There is no exact science to Ragu all Bolognese, and while it is a dish that everyone can agree is delicious – the perfect truce between diehard Red Sauce eaters and those who insist on keeping it Old Country – there are numerous points of contention regarding its preparation. Personally, I die on the inside every time I am served what is basically a tomato-heavy “meat gravy” at a restaurant when the menu led me to believe I was ordering Bolognese.
Beyond the glaring discrepancies like that, most people differ over their choice of meat – it IS a meat sauce NOT a tomato sauce, of course – some opting for pancetta, chicken livers, ground steak, etc. While I can say that my method was inspired by the late Marcella Hazan – a god among cooks – I honestly don’t think she would particularly enjoy it, starting with the fact that it is simply too decadent. But that’s what I’m looking for in a dish that I reserve for lazy Sundays because another point that all cooks will agree on is that great Bolognese requires patience. There is not a lot of busy work, but a block of time must be set aside to develop both flavor and the velvety texture that lends itself to clinging to pasta so beautifully. About five hours, prep included, should do the trick.
The choice of pasta is another… conversation starter. Let me tell you that there exists in all gastronomy few things more transcendent that using fresh spinach noodles and béchamel to create the famous Lasagna Bolognese. Any great pasta shop will generally require the noodles to be a custom order but be happy to make it for you. Try that sometime, layering sauce, béchamel, and grated parmesan between the layers before letting it bubble to perfection in the oven.
In this case, I will be serving it directly over pasta with grated Parmesan Reggiano and (calm down, it’s optional) a small dollop of ricotta. While Hazan famously declares that, “There is no more perfect union in all gastronomy than the marriage of Bolognese ragù with homemade Bolognese tagliatelle,” I, as a Philistine, personally find that it is just as delightful with dried rigatoni or fusilli (which I’ll be using here). Honestly, most pasta shapes would work fine except for maybe slippery ones like Linguini or silly ones like Wagon Wheels (unless you are trying desperately to impress children).
It is also not necessary to purchase the very best ingredients for this dish, as it was never meant to be a luxury food, to begin with. I have certain brands that I am partial to, which I have included here.
1 tbsp olive oil (something affordable but good quality – Lebanese producers fit the bill here)
1.25 Sticks Butter (I like Kerrygold)
2 Medium Onions, Diced
3 Ribs of Celery, Diced
2 Large Carrots, Diced
2 lbs Ground Beef (80% lean – or if you can find it you can sub 1 lb ground veal for half of the beef)
1 lb Ground Pork (I don’t know why, but so much of the packaged stuff is insanely lean. Get the fattiest you can)
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Fresh Ground White Pepper
Maldon Sea Salt
1.5 Cups Whole Milk
Fresh Nutmeg to Grind
1.5 Cups Dry White Wine (see below)
1 28oz Can Whole Peeled San Marzano Tomatoes (I use Cento brand because I like the sweetness)
Pasta, See Note Above – I love DeCecco brand for easy access but obviously, go with whatever you want most
Grated Parmesan Reggiano
Heat the oil and butter over medium-high in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. Add the chopped veggies and cook until soft, around 6-7 minutes. Stir and do not let them brown.
Black Walnut Cooking Spoon pictured is from Hilltop Spoonworks
Mix the meat together by hand in a mixing bowl and add to the pot, breaking up with a spoon. Toss in a liberal amount of salt and both ground peppers (this is, of course, a matter of preference and you WILL have another opportunity to correct at the end). Cook until meat has lost most of its raw, pink color.
Add 1.5 Cups Whole Milk, reduce heat to medium, let simmer for 8-9 Minutes. This will keep the meat tender throughout the long cooking process.
Cherrywood Measuring Cup pictured by Hilltop Spoonworks
Add several shavings of fresh nutmeg (I really like SKORDO spices) and stir to incorporate. The subtle flavor it imparts reminds me of Greek comfort food dishes like Pastitsio.
Now add the wine, once again letting everything simmer and reduce for another 8-9 minutes. You’ll notice I’m using Cavit PG – not a good wine at all but very convenient for cooking in the small bottles so you aren’t using something that’s been open in the fridge for 2 years. Also, you are bound to encounter guests with meager standards who would “Love a spritzer, maybe with some grenadine?” Well now you have just the wine for them on hand – it’s essential to make EVERYONE happy when they are guests in your own home. That, and it means more of the good stuff for you.
Add tomatoes to a mixing bowl and crush by hand – I also remove the pesky basil leaves that you often find here. Now the tomatoes go into the pot, and everything comes to a simmer.
Partially cover pot, reduce heat to low, and let it go for 3-4 hours – stirring occasionally. You want to see the fat separating, but you do not want things to dry out (if they do for some reason you can add a little bit of chicken stock, but I don’t think you’ll have to deal with it). Stir every 45 minutes or so.
Now you’ve got some downtime! If you plan on serving any old or particularly big wines – like Barolo or Barbaresco – you can open them now to get them breathing. This is also the time to reward yourself with either a delicious cup of coffee (I have been really enjoying the beans from Heart Coffee Rosters, pictured) or a bottle of light, refreshing white wine.
As the cooking comes to an end, get the salted pasta water boiling and taste the sauce to adjust for seasoning. When the pasta is done, I like to add to a mixing bowl and pour in the sauce – sprinkling in grated Parmesan Reggiano – stirring until you achieve the desired ratio. This is better than just dumping all of the pasta into your pot of sauce.
Serve with any number of Italian red wines from Piedmont, Tuscany, or the Veneto and just let the night happen to you. Start small, do not underestimate how heavy this dish is and unless you want to be sprawled out asleep on the couch 20 minutes after dinner, best to pace. Of course, if you’re dining alone, go for it with gusto!