Ragú alla Bolognese is, as you may know, the prince of spaghetti sauce. There are as many variations as there are Italians. Maybe more. The basic method is pretty straightforward: sauté the aromatic vegetables, add ground meat and cook, add wine and cook down, add milk and cook down, add tomatoes and cook down. The biggest pain in the ass is chopping all the vegetables small enough. There’s a bunch of recipes on the internet, and in nearly every book ever written on Italian cookery. But here’s the truth: If there’s a million variations, and they all taste pretty good, we don’t really need a recipe.
I form the base (the soffritto) of mine with carrots, onion, celery, garlic and some kind of cured pork product. Whatever works. Bacon is fine but adds a smokey flavor that no one is going to describe as “authentic,” whatever that means. Equally cheap and available is salt pork, which is essentially unsmoked bacon, but it lacks complexity. Most recipes call for pancetta, which is expensive. Aged ham (prosciutto, serrano, Virginia, etc…) trimmings would be great. If I had my druthers (and if you see my druthers, please return them) I would always use guanciale, cured jowl. The point is this: authenticity can be translated many ways and although most cookbook authors and fancy chefs insist that you go to great cost and extravagance to obtain precisely the product that the native speakers of the culinary language would use—there’s little chance that you would see an Italian grandmother spending $15 or $20 a pound on cured pork.
Then I add ground beef and pork and brown that. Many recipes call only for beef, and that’s fine too, but I have a lot of pork around (a cuisine born of necessity.) Paul Bertolli recommends repeated browning of the beef, adding stock periodically to stop the browning process and release the bits from the bottom of the pan, a technique called insaporire. A good idea, but I don’t even use stock, although wine or water would accomplish some of the same result. Just don’t let a lack of beef stock stop you from making it. I do add wine, usually a crisp, acidic white, sometimes mixed with a little red, and cook that down by about half. Don’t come on here and tell me that red wine is for red meats and vice versa. You are fucking wrong—you’ve been doing it wrong your whole life.
Then I add chicken livers chopped fine and mixed with milk, and cook that down by about half again. If organs make you squeamish, your loss. Some authorities, including those at the L’Accademia Italiana della Cucina (I love it when Europeans don’t realize their being classist and exclusive) in Italy, who apparently make the rules for how food gets cooked there (what is it with Europeans and their endless codification?,) use cream. I find that too rich. Then I add tomatoes, either fresh peeled or canned. Fresh peeled tomatoes are rarely going to be as intense as canned and will probably want a little tomato paste. Seems a crime, but that’s how it goes. I usually add a couple of bay leaves and some crushed red pepper as well, but I seem to be alone in that preference.
Ragu takes a couple of hours to cook down to its requisite thickness. It should be thick. It should be a gestalt. Ideally, you want to serve this on fresh papardelle. Alternatively, I put it on spaghetti and top it with diced raw yellow onion, boiled kidney beans and shredded cheddar cheese, Cincinnati style. I call that one the Ohio Guido.
That all that tedious chopping at the beginning is entirely unnecessary. See, I took all those vegetables and meat and bacon and threw it all together in my Tor-Rey meat grinder and put it through the quarter inch (coarse) die, combining three steps into one. I kind of think of it like a Bolognese sausage. Some jerkoff chef type will certainly get in a huff about that, but you know why that is; it’s because he gets paid to chop vegetables by hand. Let’s face it, after you spend nearly three hours cooking all this meat and vegetables together, no one is going to be able to appreciate the super fine 1/16th by 1/16th inch dice you put on all those vegetables. Likewise, browning all that meat is going to give the vegetables plenty of time to sauté. I kind of suspect that this method is better since it physically combines the various components of the base before cooking.
You’re still looking for a recipe? Okay, I used about 3 pounds of beef to 2 pounds of pork, a pound of bacon and 2 pounds of soffritto vegetables. The vegetables should be comprised of about half onion, a third or so carrot and rather less celery (I often wonder if celery is even necessary or good.) I ground all that together and put half of it in the freezer for the next time I want to eat Bolognese. To my four pounds of bolo sausage I added probably two glasses of wine and two fine chopped chicken livers in about a cup and a half of milk. Come to think of it, you could probably just put those livers through the grinder.
A Try a quart and a half of tomatoes, two tablespoons of paste, two bay leaves, a pinch of red pepper flake and salt and pepper are all it prolly needs. If you wanted it more tomatoey, not at all authentic but good nonetheless, you could add some of the tomato later in the cooking process so that it retains its bite and sweetness and vegetal deliciousness.
So get yourself a meat grinder. It don’t heave to be all fancy like mine. They got decent-seeming hand crank ones over on Amazon for about 60 bucks. Likewise, the Kitchen Aid attachment is under 50. As a bonus, you can then make your own sausages, which will be the subject of an upcoming post wherein I strip a pig’s head of it’s flesh and turn that into pickles. Delicious.
Update: I originally stated that a quart of tomatoes was good enough. I was wrong.