There are a few dishes I've had that I fell in love with the first time I had them. The first time I ate sushi, I loved it immensely, despite my reticence to eating "raw" food. I remember eating a tamale when I was very young and thinking, "How does she make these sooo good?" I remember eating my mom's holiday-only cinnamon rolls made from leftover pie crust and regretting, with every bite, that I was closer to eating the last piece. And I remember sitting at Como Inn on the first Valentine's Day that I spent in Chicago, eating bite after bite of tagliatelle Bolognese and falling in love with the food and my date.
Como Inn closed several years ago, but my interest in bolognese sauce has continued strong since then. But it hasn't been satisfied. I've tried to make it at home, I've experimented with mushroom broth, I've tried different types of wine, I've tried adding heavy cream, I've tried using ground pork instead of ground beef. But despite my efforts, my hopeful taste buds ended up disappointed and my plate never emptied with the gusto of my first dish.
A week ago or so I went to a library near where I work and decided to just browse the cookbooks in the hopes of finding something interesting. When I came across The Classic Italian Cookbook written by Marcella Hazan in 1976 (not an antique, but not like the current cookbooks I've browsed) looking for this recipe to nirvana.
Bolognese Ragú is at least a 500-year-old recipe (the original didn't include tomatoes) that was created for the wedding of a Lord of Bologna in the late 1500s. The dish was such a success that it was repeated and requested from many guests. And it has remained a wildly popular dish, and a horribly made dish as well. When it is made well, it is heavenly. When it is not made well, it's rather boring and disappointing. I haven't been to Bologna in person to verify this, but my online research tells me to avoid any restaurant that has "Spaghetti Bolognese" listed in their window. Apparently tagliatelle or a wider noodle is what one would eat with a meat-based sauce, never spaghetti, and the sauce is called ragú in Bologna. I guess it's not the same thing as ordering a Chicago-style pizza in Chicago.
And it was only after I found Ms. Hazan's recipe that I discovered there is a recipe that has been copyrighted by the Italian Academy of Cuisine. (Of course they don't have a website translated into English.) The Italian Academy of Cuisine strives to keep traditional and historical recipes and cooking methods from disappearing. The regions of Italy have vastly different ingredients that are used as well as different cooking methods.
Marchella wrote her book before the academy copyrighted their recipe, but based on her recipes and comparing them to some of the "official" versions that I've found online, I think they would approve of many of her recipes and methods. The academy's recipe calls for minced raw beef and finely chopped, high-quality bacon, and tomato paste instead of chopped tomatoes. But I decided to follow Marcella's recipe which just calls for lean ground beef.
And the best part of this recipe, despite my fancy attempts with truffle oil, porcini mushroom stock and veal demi-glace, is that all of the ingredients for this recipe can be found in your local small grocery store, or even your large chain supermarket. Her recipe calls for a much smaller selection of vegetables than I had experimented with before.
Tagliatelle alla Bolognese
3 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 of a small yellow onion, chopped fine
1/2 of a carrot, chopped fine
1/2 of a celery stalk, chopped fine
3/4 pound of lean ground beef (ideally ground from the meat of the neck)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of dry white wine
1/2 cup of whole milk
1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
2 cups of chopped Italian tomatoes (canned is preferred to fresh)
Ideally you have an earthenware pot (pfft! right) but a heavy-bottomed stock pot or cast-iron dutch oven would also work. Place the pan over medium heat and add the butter and oil. Once the butter has melted, add the onion and stir constantly for about 1 minute. The onion should just be slightly translucent. Add the chopped celery and carrot and let it cook for 2 minutes. Add in the ground beef and stir it constantly for several minutes while the beef cooks. Once the meat is just slightly more brown than red, you're ready to turn the heat up to medium-high and add the wine. Leave it uncovered and simmering vigorously. It should take about 10 minutes for the wine to evaporate. Add the milk and the nutmeg and lower the heat to medium. Stir it constantly until it stops boiling vigorously. Stir it frequently for about 6-8 minutes, or until the milk evaporates. Add the tomatoes and reduce the heat as low as you can get it. You want it to bubble occasionally, but barely simmer. The lower you can get the heat, the longer you can simmer the meat, which will make it more tender. And texture is just as important with this dish as flavor. You'll want to be able to cook it for about 3-1/2 to 5 hours, or until all of the liquid has evaporated and you're left with a meaty, gravy-like sauce. Ideally you'll serve this over homemade fresh tagliatelle; realistically you'll find that a wider noodle is better suited to this sauce than the more typical spaghetti. Taste and add salt if necessary. I also suggest serving this with a tablespoon or so of freshly grated Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.
According to Marcella, there are three very important things to remember when making this sauce:
The meat must be sautéed just until it starts to lose the raw color. Cooking it too long will make the meat rubbery.
You must cook off all of the milk before adding the tomatoes which will make the meat sweeter and add a creamier texture.
It must be cooked at a very low simmer for a very long time. The minimum is 3-1/2 hours but the ideal is 5 hours. This sauce is essentially a stovetop braise, and braising is the perfect way to make cheap, tough cuts of meat tender.
Even if you don't have time to cook the sauce all at once, you can refrigerate it for a day or two. Return it to a warm pan and let it simmer solidly for 15 minutes before reducing the heat and letting it simmer slowly till finished. Once the sauce is finished, it will last in the refrigerator for five days, or in the freezer for up to two months.
I know that the amount of oil seems frighteningly high, but the long, slow simmer needs the extra fat. And while this dish isn't exactly something Weight Watchers will be including in their points system anytime soon, I think you'll find that it is tasty enough to justify appearing on your menu once or twice a year. Most importantly, to me at least, is that this dish comes so very close to the dish I fell in love with. I'm thrilled. I'll never again have to risk another disappointing dish of Bolognese at an Italian restaurant because I can make it myself.
And doing a happy food jig in front of my stove has maybe inspired me enough to follow more recipes. Marcella recommends serving this pasta (traditionally a very small amount of this would be served before the main course) with Sautéed Turkey Breast Fillets with Ham, Cheese and White Truffles, or with Stewed Rabbit in White Wine. Hmm, something tells me that I may just read those recipes and try them later. Mostly because I'm pretty sure I'll be chock full of the first course before I get to the second.