The Big Bolognese

Sometimes I have an urge to spend a few hours in the kitchen with something big simmering gently on the stove. When I do, I often turn to the Bolognese Meat Sauce from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  As you can see in my copy, p.204-5 is where the book has split into 2 pieces, from overuse.

Although it’s not overuse. Because anyone who tastes this incredible (and time intensive) sauce will kiss the ground you walk on.  So it’s worth it.

What is it about this sauce?  Is it because I spent a semester in Rome as a student? Or the memory of my mom’s big spaghetti night? My grandfather’s garlic bread? I think its a little of all those things.  I really like that this is an “authentic” recipe. The meat is gently simmered in milk before the wine is added and then it all has to evaporate before adding the tomatoes.  Only then can the three hour marathon of true simmering begin.  Gauging the heat carefully so that there are several seconds between the bubbles breaking through the surface of the sauce allows the sauce to reduce slowly and maintains the utter tenderness of the meat. The result is nothing like the typical American recipe, those chewy bits of ground beef and soupy-sauce tomatoes drowning long strands of spaghetti. This Marcella Bolognese is the essence of something. I am not sure exactly what.

As Marcella writes “There is no more perfect union in all gastronomy than the marriage of Bolognese ragu with homemade Bolognese tagliatelle.”  Wow.  It’s hard to mess with that.  But I do – mess with that. Despite the fact that I love the long involved traditional process, I serve this sauce American style. The accompaniments are always the same: a big mixed salad and garlic bread made by slathering a split French batard with melted butter and minced garlic and tossing it, wrapped in foil into the oven.  I wouldn’t serve it with spaghetti though, the way my parents (and everybody else) did in the 70’s.  I like a short tube or trumpet shaped pasta that cradles the sauce. And I don’t use parmesan from a green cylindrical shaker.  A real reggiano parmesan is the only way to go.

And so what if the sauce takes 4 hours. While the sauce bubbled away on the stove, I put the little guy to bed, folded a load of laundry, started a book that I’d gotten for Christmas and fell asleep on the couch with Max, my cat. When I woke up, there was the scent of dinner: very homey and purely delicious. January is way too gloomy in Seattle. Making bolognese all afternoon is the perfect antidote. Initially there is some minor chopping. MINOR. A carrot, some celery, a little yellow onion. Everything else is pour, mash, stir.  No big deal.  And the simmering part is easy. You don’t have to stand there. If your kids don’t think you walk on water for making this incredible meal, that’s ok. You just open a nice Montepulciano,  pour yourself a glass and revel in a job well done.

Saturday Menu

(I won’t lie to you, this menu takes minimum of 4 hours start to finish.  However – there are 3 hours of downtime!)

  • Cavatappi with Bolognese Meat Sauce
  • Green Salad Vinaigrette
  • Garlic Bread
  • Mint Chip Ice Cream with Chocolate Sauce.

Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Meat Sauce and a few pointers

  • I always double the recipe so I can freeze half, but I am reproducing it here in the proportion for 1 – 1 1/4 pounds of pasta.  This makes very slightly more than the original recipe.  Still, you might find that this makes less sauce than you are used to eating with pasta.  In Italy they think of sauce as something more akin to a condiment.  When you serve, put a tablespoon of butter on the hot pasta before adding the sauce.  Dust each plate with freshly grated Parmesan.  It makes all the difference – you won’t miss the pasta taking a overly deep bath in sauce.
  • Use an enamel pot, such as Le Creuset or Lodge for even heat and slow, slow simmer.   I use a wide, fairly shallow one.
  • Add salt as soon as you add the meat to extract the most flavor.
  • This is NOT the time for a lean cut of meat.  Ground chuck is what you want.
  • Cook, uncovered, at a bare simmer for at least three hours.  I mean one bubble, wait several seconds, another bubble, and so on.
  • For speed I would do all chopping in the food processor – pulsing  – so as not to overdo it

This makes 2 heaping cups of sauce.  Marcella says for 1 1/2 pounds of pasta.  I usually make a generous pound.

  • 1 tbsp mild olive oil
  • 3 tbsp butter plus 1 for tossing with the pasta
  • 1/2 cup onion (I use 1/2 of one 3″ in diameter)
  • 2/3 cup celery (I use 2-3 stalks)
  • 2/3 cup carrots ( I use 1 large)
  • 1 pound of ground chuck (if you like, use 1/3 pork; I do.)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • Freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 28 ounce can whole Italian plum tomatoes, drained of juice then chopped
  • 1 1/4 pounds dry pasta (or if you are ambitious – homemade fresh tagliatelle)
  • Freshly grated parmesan at the table.
  1. Put the oil, butter and chopped onion in the pot and turn on the heat to medium.  Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent – I do 8-10 minutes.  Then add chopped carrot and celery.  Cook for two more minutes, stirring to coat them with the oil and butter.
  2. Add the ground beef, a large pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper.  Crumble the meat with a wooden spoon, stir well and cook until no longer red.
  3. Add the milk and let it simmer gently, stirring until it has bubbled away completely.  There will be clear liquid left.  Add about an 1/8th teaspoon grated nutmeg.
  4. Add the wine, and simmer again until evaporated.
  5. Add the tomatoes and stir until thoroughly coated.  When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn down the heat to a very slow simmer – barely bubbling.  Cook this way for at least three hours.  You might have to add a little water to prevent sticking.  At the end there will be no liquid left, the fat will separate from the sauce.  Add salt to taste.
  6. Toss with cooked drained pasta, adding a tbsp of butter and serve with Parmesan.

Garlic Bread

Start 1/2 hour before you eat.

Preheat oven to 200F

  • 1 baguette or batard, cut into three pieces and split lengthwise
  • 2-3 fat cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 pound butter

Melt the butter and add the garlic and stir.  Paint onto the inside of the bread with a pastry brush. Wrap tightly in foil and pop in the oven until dinner time.

Green Salad Method

Start this just after you put the bread in the oven.

I am not going to give a recipe for this – but this is what I do:

I like 3 tbsp of spicy green olive oil and 1 – 1 1/2 tbsp of red wine vinegar, a generous pinch of salt and pepper tossing each ingredient separately and in that order on to freshly washed and torn lettuce, seeded and sliced cucumber, sliced red pepper, halved cherry tomatoes and grated carrots.  Some people might think this sounds like an institutional salad but if everything is very fresh and crunchy it is a good counterpoint to the melting richness of the sauce and pasta.

2 responses to “The Big Bolognese

Leave a Reply