It’s Not Your Mama’s Pasta Sauce.    Permalink

January 23rd, 2013

Northern Italy is the source of most of the food that English-speakers consider “Italian”. Sure, the Southern dishes evoke “Italianess”, but a plate of summer squash, bell peppers and olive oil with grilled fish could just as easily be identified as Greek, French or Spanish.

No, the hearty, pasta and tomatoes image is generally the first thing that pops into our heads. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, China gets slapped with General Tso’s chicken, Mexico gets thought of as Tacos and Italy gets pasta-with-a-red-sauce. There’s some basis in the stereotypes, truth be told. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that even the stereotyped dishes don’t compare to the originals.

Bolognaise Sauce

As a kid, this was the name that I believed belonged to tomato sauce with ground beef in it, generally eaten on spaghetti; sometimes used in lasagne.

For my mother, this meant browning some ground beef, perhaps with a little extra onion, and then adding it to a can of Hunt’s Thick and Rich (Zesty!). Et voila! Bolognaise Sauce!

In the UK, this tomato-sauce-and-beef-with-spaghetti idea is so ubiquitous, its name has been truncated to simply “Spag Bol”.

But quite honestly, the idea of “Spaghetti Bolognaise” in Italy is likely to be met with a nice big WTF?!-face. During the 1970’s Italian food had a bit of a fine-dining boom around the English speaking world, and Bolognaise was part of that. It was such a problem that in 1982 the Culinary Academy of Italy released an “official” recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese. The Academy claims it spent 38 years consulting with the region of Bologna to define it, but its timing of release is suspect. I wholeheartedly believe they saw what was happening to Italian food in the Anglo world and felt deeply insulted, causing the need for an “official” recipe.

As with many Italian dishes, a recipe is only a basis; there are micro-regional differences that also define a standard. But what they defined bears far more resemblance to a stew than any tomato sauce I’ve ever seen. It’s not a tomato sauce with meat. It’s a meat sauce with a bit of tomato. In fact, ingredient-wise, it’s remarkably close to classic stew dishes like Coq-au-Vin and Beouf Bourguignon, differing by only a few ingredients.

In fact, let’s make a comparison, shall we? For the sake of ease, I’ve compiled the common ingredients found in a bunch of Bolognese recipes. I’ll table it up with Boeuf Bourguignon and I’ll include the official recipe too:

Boeuf Bourguignon Ragù Bolognese “Official” Bolognese Recipe
Beef
Veal No Sometimes No
Cured Pork Belly Lardons Pancetta Pancetta
Giblets No Sometimes No
Stock/Broth
Carrots
Onions
Celery (part of a bouquet garni)
Wine Red (Burgundy) White or Red White or Red
Mushrooms Never Never
Tomato Paste
Garlic Sometimes Sometimes No
Milk Never
Cream Never Rarely Optional, only if served
without pasta.
Herbs/Spices Rarely Never

Pretty close, no?

Some more coincidences? Both are considered stews. Even though other pasta sauces like Arrabiata, Puttanesca, Pomodoro, etc. are called “salsa” (Italian for “sauce”) or “sugo” (essentially, “gravy”), Bolognese is called a Ragù (“stew”). Both have origins as peasant food. The Burgundy region is close to France’s east border with Northern Italy. Both are also traditionally served with broad egg pastas.

To get into facetious-and-totally-irrelevant-but-look-coincidental-facts-territory, both are named after regions (or by proxy of a region’s wine), and both names have silent Gs in them. Oh, and the french word for stew? Ragoût (pronounced “ragoo”).

Some regional recipes include the use of poultry giblets (kidney, liver, etc.) to help thicken and flavour the dish. That practice has fallen mainly out of practice, and in my opinion would muddle the flavour with too much “gaminess”.

I have no doubt that there’s more than just similarity going on between Boeuf Bourguignon and Ragù alla Bolognese. At the very least, there’s likely some old Roman dish acting as an influential predecessor, like Coq-au-Vin.

The point of my tangent was to demonstrate that this is not a sauce, but a thick hearty stew. With many italian sauces, the pasta is the star and the sauce is just there to accent it. But with Ragù alla Bolognese, it is the star.

And like regional differences in recipes, I take my own little spin on the dish. I don’t use the veal or giblets (not uncommon), but I do use a good stewing meat instead of ground beef and I cut it myself.

Why no veal?

The subtleties of veal are kind of lost on this dish. It’s a stew based on intensification of flavours, and veal is mostly a less intense version of beef. Back in the days when cattle was slaughtered much later in their life and thus much “gamier”, younger beef might’ve been a better choice, but I don’t think veal adds any flavour to the party now. In a much “softer”, more delicate cream-based stew like Blanquette du Veau I say, “Oh hell yes”. But not this one.

In addition, part of the reason we prize veal is for its tenderness, but in a dish where hours of cooking in actuality puts the meat beyond well-done territory, tenderness is a moot point.

Why not ground beef?

There are several reasons. One, it’s easier to know what you’re getting. “Ground beef” has become a bit of a grocery store catch-all for beef trimmings and whatever’s left over. The meat can be flavourless or too lean, depending on where it comes from on the animal.

It’s also likely that prior to grocery stores and widespread commercial meat grinding, meat was cut by hand into small pieces (but not minced). It’s probably closer to traditional with stew beef.

Cutting your own also means you can take advantage of what’s on sale. The official recipe recommends ground skirt steak, but brisket, short rib, cheek, chuck, shank, oxtail; All make great cuts for this purpose. Brisket tends to go on sale after the winter holidays, so it’s what I used for these photos.

Stewing meat generally comes from cuts with a lot of connective tissue, and thus a lot of collagen. When that collagen cooks for long periods of time, it irreversibly turns into gelatin, which has the advantage of being a bit of a natural thickener and adds to an incredible mouthfeel. Once that is rendered out into the sauce, you end up with a glossy, fulfilling and thick-but-not-too-thick liquid for your stew.

NOTE: A trick restaurants often use with sauces or stews is putting a little additional powdered or sheet gelatin into the mix to give a better mouth feel. But don’t let them know I told you.

When the collagen breaks down and melts, the strands of meat it holds together begin to separate, creating space for sauce to “hide” between them; This is exactly what happens with pulled pork. With ground meats, this textural aspect is lost. Stewing beef ends up making the dish seem heartier, without losing moisture.

If you pick a good, flavourful cut, just try and trim most of the fat and any silverskin before using.

This ragù is traditionally created by layering flavours. Meats are browned separately, tomato paste, milk and wine are reduced or browned in successive order. There isn’t any quick way or trick to get around these steps. This makes for a time consuming, but ultimately flavourful stew.

NOTE: Ragù alla Bolognese is the basis for meat lasagnes in Northern Italy. In Southern Italy, lasagne is generally graced with a pure tomato sauce. If anyone tries to convince you that meat-in-a-tomato-sauce is traditional in a lasagne, they’re lying to you and should be slapped ‘cross the face. Multiple times.

NEVER SPAGHETTI

Bolognese is almost always served over a fresh egg-based tagliatelle, but with the added heartiness of the non-ground-meat variation, an extra-wide pappardelle works fabulously. I make a batch of pasta dough, roll it into sheets, then I hand-cut 2.5cm (1-inch) wide noodles. You don’t have to hand-roll your own pasta though. Buying pre-made fresh lasagne sheets and cutting them into noodles works just as well. Ragù alla Bolognese is never served over spaghetti, as it can’t hold a dense sauce like this. Spaghetti’s better suited to lighter sauces like (surprise!) tomato sauces. And hey, if you need a good recipe for a tomato sauce, clicky-clicky.

Ragu alla Bolognese

300g pancetta (bacon makes a good substitute in times of need), diced small
1kg stewing-friendly beef, cubed; smaller cubes will cook faster, aim for 1.5cm (2/3 inch) or smaller.
150g onion, diced small
150g celery, diced small
150g carrot, diced small
3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
600mL 2% (or higher) milk
1 bay leaf
35g tomato paste (preferrably a double or triple concentration variety)
500mL red or white wine
1L beef stock
1 pinch nutmeg

NOTE: You will notice almost no cooking times. There’s a reason for this; there’s too much variability in this dish. You can’t just say 5-7 minutes and expect to be accurate. But the great thing is, this stew holds really well at low temperature if you’re not yet ready to serve it. Just expect at least 3 hours from start to finish. More if you want to get the absolute most out of it.

1. In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, render the pancetta until crispy. Drain, set aside and reserve fat in a separate glass or metal bowl. Put the pan back on and turn the burner to high.

2. In small batches covering no more than 50% of the surface area of the bottom of the pan, sear the stew meat in some of the rendered pork fat, turning the cubes as necessary. You don’t have to worry too much about over-browning the meat, as long as it’s not black or getting close to black, it’s great. Remove the cubes into a separate bowl and deglaze the pan with a little water after every batch. Add that liquid to the bowl with the meat.

3. After all the meat is browned, reduce the heat to medium-low and sweat off the onions, carrots and celery in additional rendered pork fat, or some butter or light olive oil, if necessary. You want them to be soft and the onions translucent. When softened, add garlic and stir for about a minute.

The flavour-layering process begins.

4. Add the tomato paste to softened vegetables. Cook it over medium heat until the tomato paste begins to brown. This helps sweeten the tomato and creates more umami through Maillard reactions. This excellently compliments the beef, adds some bright acid, fresh flavour an adds to the overall umami.

5. Toss in the wine, and reduce this to “au sec” as well. The wine will help bring out the alcohol-soluble flavour components of the tomato paste, and reducing to au sec will cause most of the alcohol to evaporate off. The wine adds additional acid to balance out richness, and helps round out the flavours.

6. Add the milk, stirring constantly and reduce the milk down to “au sec” (dry). Essentially, reduce it down until there’s very little liquid left in the pan. This cooks and lightly browns the milk, creating additional Maillard-reaction flavours. This milk will add caramel and butter notes.

If steps 4-6 were ignored and the milk, wine and tomato paste were just tossed into the broth, the resulting liquid would have no way of getting those additional maillard notes or and would have a poor release of the alcohol-soluble compounds. Now, that’s not to say that a reasonable facsimile of a Bolognese wouldn’t be made, but that it wouldn’t have the same depth of flavour.

7. When the milk has been taken to au sec, add the broth, meats, nutmeg, bay leaf and simmer until the meat begins to fall apart (at least 2 hours, more is preferable). Generally, to break apart the meat, I aid the process with a potato masher or a pair of forks. Add water or additional stock as needed.

8. Depending on how thick you want the stew, continue reducing the liquid until the desired consistency. In my case, I like it thick and hearty.

9. Check the seasoning and adjust, remove the bay leaf and serve hot over broad egg pasta. Top with shaved Parmiggiana Reggiano or Grana Padano. Though I’ve recently taken to preferring Pecorino Crotonese (a hard, slightly gamey sheeps-milk cheese) as my go-to pasta topper. I’m sure there are some Italians who’d have my head for suggesting a southern cheese be paired with a northern dish, but I will say that it works nicely, and offers a change of pace from the ubiquitous “parmesan”.

Serves 6-8, or 4 plus extra for the freezer.

Obviously, this isn’t a dish you can make every night. But it does make a great sunday dinner. In addition, it freezes really well, so larger batches can be made and portioned off for freezing.

It’d be nice if there were some kind of trick that could be applied to speed the process up, but generally the things that take the longest have the best rewards, and if you’ve only ever had meat-in-a-tomato-sauce, Ragù alla Bolognese will blow your mind. Maybe just enough to recognize the value of taking the time to make it right.

Okay, so here’s where I usually end a post, but I just can’t do it.

I lied. There is a trick.

A pressure cooker would dramatically cut short the cooking time of the final stew, down to probably about ⅓ of the simmering time of the regular version. You’ll need a good quality pressure cooker though. Nothing cheap, or made of aluminum (stainless steel, FTW!) and one capable of 15 psi of pressure. You’ll need to triple the amount of onion, as food scientist extraordinaire/International Culinary Center instructor Dave Arnold‘s experiments have shown that onion flavour is muted by pressure cooking, and I trust his geekery over mine any day. You’ll also need to reduce the amount of stock to at least half (reduction is almost non-existent in a pressure cooker). The additional pressure might increase the chances of the milk and tomato paste caramelizing and going through the same chemical changes, but the amount of total liquid is likely to negate that, so you’ll still probably need to go through all the steps up to 7 before putting the cap on the cooker.

Using a pressure cooker as a shortcut will definitely cut some time off the final tally, but in all honestly the only portion that gets cut short is the portion that can be almost entirely unattended. That’s time you’re likely to be doing other stuff anyhow. Start the ragù earlier, and take the time to make your own pasta while it’s simmering, or just watch TV. It’s up to you, but sometimes you just need to take the time.

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