Bolognese: Not your Mother’s Spaghetti Sauce

It was a cold snowy afternoon and my warm kitchen beckoned, urging me to bring forth the big pot and commence filling it with some sort of sultry, scintillating, simmering concoction – a steamy dinner in the making. There’s nothing more cozy and reassuring on a chilly winter day than a gurgling pot of goodness broadcasting its tantalizing aromas, each expectant stir more promising than the last. Ah, yes, this is pasta weather at its finest and a hearty Bolognese Sauce would surely do the trick.

The old nagging debate returns as I contemplate my course of action, “Do I add the milk or not?” Indeed, why should I? Does it really matter? According to Marcella Hazan, a leading culinary authority on the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, the answer is “Yes, definitely!” In fact, Marcella adds the milk or cream after browning the meat and then allows it to reduce down before finally stirring in the tomatoes and wine. She claims this prior dairy addition counteracts any offensive acid from these two spunky partners and ultimately results in a more refined and balanced sauce.

With knife poised I begin working from 3 different recipes: my own long-time favorite, a recent clipping from Cooking Light magazine, and Marcella’s version. My recipe is one I’ve used many times, gleaned from a yacht owner utterly passionate about his Bolognese Sauce. My aim is to update mine and at the same time introduce a bit more authenticity.

A cautionary note: this meat sauce is not your mother’s Spaghetti Sauce. If yours was anything like my mother’s, throw those ideas out the window right now. Well, o.k., avoid any snowy blast and metaphorically toss them.

Ràgu, as it is affectionately referred to in the Emilia-Romagna, is frequently made with pork and/or beef. I prefer this mostly pork combination but I’ve also used portions of turkey or veal out of necessity. The addition of carrot is a signature ingredient; the sweetness is yet another nod to reducing that dreaded acid build-up.

You’ll notice the herbs and spices move toward the sweet/savory realm, reminiscent of early European cuisine where these were often used as powerful preservatives. Wouldn’t you know, Marcella keeps it simple with just a few grates of fresh nutmeg. With a judicious hand I opt for my favs: sage, a smattering of thyme and oregano, a dash of allspice and nutmeg.

Our sauce in Italy would slow cook 3 hours or longer thus ensuring an impeccably well balanced Ràgu. Back on the ranch, after an hour or so of burbling and voracious stirring, my Bolognese is meaty, intensely robust and quite thick. The color is exquisite pale sienna, the aroma utterly addictive, the flavor well balanced, lingering, unique and unforgettable. As far as I am concerned, it is well done.

The pasta of choice according to Marcella is tagliatelle or perhaps a tortellini, both worthy classics. Wide flat ribbons are ideal for supporting a thick sauce such as ours, and on this snowy winter day, fettuccine is conveniently my perfect candidate.

Bolognese Sauce A mild and meaty Ràgu from Bologna, Italy

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
24 ounces ground pork and ground beef, total, or any combo with veal or turkey
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, allspice
1/2 teaspoon each: sage, thyme, oregano
14 ounces canned tomatoes, in liquid, chopped
8 ounces tomato sauce
1/2 cup white wine

16 ounces tagliatelle, fettuccine, or tortellini
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

In sauce pot heat oil add onion and sauté til tender, 3-4 minutes. Add carrot, celery, garlic and red pepper and cook 2 minutes, til softened.

Add the meat, salt and pepper and brown well, drain of excess fat. Lower heat, simmer the milk, nutmeg and allspice til almost evaporated. Add the herb sand toss to combine and become aromatic. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce and wine. Bring to a boil, reduce to very low simmer, partially cover and cook for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until very thick. Stir as needed. Adjust flavors.

Meanwhile cook pasta in salted water, drain. Place pasta in shallow bowls, spoon about 3/4 cup over each serving. Pass Parmesan cheese. Serves 6~~

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