If you eat meat, chances are you love a good Bolognese sauce.
Growing up in an Italian household, I always heard it referred to as just ragù. When I was very little, I just knew it as that yummy meat sauce I loved so much from which I had to pick out the occasional pesky clove.
I actually prefer the name ragù for this sauce (no slight on Bologna, which remains one of my favorite Italian cities for its charm and delicious food).
It’s such a personal dish for any family and I feel like the name ragù reflects that. Using the more official name of “Bolognese Sauce” makes it appear as though there is a definitive or authentic recipe when one doesn’t really exist. What we have instead are a gazillion variations. So talking about Bolognese sauce feels a little like talking about vegetable soup, you know? You kinda understand what the person is talking about, though you are left to wonder which vegetables and what kind of stock is being used. It makes a difference!
This ragù recipe is my family’s.
It’s pretty straight-forward too. Much more so than the ones I see everywhere in cookbooks and online. Those recipes contain ingredients such as garlic, white wine, red wine, carrots, beef stock, chicken stock, pancetta, bacon, mushrooms, dried oregano, dried basil, Worcestershire (????), tomato paste, thyme, and butter. While I’m sure they are all magical and wonderful in their own right, they’re just not the one forever lodged in my heart and stomach memory.
When I ask my mom about all of these other ingredients I just mentioned in ragù, she shrugs and – visualize a very heavy Italian accent here – says: “It is not our way.” I often just ask her dumb stuff about food that I know will slightly annoy her just so that I hear her say that. It sounds so cute!
Well, so I guess the good news in all of this is that if you happen to be out of Worcestershire sauce, you can still make my ragù! Weee!
At the end of the day, making a great ragù – regardless of the ingredients – requires two key ingredients: a little patience and a lot of time. A few techniques also help.
First, you’ll need to nail the soffritto, which is just a term for finely chopped or grated aromatics. That’s what’s going to beg for your patience. Otherwise known as mirepoix, battuto or sofrito, soffritto is what infuses any ragù with a wonderful depth of flavor.
I sometimes think of the flavor of food in musical terms. In order to really savor something, any prepared dish needs to have a base note, as well as a high note, otherwise it becomes rather bland and dare I say…forgettable. A well-cooked soffritto becomes the base note in a ragù and is therefore very important.
A typical soffritto contains the culinary trilogy of onion, celery and carrots, though my familyragù leaves out the carrots because they add too much sweetness to the sauce.
So what’s the secret to making a flavorful soffritto with those memorable base notes? Simply, cooking it for longer than seems reasonable on lower heat than seems practical. That’s really it. I read the cutest little story in Michael Pollan’s fabulous recent book titled Cooked, where this one particular chef he worked with kept lowering the flames on all of these ‘testosterone-ladened chefs’ in the kitchen she was overseeing.
She said she supposed this was so because male chefs were so used to feeling powerful when standing in front of a flame. (Now…I’m just loosely quoting here because I’m not about to delve into a sexist discussion. I’ve known men that looked wonderful in taffeta and women who could fix the transmission in my car as easily as I make béchamel sauce. We live in a wonderfully complicated and complex world and I wouldn’t change a thing.) So cook those grated or finely chopped aromatics for a long, long time on low heat and you’ll be fine.
Secondly, once the aromatics are cooked and the meat and tomato puree added, then it’s all about time, and that’s what may require your patience…especially if you’re hungry.
The wonderful thing about biding your time is that all the hard work is done and behind you. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Take your dog for a walk. Snuggle with your cat, if you have the kind of feline that tolerates that sort of thing. Read a good book. Just let that ragù simmer for at least 4 hours. More if you can take it.
Though not as important, I would also recommend using more than just beef in your ragù. Adding different meats adds more complexity and flavor to your sauce. My mom would always use an even mixture of beef, pork and veal. I’ve decided to cut out the veal because I find veal a little too cute and their destiny a little too sad. I do as my mom does, and she would say, ‘that’s my way.’
So without further ado…
making bolognese sauce
Grate or very finely mince 1 large yellow onions and 1 celery heart (the center of the celery along with the more delicate, pale surrounding stalks).
Doing this allows them to cook more uniformly and also lends wonderful texture to the sauce.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium-low flame. Add the grated or minced vegetables with two good pinches of sea salt and sauté for 15 minutes, stirring often. They’ll look like this when ready:
Turn the heat up to medium-high and add 2 ½ lbs. of a blend of ground pork and beef. With a potato masher, press down on the meat as it is cooking to break up any large chunks. Add a couple more pinches of sea salt.
When fully cooked, the meat will turn a grayish brown.
Add 2 cups of whole milk. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the milk has completely evaporated. (The milk acts as a meat tenderizer here.)
Then add 2 28-ounce cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes, pureed in a vegetable mill. Also add 1 bay leaf and 5 cloves or 1 teaspoon of ground cloves and bring to a boil. At this point, lower the temperature to simmer and cook for at least 4 hours, stirring occasionally. You can choose to cook it even longer if you have the time, because the longer it cooks the better it tastes!
Pair with 1 pound of penne, rigatoni or pappardelle (made from 100% durum wheat) that have been cooked al dente in salted water. Top with plenty of freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and enjoy!