My friends often endearingly call me their “Nonna” because Italian is my cuisine of choice when entertaining. I proudly wear this title because it underlies the outpouring of love from my heart that goes into the food that I provide my guests, as a grandmother would when her grandchildren come to visit her.
The story of me and Italian food is a very similar one to that of me and tacos (see previous post). I never liked Italian food growing up in Canada because as far as I knew, “Italian food” was East Side Marios. I never understood what the big deal was. Pizza was Little Caesars. Mediocre at best. It was not typical of my family to dine out in western restaurants (or at all for that matter), so I had never experienced good Italian cuisine. That is—until I went to Italy.
My three-month trip to Europe during the summer of my first year in medical school changed my life in more ways than I can count. Most notably, though, I learned that I have been living a god damn lie my whole life. Why couldn’t the Italian food being served in alleged Italian food establishments actually be Italian food? I can’t remember eating anything in Italy that was not fucking amazing, and I have been there three times now. I am definitely not the first to fall completely in love with Italy at first visit, and that’s for a reason. Their food is the result of a longstanding culture of gastronomy and the good fortune of a fertile land and the surrounding warm ocean. The food, in general, is uncomplicated from a technical standpoint yet the flavours are vibrant due to their use of fresh, local ingredients.
This is my rendition of ragù alla Bolognese, after having read and tried many recipes. There appears to be various iterations of the “authentic” recipe, and mine probably will make nonnas in Bologna turn in their graves. I am a little nervous about publishing a recipe for such a well-known, traditional dish as a home cook with no authority on Italian cuisine whatsoever. But I simply haven’t found the perfect one online that I would not change a single thing about. So I wrote my own. This is an excellent choice for entertaining guests with some good red wine.
Keep scrolling for the full recipe. I have made some more detailed notes to follow for those of you who like to read.
Known as the “Holy Trinity,” soffritto is a vegetable flavour base upon which to build the rest of the dish. Most commonly, a 1:1:1 ratio of celery, carrot, and onion is used. In French, this is called mirepoix. I like to dice into cubes between 5 and 10 mm. In this dish, like most dishes with meat, the meat will be browned first in fats (olive oil and butter) and then the soffritto will be sautéed in the resulting olive oil-butter-beef fat-pork fat amalgamation.
While not likely to be part of the official recipe safeguarded in Bologna reported to exist, I really like the depth of umami flavour that the broth of porcini mushrooms imparts to this dish. It can be forgone, however, if unable to attain. Just substitute the broth with more wine or chicken/beef broth. I get mine from a little family-owned shop in Kingston called Pasta Genova, along with every Italian specialty ingredient I need. Support your local businesses!
Browning the Meat
OK, this is very important: the meat must be browned. I’ve read some recipes from reputable sources instruct cooking the meat “until no longer pink” and I almost had a heart attack. This is not how you treat your well-earned meat. If you’re a huge nerd like me, you can read about the science of the Maillard reaction (responsible for browning meat) here.
For ground meats like the ones used in this recipe, you might be surprised to find that a lot of water comes out when you add the meat to the pot. When I first started cooking, this stressed me out a lot because I knew I had to brown the meat but it simply would refuse to happen when there’s water present. I wish someone had told me that you just have to boil the water off first and not worry about “overcooking” the meat—it’s not steak and it’s going to be cooked for another few hours anyway. Crank that heat up and let the water cook off, leaving behind the gorgeous fats in the pot to crackle away and trigger that Maillard reaction left, right, and centre.
Despite the popularized North American version of “spaghetti Bolognese,” authentic ragù alla Bolognese is a predominantly meat sauce rather than a tomato sauce. This is why I use concentrated tomato paste as opposed to whole tomatoes or tomato purée, as some recipes call for, so that the tomato flavour seeps into the meat without being a saucy entity in and of itself. When stirred into the pasta, your pasta should be coated in oils with the reddish essence of tomato, rather than a tomato sauce. It’s beautiful.
I am an ardent believer of the saying “Only use wine for cooking that you would drink.” Cheap wine equals cheap dish (I’ve learned my lesson). I host fairly regularly, and people often leave their bottles of leftover wine which I reserve for cooking later (if it’s good wine—cheap wine goes down the drain). When I tested this recipe today, I used a bit of Italian red and a bit of French red. Is that blasphemy? Most likely.
Ragù alla Bolognese is best served with a wide, flat noodle, like tagliatelle or pappardelle. Last week, I made pasta using my hands for the very first time. Today, I made fresh pappardelle by hand (rolling, cutting and all!) and the results were phenomenal. Dry pasta is good, but fresh homemade pasta is a completely different beast. It requires no fancy equipment, only time, triceps strength, and some curiosity. Highly recommend making your own pasta!
I used this recipe from Buzzfeed twice and both times turned out swimmingly. I also tried another recipe (from a source that I thought was more highly regarded than Buzzfeed), but it was a complete disaster and I had to throw out the dough and run to get another bag of “00” flour from Pasta Genova and start all over again. It was stressful times. I will be sticking to the Buzzfeed recipe for all of my future pasta endeavours.
If you decide to go with dry pasta, be sure to buy a good quality brand because the vehicle must match the sauce in magnificence. Personally, I prefer De Cecco (Kingston: at Loblaws) or Rustichella d’Abruzzo (Panchancho Bakery).
This recipe calls for a Dutch oven (or cocotte, same thing). If you don’t have one, and you are serious about cooking, I highly suggest that you invest in one. Trust me on this. But this recipe can be done without: do the steps up to number 9 in a large stock pot and then either simmer on low covered or transfer the contents to a slow cooker and cook on high for 3 to 4 hours. The key to ragù alla Bolognese is the slow-and-low cooking for a long time. Do not trust anyone who says it’s quick to make because it’s not.
Full Recipe: Ragù alla Bolognese with Pappardelle
Serves 6 as mains
20g dried porcini mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 cup water, boiled
2 medium carrots, diced (~1 cup)
2 sticks celery, diced (~1 cup)
1 medium yellow onion, diced (~1 cup)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
70g pancetta, diced
500g medium ground beef (do not go lean here, fat is your friend)
500g pork sausages, casings removed
1 can (156mL) concentrated tomato paste
1/2 bottle (375mL) good dry red wine
5 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tsp dried oregano
salt, to taste
150g/serving of fresh pappardelle, cooked in salted water for 2-3 minutes, then drained
If using dry pasta, follow instructions on package to achieve al dente pasta
Heaps of Parmagiano Reggiano, grated on a microplane or fine cheese grater
- Make the mushroom broth: place the dried porcini mushrooms in a heat proof bowl and add the 1 cup of boiled water and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 250°F.
- Prepare the soffritto: dice equal parts carrot, celery, and onion and combine in a bowl. Set aside.
- Heat a large Dutch oven to medium on stove top. Once hot, add the olive oil, butter, pancetta, and sauté for a minute. Then, add the beef and pork sausage and break up into small pieces using a straight-edged utensil and spread out on the bottom of the pot. Crank the heat up to high and let the water draw out of the meat and evaporate. Stir occasionally.
- When the water is all evaporated, you should start to hear the crackling sputter of oil. Turn the heat down to medium and brown the meat on all surfaces, stirring only occasionally. If stirred too often, you won’t get that nice browning.
- Once the meat is nice and mouthwateringly browned, use a slotted spoon to temporarily remove the meat into a bowl to set aside, leaving the oils behind.
- Add the soffritto, porcini mushrooms (removed from broth) and sauté until onions are translucent, 4-5 minutes. Then add the tomato paste and sauté for another minute.
- Add the meat back into the pot. Then, dump that 1/2 bottle of wine, turn the heat back up to high, and deglaze the pot by scraping off all the stuck-on bits of flavour bombs at the bottom. Add the mushroom broth, thyme, and oregano. Bring to a boil, stirring often. The sauce should be moderately thick and will continue to thicken in the oven. If too watery, simmer on the stovetop on low until thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper at this point.
- Close the lid of the Dutch oven and place it in centre position in the oven. I like to put the lid on a slight tilt to allow for a small opening for steam to escape. Cook for 3 to 4 hours.
- Remove the thyme stems. Serve over your cooked pasta and top with plenty of Parmagiano Reggiano and cracked pepper.