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.
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.
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.
Adapted from Mario Batali at Savory.tv
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.