Sometimes we just forget how good basics are, and this is why we have holidays, that give you the opportunity to review the classics. One year ago, roughly, I took my time to cook properly for the New Year’s Eve and made ragù alla napoletana, and sartù. This year I kept it even simpler: I made gulash and classic lasagne, with ragù alla bolognese. The original take on the famed bolognese sauce, yes. I came out with a new resolution: do more of this, the next year.
This sauce is a great asset. It can be ready in 45 minutes if using a pressure cooker, with about 10-15 of your active time and attention. It is actually better reheated, and it can be stored for a week in the fridge or for months in the freezer. You can heat it up for a 15-minutes pasta (if you cook tagliatelle, they are ready in less than five minutes and are perfect with it). You can use it for lasagne, together with a simple sauce bechamelle, or you can go creative and dress cooked vegetables to grill in the oven with it, a tasty, quick main. You can use the sauce with rice, and again either quickly brown the top in the oven, or make balls to fry and get arancini. You can even just heat it and eat it with bread, or fingers. Whichever way you use it, the sauce has a natural pairing with parmesan. I shall not forget how useful it is: there is a good reason why my mother, and most Italian families, always have some stored in the freezer.
All you need is good quality meat. Experiment with the amounts of fat and the types of meat until you find the greasiness you prefer. I tend to go for relatively low percentages of fat (around 10-15% possibly): I like the sauce to have no visible grease stains when it is cold, although this is not traditional. I find the flavour of carefully browned meat and vegetables, the acidity of the tomato sauce and the wine and the mellowness of the milk to be punchy enough, but other people like greasy sauces that will cover everything with a layer of reddish fat. Nothing wrong with this. I like to use a mixture of pork and beef, but you can go just for beef, even lean one, or explore poultry options if you are so inclined. Traditional additions are cubes of prosciutto crudo fat – good way to use any leftover if you bought a whole piece of it – or a bit of pancetta, non smoked. This gives a more pronounced meaty, porky flavour.
You add other flavours to complement the meat: onion, celery and carrot are the classic trio of Italian cooking. The recipe I give here is the traditional one, where they are minced and browned, but this is not strictly necessary. You can just mince the onion, and put whole carrot and celery to simmer with the sauce. They will give almost the same flavour with less work. A few other spices, used with a light hand, deepen the flavour: pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg, a clove or two.
The traditional tomato sauce to use for this is double concentrate, a very intense hued paste, thinned with water or stock. I like to add this with a mixture of pelati or passata. If you can find it, I find the Mutti brand very flavourful. You don’t need a fully bodied sauce here. The amount and denseness of the tomato is what makes the main difference between the napoletana and the bolognese: the texture here is given by the ground meat, there by the thick passata.
Other ingredients are red wine, although you can use white and nobody will notice. Just make sure you choose a dry wine, because any sweetness will be really out of place here. A slightly off wine bottle, which has gone a bit vinegary, is perfectly acceptable, on the other hand. And milk, just a dash at the end, makes the sauce creamy and adds in some sweetness for balance. Some people add cream. To me this is a huge mistake, but hey, rules are made to be broken.
Ragù Alla Bolognese
Ingredients (makes a considerable amount, around ten-twelve portions)
500 gr minced beef
500 gr minced pork
2 medium onions
1 medium carrot
1 celery stalk, with leaves if it has them
150 ml wine
2 bay leaves
150 ml tomato concentrate
1 can chopped tomatoes
olive oil for cooking
150 ml milk
salt, black pepper, nutmeg
Peel the onions and put them a few minutes in the freezer (this helps to prevent tears – my new favourite trick!). Chop the celery and scrubbed carrot (no need to peel) to even sized small cubes. It you have a mezzaluna, it is useful here. Take the onions out of the freezer. Cut and chop one and a half onion, and keep a half whole. Stick two cloves into it.
Heat a large heavy bottomed pan (pressure cooker is perfect). Put about a tablespoon of oil into it and allow it to warm. Put about a fourth of the meat, starting with the most greasy one first if using different varieties, and let it brown over high flame, stirring frequently. After a few minutes, when it is reasonably brown, take it out and repeat with other meat until you have browned it all. If you overcrowd the pan, the browning will not happen and the flavour will be affected.
Take off the meat, leaving any juices in the pan, and add the vegetables. Lower the heat and stir, until they are slightly soft and a bit brown as well. Put the meat back in the pot, increase the heat until everything is sizzling, and then add the wine. Mix well, letting the alcohol evaporate completely; then add in the bay leaves and the half onion, the tomato concentrate, the chopped tomatoes. Fill the can of chopped tomatoes with water and add this as well. Add some salt, pepper and nutmeg. Lower the heat and close the pressure cooker’s lid if using; otherwise just let it simmer on very low heat, covered, stirring occasionally. After about 30 minutes with the pressure cooker check the sauce. The meat will most probably be cooked but the sauce might be a bit watery. Allow the sauce to boil without lid until well concentrated – another 10 minutes. If you are not using a pressure cooker, just let it simmer until it is well thick and dense – this will probably take about two hours.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the milk, mix well and allow to simmer on very low flame for another 5 minutes. Before eating fish out the bay leaves, the half onion with the cloves (occasionally this melts as well and you’ll either have to fish manually for the cloves or live with the danger of eating them), and any whole vegetable like carrot or celery, if used.