Bolognese sauce is one of those dishes that seems simple enough, yet to a neurotic cook, it has more maddening nuances than Italian real estate law. I have never really nailed this sauce to my own satisfaction; a fact that fills me with frustrated rage. I cannot seem to capture what my mind’s eye imagines that perfect Bolognese sauce should or could taste like. I have never been to Bologna, so I’m working from cookbooks and whatever Mario Batalli spews out of his sunburned face. Now, let’s be clear, this is food that I would never put on my restaurant menu. It is home cooking through and through. So why try to perfect it, you might ask. Because there’s something wrong with my brain, that’s why. For what it’s worth, the following is painful meditation—my personal account of the closest I can get to the ethereal harmony of pasta, meat and aromatics known as ragu Bolognese.
I grew up with a very Anglo-Canadian approach to this dish—which starts with over-boiled spaghetti noodles with all the starch ignorantly rinsed off under the cold water faucet. Then, a nest of these pale insipid noodles is plated and an ice cream scoop of sauce plunked on top like a beef-flavoured banana split. The sauce itself is a matrix of tough, grey protein pellets suspended in a dehydrated-vegetable-tasting jarred sauce with the occasional too-large chunk of under cooked onion. My kids are partial to this approach, which speaks volumes—they also like to eat incinerated marshmallows and think Cheetohs® are a vegetable. I have to admit this take on spaghetti is what I also grew up eating at least twice a week. It does have a certain comfort to it and I may even crave it occasionally. Let’s be clear—it’s not bad—but it could be so much fucking better. In Italy, it is better. I don’t even have to visit to be certain of this fact.
When you go to Italy, meat sauces tend to be called ragus. The classic minced meat sauce with vegetables, wine and sometimes tomatoes (a controversial issue, more on that in a moment), would be called a ragu Bolognese and is the specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region. Why this dish has become the ever popular ‘spaghetti’ to North Americans is likely the ease and thrift of the recipe. Minced meat’s fine grind is easy to cook to the point of killing E Coli while still retaining a granular enough texture that we can choke it down and only gag on the occasional bit of gristle that survived the industrial-scale cow cuisinart. Unlike large chunks or stew meat that require a long cooking time before reaching a level of mastication-friendly tenderness, minced meat can basically be warmed through and consumed immediately. Open a jar of pre-made tomato sauce and you have a very quick, inexpensive and filling dinner; a Godsend to the moms of the 1970’s whose cigarette-blunted senses of taste could have resulted in a lot worse. Nevertheless, what we call spaghetti here is very different to what Italians think of the dish.
I’m not going to annotate a recipe here, because this is the kind of dish that I think requires the ‘adjustment’ approach to cooking. Keep tasting and adjusting. Volume of ingredients and timings are just not going to come in to it. I’m also too fucking lazy to measure everything. Use some instinct for crying out loud!
First and foremost, in Bologna, they often make this dish with tagliatelle and not spaghetti. I personally prefer tagliatelle for this approach to the recipe. The other misconception is that this is a ‘quick and easy’ recipe. It is actually a terribly difficult dish to get right. Ground meat is a lot harder to cook then one might think. Those tiny meat grinds can turn into tough flavourless micro meatballs if not handled with a deft hand. The tomato sauce, without sufficient cooking time, will not thicken and sweeten, but instead will see the raw freshness disappear and bitterness and blandness reign supreme. We in this country typically use lean ground beef. I find that lean ground beef is almost entirely flavourless (and thus, pointless). If you like lean ground meat, go to Taco Bell and get a 99 cent taco. If you’re an adult, get some fat in there; try using the flesh of a different animal, or even better, a few animals. How about a combination of veal and pork? Some of the most traditional recipes also start with rendering off some cubes of pancetta to add richness and lend that porky je ne sais quoi to the sauce.
When cooking the meat, you’re looking for brown not grey. To get this, all the water has to be cooked off and the meat needs to brown in its own fat—it’s called the Malliard effect. You may have to do this in batches. You cannot add raw meat to a hot sauce, nor can you only partially cook the meat before you start adding liquid. The meat must be cooked on its own accord and cooked until brown. That takes time. I repeat: this is not a quick sauce. Once ground meat has been browned it is dry and firm, remove it with a slotted spoon and set aside, drain some of the fat away and then saute a pulverised paste of stock vegetables called a suffritto (say a whole large onion, two cloves of garlic, a stick of celery and half a carrot whizzed in a food processor with a few glugs of olive oil). Once the suffritto has cooked down a bit, add some tomato paste and cook the rawness off of that. Then add your meat back in and deglaze the now blackened and gnarly bottom of your cooking vessel with vino. That meat is deliciously brown, but dry and tough. It needs to absorb some kind of liquid and tenderize slowly over the course of at least two to three hours if not more. Some of the traditional sauces call for milk (or at least a portion of milk in combination with other liquids). I’m not partial to that personally. The milk naturally separates into curds and whey. I’m too immature to deal with that, but I see the logic. You’ve already deglazed with wine, so that is part of the liquid equation. Tomato tends to fulfil the remainder of the role. Tomato is actually a controversial ingredient. Some cooks in Bologna would never dream of adding any tomato, only meat, vegetables and wine. While others will settle for a little tomato paste, cooked out with the suffritto. I am partial to the sweetness and acid of the tomatoes and go whole hog with them. That’s my personal preference – perhaps an indicator of my Anglo-Canadian background. I won’t apologize for the tomatoes. As long as the sauce is given time, love and proper balance, tomatoes can be a welcome addition to the party. Oregano and bay leaves are the obvious herbs in my mind, and plenty (and I mean plenty) of salt and pepper are required. I sauté button mushrooms separately until they have given up most of their water and then add them in at the end.
As for pasta, in my case, I dusted off my pasta machine and banged up a few servings of scratch tagliatelle because that’s how I roll. If you don’t have a pasta machine (or the time), You can easily find excellent dried pasta which is likely even better than my novice fresh pasta making. One other point about pasta: a pinch of salt in the boiling water isn’t enough. You need to tilt your salt bowl over and literally pour a handful’s worth in there. A very large pot of water requires a lot of salt to make it taste of the Mediterranean. Once al dente, introduce the pasta to the sauce: drop it in while still dripping with the starchy cooking water. Let them warm up together in the pan over a low heat. The thick ragu will emulsify with the salty starchy water and beautifully coat your glossy ribbons of pasta. Serve hot without delay. Toss on some flat leaf parsley and grating of good proper Parmigiano Reggiano at the table.
The final result was delicious and hearty, but not quite…there yet. As much work as this dish was for me to pull together, I still think the recipe needs development. I’ll keep trying it, but there is the distinct possibility that what I am seeking does not actually exist. To wit, famous food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall once wrote of his travels to North Africa. He was hoping to finally experience a real lamb tagine – a dish he had been banging about in his kitchen for years but never got it to his exacting satisfaction. His hope was that he would find the answer by eating the real deal. He was wrong. Though good, the authentic tagines of North Africa still did not tickle the right part of his brain – it simply wasn’t what he was looking for. He concluded that the perfect tagine, as his mind’s eye imagined it, simply didn’t exist.
Perhaps if I ever visit Bologna, the same fate awaits me—an existential thought. I dare not try.