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Bolognese Sauce for Beginners

Fettuccine Bolognese

Fettucine Bolognese

The first time my friend Sarah, a New Zealander, told me she’d made “Spagbol” for dinner I had no clue. Then I asked her what was in it and when she went down the list of ingredients the light went on — Pasta Bolognese.

I am not naturally adept at Bolognese sauce. Recipes that come from North of Rome, I follow to the letter as I have no point of reference. No, really. The DNA strand that says Italian is most decidedly Southern. I have had Bolognese — in Bologna. I was just not raised with minced meat throughout my sauce, my sugo. I was raised with chunks of meat or meatballs in my sauce thanks to my grandfather the butcher. Because of that experience in Bologna, I should at least know what it’s supposed to taste like, theoretically speaking. However, those were my Uni days. I wasn’t cooking other than spaghetti al tonno. I couldn’t taste the Bolognese with discrimination and determine this or that belonged or didn’t go in the sauce. Also, let’s review…it was college. I wasn’t always terribly sober and my main objective was to buy as many pairs of shoes as possible. I’ve grown up and collected a lot of recipes, wisdom, experiences and shoes.

Lemme ‘splain: When I cook, I have to go by the smell—and of course taste—during the process. When I taste it at different stages I know how to correct it as some canned or fresh tomatoes have more acid or less. Final outcome really does have everything to do with the ingredients. Canned or fresh tomatoes are not consistent. I’m a kinesthetic cook. I have to get my fingers into it, use all my senses, sight, sound, smell. Cooking is a ballet. The most important element in my cooking is that when the house smells like the kitchen of whomever taught me the recipe, I know it’s going in the right direction. I can make a mean marinara or my famous three meat sauce (pork, lamb, and beef). But my grandmother didn’t make minced meat sauce. I have nothing to go on except my tastebuds and those of a few innocent victims my family.

So, not too long ago, another friend (you may hear more about Trace’s adventures as she does tend to inspire) did a LiveJournal post on cooking Bolognese sauce. Trace was just learning about cooking and making a darn good go; she asked questions (always a good sign). Well… that got me thinking. I was experimenting with Turkey in the crockpot at the time, why not make a good stab at a Bolognese? It’s meat, it’s tomatoes, how hard can that be? Surely, I can do meat sauce, right? I approached with trepidation. I have had  more than one cock-up in the kitchen.

My experience with “meat sauce” throughout the years had been negative at best. Mostly, I suppose because it tasted like Spaghetti O’s or canned chili to me and mostly because these sauces were not done by Italian cooks. My very first taste of meat sauce was more like sloppy joes on egg noodles. That’s all kinds of wrong. I was at a gradeschool chum’s house and her mother was a lovely woman, tall, slender, ivory skin… I was dazzled. Surely this glamourous creature could do no wrong.

That’s when she said “Would you like to stay for dinner, we’re having spaghetti.” Of course I would stay, I have been a pasta whore from age five.

My mind conjured up the delicious sauce from grandma’s or my neighbor, Mrs. Carinci’s, sugo (Man, could she cook!). Only this woman’s sauce would be sprinkled with stardust and diamonds.

Wah-wah...

But this was not to be. I took one bite and… well, imagine an eight year old’s brain like a VU meter. The needle happily hovering near the red, waiting to peak and suddenly bouncing from right to left and a big honking “wah wah” right before the sound goes dead. Betrayed!

Which is why I avoided “meat sauce” until Sarah talked about Spagbol (and that day in Bologna but I can’t remember much from my hash clouded Roman uni days). Hey, I thought, it’s time to woman up to the stove and see how it was supposed to be made. I found a recipe by video which is now gone off into the aether. Aha! That helped immensely. I googled it in Italian so as to get some “genuine” advice. Now, if we only had a way to scratch and sniff websites. The video was helpful. I followed it exactly the first time. Ok, not exactly… a little less carrots and my own special recipe of Italian spices. I used chianti for the wine and a can of crushed tomato with puree and a can of tomato paste. It was yum the first day. The second day it had gotten so thick that I put another can of chopped tomato (no puree) in and put it back in the oven to thicken.

There was seven for dinner.

Nothing left.

That worked, I thought. Since then I’ve squished the recipe around a little to suit my own proportions but the ingredients remain the same. To prove to myself this was an easy and fun recipe, my step-D, Victoria came over as part of the “Teach V to Cook” series (by her own request). Victoria cooked this recipe, with minimal help from me.  It was a rousing success.

Bolognese
Serves 4-6

Ingredients at a glance

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 pound lean chopped meat
  • 3/4 pound chopped pork
  • 1/3 -1/2 cup olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan thickly)
  • 6 slices smoked bacon or pancetta finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 celery stalks, finely diced
  • 1 can of tomatoes (28 oz, crushed)
  • 1 can tomato paste (6 oz)
  • 3/4 cup red wine
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tbsp parsley, chopped
  • salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).
  2. Place a heavy bottomed oven safe pan (such as the Le Creuset or any other oven safe stewing pot) on a medium high heat and warm through. Add the olive oil. The oil should not smoke. Then add the bacon or pancetta bits. Stir in well with your wooden spoon. Lower to medium. Let the bacon render down to melt the fat. Now add the beef, little by little first, then add the pork.(*) It should brown but not burn so keep an eye on the heat and keep it moving around. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and leave the oils and fat.
  3. Add the mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot) and garlic into the hot pot. Cook until the vegetables are browned. They should be browned but not burned and still have a good color. This is to ensure that the vegetables do not get mushy. Add the meat back in. Stir the ingredients together.
  4. Add the tomatoes, paste, wine, oregano, parsley and a bit of salt and pepper. You’ll add more of the salt and pepper later to adjust flavor. Give it a good stir. Turn off the stovetop heat.
  5. Cover the pot and put into the oven to roast for one to three hours, depending on the size of your pot, check every so often and stir to ensure that it is bubbling but not burning.(**) The sauce will stew in the proper sense of the word.(^) One hour is quite enough for the flavors to develop.
  6. 1/2 hour before serving, taste for salt or pepper adjustments.
  7. Serve over pasta with a generous sprinkle of parmiggiana or romano cheese.

Mirepoix cooking in the ovenproof pan

Tips: (*)Add the meat slowly so as to ensure that your pan won’t cool down. This will cook the meat evenly. Stir and add little by little.

(**) Add a tablespoon of water if you feel the sauce is getting too dry.

(^)By baking the sauce in the oven, it will carmelize the sauce for a richer flavor.

Warning! Never put your Bolognese on spaghetti! Fettucine, tagliatelle, or another flat pasta is preferable. It’s also perfect over gnocchi. Garlic bread on the side, of course!

“Try it. It’s good!”