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Sauce Bolognese

Serving suggestion: Rigatoni with Sauce Bolognese and freshly grated parmesan

I have this theory stewing in my mind of late that Italian cuisine is the most sophisticated and refined cuisine in the world. While the French perfected restaurant cooking, and the Chinese turned food preparation into an art form, Italians perfected food. Sauce Bolognese is Prima facie evidence of this.

Sauce Bolognese is a ragu, which pretty much means stewed meat sauce (despite what you may gather from reading the labels of that stuff you find in the supermarket, real ragu does not contain high fructose corn syrup). Over the past few years I've heard more and more chefs and food writers call the sauces that result from cooking dishes such as chicken cacciatore, or even beef stew, ragus. But with Sauce Bolognese the sauce is the point, not just a pleasant side effect. I like to call it the sixth mother sauce (the five mother sauces—sauces upon which all other sauces are based—as defined by the French—are Bechamel, Velouté, Hollandaise, Espagnole, Mayonnaise and Vinaigrette), Sauce Bolognese is the result of long cooking over low heat of meat, mirepoix, tomato, milk and wine. To this basic sauce you can add an infinite variety of ingredients—mushrooms, peppers, anchovies, garlic, spinach, just about anything you can find in your refrigerator—to come up with the sauce that's just perfect for whatever you're cooking. Best of all, unlike all the other mother sauces, Sauce Bolognese freezes very well, meaning you can make big batches ahead of time.

Recipe for Sauce Bolognese

Makes two quarts of sauce—enough for two pounds of pasta, or a couple of lasagnas

This is a basic recipe using only the essential ingredients necessary. It's not only OK, but it's almost required that you add other ingredients to make the sauce yours. For example, the recipe doesn't even include herbs. I usually add teaspoon or so of dried oregano and a bay leaf (at the start with the vegetables). You can also add sautéd mushrooms at the end, or some soaked dried mushrooms at about the same time you add the tomatoes. You get the idea—you can add anything you think tastes good.

With any meat, low and slow—low heat, slow cooking—always turns out well. Bolognese (any braise for that matter) works best in cast iron because it holds it's heat so well (the difference between low heat and cold is not that great). Because of the tomatoes, enameled cast iron is best (tomatoes = acid, acid + iron = yuck). The heat should be as low as the physics of your stove allows. If, like me, you use a good old fashioned stove purchased from one of your major retailers, you'll need some sort of flame tamer. You could buy one, or you could simply take some wide heavy duty aluminum foil, roll it up, shape it into a ring, and place it under your pot (thus raising the pot and lowering the heat).

You may also want to consider grinding your own meat. With all the concerns about E. coli and ground meat, if you grind your own meat you at least know that it's your fault if someone gets sick, and not the fault of some minimum wage high school drop-out that the supermarket hired.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons minced carrot
2 tablespoons minced celery
1 pound meat: 1/3 pound beef chuck, veal, pork (you can get this pre-ground or follow the directions below to grind your own with a food processor)
Salt
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes packed in juice, crushed or chopped (I'm mighty partial to the Muir Glen brand, and I crush them by simply squishing them in my hand over a bowl—a very satisfying experience and a great task for kids)

Directions

Grinding the Meat
  • First, if you have a meat grinder or grinder attachment for your stand mixer, go ahead and use that instead of a food processor. I don't have no grinders, but I find that a food processor works fine if you follow the pulse rule below.
  • Cut the meat into 1 inch chunks and place it into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade.
  • Process the meat in short 5 second bursts—10 bursts for every pound of meat or until the meat resembles, well, ground meat. The exact number of pulses really isn't important (and will vary depending on the amount of connective tissue in your meat). It is important that you don't just turn on the food processor and let it run lest you end up with meat purée. Basically, what starts out looking like this should end up looking like this.
Making the sauce
  • Heat your cast iron dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot over medium heat for three to five minutes.
  • Add the butter and onion, celery and carrot (plus any herbs you want to use) and cook until the vegetables are softened and just beginning to brown (about eight minutes).
  • Add the ground meat and a half teaspoon of salt and continue cooking using a silicone spatula or wooden spoon to break up the meat into small pieces.
  • When the meat is cooked to the extent that it no longer clumps together (about 5 minutes) add the milk. As you continue cooking over medium heat you'll see the milk break down and the solids separate out. Don't panic, as that's what you want to happen.
  • When the liquid has pretty much completely evaporated (as much as 20 minutes from the time you added the milk if the milk was straight from the refrigerator) add the wine and continue cooking until it's liquid has also evaporated (another 15 minutes or so).
  • Add the tomatoes and juice, reduce the heat as low as it will go and simmer uncovered for about three hours. The simmer here is very important and it's the same simmer as for stock with no more than a half dozen bubbles breaking the surface within any given minute.
Using Sauce Bolognese

Good Sauce Bolognese is very thick (you can almost stand a spoon in it) and very concentrated in flavor. It can be used straight in lasagnas, or thinned out with more crushed tomatoes and used as a pasta sauce. It can also serve as the base for a soup: Thin it out with chicken or veal stock, add some mushrooms and onions that have been sautéed in butter and a little sherry and shave a little parmesan on top. That, some crusty bread and big jammy red wine...mmmmmmmmmm.



Posted on Sep 28, 2002 @ 01:56 PM

Comments:


Jim:

After reading your article, I got to give this a try. I hope it comes out as good as you describe it.

Posted on Nov 18, 2002 @ 03:01 PM

John:

The March 23 Acrostic in the New York Times Magazine is taken from Mort Rosenblum's book "A Goose in Touloyse". It says: "A French Taco is usually lettuce, cheese, meaty bolognese sauce and a sweet tomato salsa piled onto a flat tortilla... how else chould you eat it... with a fork, which as any Frenchman can call you is the proper waay to do it." Thanks for the recipe on the key ingredient.

Posted on Mar 30, 2003 @ 03:40 PM


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