Sunday, December 12, 2010

True Ragu Bolognese

I want to share a dish I made way back in September, when the tomato season was just coming to a close, and weather for hot, savory comfort food was just beginning. The dish was something I had made many times before, but in a different form. In this other form, I think it can only be called “spaghetti sauce”: a combination of canned tomatoes, ground beef, onion, garlic, and various herbs, simmered for maybe an hour or so, then served over spaghetti pasta with parmesan on the side. I think that most North American families have some form of this recipe, and it is almost always a favorite. This time, though, I decided I wanted to do it right, or, more accurately, do it traditionally. I wanted to make a true ragu Bolognese. This is probably something that few non-Italians can describe correctly. I, myself, am no expert, but thanks to a little research and some experimenting, I think I can cover the main points. Here’s what you need to know: a true ragu Bolognese has tomato in it, but it is not a tomato sauce. It also has milk in it, but it is not a cream sauce. It has a good amount of meat in it as well, but it is not a stew. Its true nature is a thick, savory, luscious sauce that is suffuse with incredible flavor, and is a perfect balance of creamy and acidic.
I also decided that I wanted to really make the sauce and all of its components from scratch, so instead of using canned tomato sauce, I made my own with tomato sauce from the farmer’s market.
I also bought one-pound of bottom round and ground it myself in my food processor.
Were these steps necessary? Well, no, you can make an excellent sauce using a good-quality canned tomato product, and high-quality ground beef from your butcher, and you’ll save yourself a couple of hours. I liked knowing that everything was as fresh as you can get it, and that my own skills were really responsible for everything in that sauce. So, if you have the whole afternoon to make your Bolognese, and tomatoes are in season (don’t bother if they aren’t), I’d recommend making your own sauce and grinding your own meat.
Deb at Smitten Kitchen showed how to make a great tomato sauce, and this video will give you a good idea of how to grind your own meat. Don’t forget to keep that meat cold at all times!

I looked through a number of “true” ragu Bolognese recipes, but ended up using directions from Mario Batali here. Don’t just follow the recipe—watch the video. That’s where he explains the true techniques and why to employ them. I didn’t follow his recipe exactly, though—I made a few small changes.

To start, I followed Batali’s advice and sweated mirepoix in an enameled pot in butter and olive oil, keeping the heat around medium-low, and really trying to evaporate the water out of the vegetables. Listen to the man: this is not a sauce you can rush if you want to make it correctly.
For the meat, I used only ground beef, which worked out wonderfully, but I’m sure that the combination of pork, veal, and beef he suggests would be fantastic. Again, I made sure that I really rendered that meat, melting all the fat, cooking out all the liquid.

Now, here’s where I departed from Batali’s method the most: instead of using only tomato paste, I couldn’t resist using some of my lovely, homemade tomato sauce as well. So, I only mixed in a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, let that cook for ten minutes or so, then added two cups of my tomato sauce, and let that reduce by about two thirds.
Then came the milk, then the wine, each reduced down separately so that they can impart their flavors adequately.
I covered the pot, and let it cook for a couple of hours. Then, I added some fresh rosemary, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Finally, I combined it with parmesan and cooked spaghetti, creating a magnificent little piece of Italian heaven.
You may be thinking to yourself, is this really worth all the time it takes? Do I really want to spend several hours making some kind of glorified spaghetti sauce? The answer to both this questions is a definitive yes. This sauce exemplifies the concept of developing flavor over time brilliantly. The resulting ragu has so much complexity, so many wonderful flavor notes, that you will know as soon as you taste it that you could never make anything like this in only a half hour. Also, this is nothing so banal as “spaghetti sauce”: this is ragu Bolognese.

Ragu Bolognese
Adapted from Mario Batali at
Serves 4-6

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp butter
1 carrot, finely diced
1 medium onion diced
1 rib celery finely diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 ½ lbs. good quality ground beef
2 tbsp. tomato paste
2 cups excellent tomato sauce
1 cup milk
1 cup dry white wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from one sprig of rosemary, chopped
Parmigiano-Reggiano, to grate
1 lb. spaghetti, cooked in salted water

In a 6 to 8-quart, heavy bottomed saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, and garlic and sweat over medium heat until the vegetables are translucent and soft but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the beef and stir into the vegetables. Add the meat over high heat, stirring to keep the meat from sticking together until browned. Add the tomato paste, and cook, stirring, for ten minutes or so, until the tomato paste has caramelized. Add the tomato sauce and let that reduce by about two thirds. Add the milk, and allow that to reduce down until it is nearly gone. Do the same with the wine. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Stir in the rosemary, then season with salt and pepper, to taste, and remove from the heat.

When ready to use, the cooked pasta should be added to a saucepan with the appropriate amount of hot ragu Bolognese and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and tossed so that the pasta is evenly coated by the ragu. Serve with more Parm on the side.