dish.

I trust the Italians with knowing about good cooking and my first attempt at authentic Bolognese was an eye-opening experience. It is an intensely meaty sauce with assertive flavours and wonderful aroma, especially while it’s cooking. Long, slow cooking is crucial if you want your sauce to develop its full flavour and silky texture.

So, if you’ve read the official recipe via the link above, you know what the basic ingredients are and how simple it actually is to prepare this famous dish. But one thing I’ve discovered is that everyone in Bologna (if not in all of Italy) thinks their nonna made the best Bolognese — and all of those recipes are slightly different. Now that I’ve made it several times, I find I’ve added a few flourishes of my own (slight though they are). I like it better, but that’s just me. One version I ran across recently suggests adding a handful of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted, chopped finely and added to the sauce (along with the reconstituting water) after the beef and vegetables are cooked. That’s something that I think I’ll try next.

So here’s what we’ll do. Try the official recipe and I’ll put my slightly-changed one below (because that’s what this blog is about: my views on cooking and food). If you want to try mine, please do. And then let me know what you think. I’ll also include some notes about why you cook it the way you do and the purpose of some of the ingredients.

Rick’s “Mostly Authentic” Ragù alla Bolognese
Serves 4

  • 300 gr (10.5 oz) of ground beef (you want a flavourful cut like skirt of chuck, but it should be lean
  • 150 gr (5 oz) unsmoked pancetta (chop it finely rather than grinding it)
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped onion
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped carrot
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped celery
  • 118 ml (.5 cup) red wine — a hearty one
  • 30 gr (1 oz or 4 Tbs) tomato paste
  • 120 ml (.5 cup) tomato sauce
  • 240 (1 cup) unsalted beef stock
  • 120 ml (.5 cup) whole milk
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 400 gr (scant pound) of fresh tagliatelle or fettucine
If you search the internet for the “official” Bolognese recipe, you will find it in many places with slight variations, and in a few surprising cases, obvious errors. But the basic ideas of the recipe are obvious: not much tomato and a sauce that has little liquid — but tons of flavour!

The three vegetables make up what is called a soffritto in Italy. (The French call this mirepoix and it’s part of the “foundation” of many great sauces.) So it’s not surprising it should be found in this recipe. Many people (I’m talking to you, Hannah!) will be surprised by having carrots and celery in their pasta sauce, but there you go. It works. The key here is to make the dice quite small (about 1/8") so that the veggies amalgamate with the meat as it cooks.

Really good pancetta is critical. We use our own (and if you’re into home curing or feel it’s time to dabble, it’s easy to make). You don’t want the piece you use to be too fatty. Both meats should ideally be hand-minced (rather than ground). I’ll admit, since I have a grinder, that I’ll often grind both meats, but I feel if you’re up for mincing something, at least do the pancetta that way. The texture of the sauce will be the better for it. And don’t use smoked pancetta! It just doesn’t work as well.

The official recipe says that red wine or white wine may be used, but whichever you use should be dry. We prefer red. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but you don’t want a wimpy one. Bold flavour is the key here. An inexpensive Chianti or Nero d’Avola works really well.

We add some tomato sauce (our own homemade) so the finished ragù a bit more “texture”.

Milk is used to also add texture and “smooth out” the flavours, especially the tomato.

Another point where I can’t find a definitive answer is the use of stock or water. Your sauce will definitely need liquid, and to my mind, why not add additional flavour, as well? So I use stock.

One last word, I’m getting more and more dogmatic about weighing and measuring ingredients accurately — certainly on the first few runs at a new recipe. It helps. I’ve written about using a scale in your kitchen and it’s worth considering if you enjoy cooking — and getting predictable results. If you don’t have a scale, though, don’t despair! For the veggies, a smallish yellow onion, a modest carrot and a good-sized celery stalk will do the trick. The rest of the things can be weighed at the grocery store or using a measuring cup.

Now, let’s get cooking!

  1. Over medium heat pour some good-quality olive oil in a heavy pot or small casserole. You want the bottom just covered. When it’s fragrant, add the pancetta and sauté for 3 minutes. Now add the beef and sauté for 3 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Now add the vegetables (and I include a small sprinkle of salt to help sweat the veggies). Doesn’t it smell good? Make sure you thoroughly break up the meat and don’t let this mixture burn!
  2. When the mixture begins to sizzle (indicating all the water from the ingredients has evaporated), add the wine and turn the heat up. Stir the mixture to evaporate it quickly.
  3. When the mixture begins to sizzle again, turn the heat down and add the tomato paste (and tomato sauce if you’re using it), plus the beef stock. Mix well. You want the meat/veg mixture to be covered by about 1 cm of liquid. Use more stock or water if you need it.
  4. Simmer for 2 hours. During that time, stir in a bit of the milk occasionally until it’s all added.
  5. The sauce is done when most of the liquid is gone. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  6. Cook the tagliatelle or fettucine, drain and divide the sauce among four portions. (Best served in heated bowls.)
  7. Serve with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano only. (Don’t skimp here, please!)
A green salad preceding the pasta is a good choice. Italians always serve salads as a separate course, and there’s a good reason for that. The dressing conflicts with the star of the show (and the wine) if it’s all served together.

A good bottle of red wine should accompany your ragù. Now’s the time to pull out that bottle of Chianti Classico or Brunello you’ve been saving.

See? No garlic. No herbs. Not much tomato. Real Ragù alla Bolognese. And it tastes amazing.

Who knew?

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