My conversion to Italian is nearly complete. I only cook “Italian Food.” I only crave “Italian Food.” I study it. I study Italian history, travel and culture. All I have left to do is learn to speak Italian and move to Italy! Oh ya! And I have to forget everything I know about functional government and efficiency and just relax and go with the flow.
In the meantime, I have been working on my own personalized recipe for Ragu Bolgnese—that classic of “Italian Food” that everyone knows and loves as a child. I have studied the classical recipes out of Bologna, and watched some cooking shows on this, and finally I have made one that I think is a nice compromise between the all-day affair and the version that one could actually put together in a reasonable amount of time.
From what I’ve learned, Bolognese shouldn’t be about spices, but about a home-made flavor, depth and comfort. Too often in the Amercanized versions we receive a dose of red pepper and a ton of garlic or, even worse, a overly-saucy and punishingly overwrought tomato mush. This, to me, spoils the complexity and subtley of the sauce.
Before we get down to business, I’d like to mention a few things:
- Pasta dishes are not about the sauce; they are about the pasta. Go to a gourmet grocer or a nice Italian market and get some good quality pasta or make your own. For this dish, I find that a dried, artisanal-quality papperdelle works really well. However, I believe the gold standard in Bologna would be to use Tagliatelle.
- That being said, you should dress your pasta appropriately. You do not want it to swim in the sauce. Instead, toss the pasta with just a little sauce and add sauce until you get a nice, even coating on all of the noodles.
- Even if they are in season, resist the urge to use fresh tomatoes. You can use fresh tomatoes that you have canned (which is the best option), or buy high-quality canned tomatoes from your grocer or Italian market. San Marzano tomatoes are best for sauces.
- In general, you’ll be far happier with the results if you use high quality ingredients such as Parmesano Reggiano. Learn a bit about Italian foods and their origin, and then buy what the Italians would buy. Parmesan is not Parmesan. Parmesano Reggiano must pass a quality check and follow rigorous quality and production guidelines (for example, it must be made with the morning milk mixed with the previous evening’s milk).
Now let’s get down to business.
- 1 red or yellow onion or one half of each, finely diced
- 1 clove garlic sliced thinly or minced (optional—totally not an authentic thing to do and I usually omit it)
- 1 carrot, finely diced
- 1 stalk celery finely diced (don’t forget the leaves!)
- 1 can or jar of San Marzano tomatoes.
- 3/4 pound ground pork—(you can use ground beef if you want, and I’ve had good results using dark meat and white meat ground turkey in equal proportions in this dish)
- 3/4 pound ground veal, beef or both—see substitution notes above, this is flexible
- 1/4 pound pancetta (uncured Italian bacon), finely diced
- 1 package Papperdelle or, if you’re being a purist, Tagliatelle.
- 1 cup milk
- 1 whole “nut” of nutmeg
- tomato paste
- Pamesano Reggiano for grating
- Brodo or Beef Broth (optional)
- 1-2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1-2 T Unsalted European-Style Butter (even better if you can get European-style butter that is locally produced!)
- 1/2 to 2/3 C dry white wine
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- Add a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil and a tablespoon or two of butter to a dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat. Add one half of the pancetta, stir once and let sit in pan (don’t move it around yet). Allow the pancetta to begin to cook just a bit, then add one half of the onions. Sprinkle the onions and panchetta with a pinch of salt. Saute until the onions are soft and slightly caramelized. This will add to the depth of the sauce’s flavor if you allow just a tiny bit of caramelization to develop at this stage. Just don’t let anything get too crunchy
- Add the rest of the onion, the carrot and the celery, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and saute until they begin to soften. Be like a cajun and let this stuff “cook down.” You don’t want firm chunks of vegetables in this sauce. Add the garlic if you would like. I often don’t, but people seem to like it when I do. You must please your peeps
- Add the rest of the pancetta, the ground pork and the ground veal (or beef, or both) and saute. Season with a bit of salt and some fresh ground pepper after adding the meat to the pan. Stir the contents of the pan constantly and breaking up any clumps of meat that form. You want fine, granular meat for this sauce. As soon as the meat is giving up its own juices (this is essential for the flavor), proceed to the next step. Do not let the meat brown!
- Reduce heat to medium and immediately add 1 or 2 Tablespoons of tomato paste to an area of the pan that has no liquid (if you can find one). Saute the tomato paste a bit so as to develop a little bit of “cooked” flavor in it, then mix into the meat/vegetable mixture
- Add 1/2 C milk to the pan and reduce heat to a high simmer. Grind the nutmeg into the mixture (to taste, see comments for guidance) and add some salt and fresh ground pepper. Seasoning as you go develops layers of flavor and increases the overall complexity of the dish. Allow milk to simmer until the meat/vegetable mixture is almost dry. The idea is to create “fluffy” meat. If you do not add liquid almost immediately after adding the meat, you will not acheive this.
- Add 1/2 C white wine into the pan and deglaze.
- Add the tomatoes with juices to the pan, crushing the whole tomatoes by hand into the pan or using a spoon or whatever you have available to break them into smaller pieces.
- You can now add the brodo or broth, if desired, or just skip this step.
- Simmer the whole concoction for one and one half hours.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add sea salt once water is boiling and add pasta to water. It should cook in 2 or so minutes if fresh. Follow the package instructions exactly and you will NOT be disappointed.
- Add 1/2 C milk to the sauce and stir through. Grate 1 T or so of Parmesano Reggiano into the sauce and incorporate.
- Drain pasta and put into a skillet or saute pan (or the pan in which you are cooking the sauce, if they sauce to pasta ratio is appropriate—see note above).
- Keeping the saute pan over medium heat, add sauce to the pasta in small amounts, tossing vigorously and making certain that all of the noodles have yummy sauce and bits of meat and veggie clinging to them.
- Serve on warmed dishes and with an added sprinkle of Parmesano Reggiano
I’ve found that, despite the rustic nature of this sauce, it pairs quite nicely with the same dry white wine used during its preparation. You can, of course, serve it with any wine you wish.
You can now see a slightly-oversauced example of this concoction served as a condimento to Tagliatelle.