I posted awhile back about the who-what-where-when-why-how of hand-cranked homemade pasta. That’s all well and good, but what are you gonna put on the pasta? I’ll take care of that here. (Note: if you’re a vegetarian or adhere to a strict kosher diet, this post is not for you.)
Who, where, and when
I learned how to make this Bolognese Ragu sauce at a half-day class at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. We cooked a variety of dishes that day, including these squids that were flashy but weird, and a risotto that had so much butter in it, I couldn’t bear to watch. I threw myself into the Bolognese, because somebody had to: it’s supposed to cook for at least 4-5 hours, and we only had 2 hours, so it had to be reduced on high heat, which meant continuous—and fast—stirring for over an hour. I missed some other dishes, but that’s okay because the Bolognese was one of the better things we made. (There was a salmon dish that was also delicious when we were sneaking little tastes—okay, big hunks—of it, but by the time it was put in a steel tub, placed over a flame to stay warm, and eventually consumed, it was all dried out. That was the most important thing I learned from that cooking class, besides the Bolognese.)
Bolognese is pronounced “bowl-ug-NAY-zay” (according to my Italian chef/instructor at CCA). I’m torn as to telling you exactly what goes into this sauce. On the one hand, the CCA surely retains the intellectual property rights to the recipe. On the other hand, there are probably hundreds of recipes just like it all over the Internet; a cursory search just now turned up a recipe with almost exactly the same ingredients. The only difference in this random recipe I found is that it calls for vegetable oil, which—being a thinking person—you would instantly swap out for olive oil, making this recipe identical to the CCA one. So CCA couldn’t exactly call it a closely guarded secret.
That said, I will honor the implicit copyright their printed recipe holds—that is, I won’t scan in my hard copy—though this is a pity because it’s absolutely full of grammatical errors and repeated steps and other errors that make it comically hard to follow. Instead I’ll give you my own version, which I wrote out on the whiteboard at my brother’s house so his family and I could make it together.
Perhaps that recipe is from memory, because it’s incomplete. I forgot to list salt. How much salt? To taste. This is because this recipe doesn’t scale perfectly (which you should know because the quantities listed above are for a huge amount). Watch the salt if you scale up … I over-salted once. Distraught, I called my mom, who described the potato trick (cook a bunch of potato wedges in it to absorb the salt) and I was saved.
Onions are a crucial ingredient because the first thing they always do in a cooking class is teach you how to chop an onion. This is to impart the proper technique, of course, but also to trick the students into doing a lot of prep work for the CCA employees. (Why else would they have us chop 2 or 3 onions each?) The CCA doubles as a restaurant, you see. What an ingenious idea: it’s not just unpaid labor; people are actually paying to help the sous-chefs. Anyway, my printed recipe says “coarsely chopped” but “coarsely” is crossed out and “finely” written in. Whose intellectual property is this revision? I can’t remember.
A lot of butter is involved. But don’t worry, it’s completely offset, health-wise, by the extra virgin olive oil. Buy something expensive because cheap olive oil is sometimes stretched with other crap like hazelnut or sunflower-seed oil. (Checking the ingredients won’t help—this stretching is often done illegally. There was a whole exposé about it—click here.) Don’t worry about the cost … when you factor in how much time you’ll spend on this sauce, the financial outlay becomes irrelevant.
Naturally there are celery and carrots to complement the onion, completing the mirepoix trifecta. And then you’ve got your ground beef. Just look at the beef in the photo above. It’s beautiful. I always use grass-fed ground beef. Not only does it taste better, but it’s humane. Feedlots are like concentration camps for cows, and even in your nicer feedlots (like Neiman Ranch’s) the practice is cruel because the poor cows can’t properly digest grain. This leads to all kinds of misery and health problems. I buy high-end organic beef from local grass-fed cows who are “encouraged to socialize.” No joke. As a kid I was never encouraged to socialize—in fact I was discouraged from it by the dickheads on the playground—so these cows have arguably had a better life than I. Is grass-fed worth the money? Sure! Beef is bad for you, so it should be a treat, and our treats can and should be expensive, so we don’t get into the bad habit of enjoying them too frequently.
Is beef still bad for you when it’s cooked with good things like tomatoes and onions and carrots and celery? Well, yeah, when it’s also cooked in a lot of butter and oil. Look, this sauce is a solid at room temperature. It can’t be good for you. (But it’s good for your soul!)
Can you use buffalo instead of beef? Sure, I’ve done it and to good effect. And you don’t have to scrutinize the label because it’s a federal offense to give antibiotics to a buffalo. I know this sounds crazy, but I just fact-checked it on the Internet. In the process, I learned something else:
Isn’t it funny what people search on? Just think: countless people want to give people the finger, and they do it, but they also worry about getting arrested. God help us all. I also learned here that a) it’s illegal to give growth hormones to bison; b) it’s not actually illegal to give antibiotics to bison, but they’re not routinely used and “most major markets have strict protocols that call for verification that the animal wasn't treated with antibiotics”; c) bison aren’t really related to buffalo; and d) the stuff we call buffalo is actually bison so this distinction isn’t important.
Someone once told me not to use cheap wine for cooking, so I don’t. And use good, organic, whole milk and some freshly grated nutmeg (or what the hell, pre-ground Spice Islands, it probably doesn’t matter).
The whole, canned, peeled tomatoes you see above cost more, pound for pound, than commercial jarred spaghetti sauce—but they’re worth it. And of course there’s salt. Morton’s table salt? Fancy sea salt? Doesn’t matter which … just don’t settle on x quantity of table salt this time and then use x quantity of sea salt later—that would be a disaster. Sea salt is way saltier. Salt to taste, always to taste.
(What? No garlic? Nope! Weird, innit? And there are no other spices either. No oregano, no basil, none of that stuff that vegans feel compelled to throw in everything. The other ingredients are so darn good, you just don’t need anything else. Have I tinkered with this recipe by adding stuff? Nope. That would be like salting or sugaring a good Belgian ale.)
I’ll caution you again: a large batch this recipe takes half a day of basically continuous work. That is, it’s even more work than reading this blog post. So why would you take the trouble?
You take the trouble because it is: So. Dang. Good. An epicurean friend of mine, the first time I served this to him, chewed silently for a moment, staring off into space, seeming to deeply consider the matter of this sauce, before stating, “This is so good it’s making me angry.” And I got his point. Perhaps you will, too, once you’ve tasted it for yourself.
Moreover, if you’re going to make handmade pasta—which you really should do—you need to pair it with a suitably excellent sauce. Nothing in the grocery store will do (not even these crazy high-end sauces that are like $8 a jar). And let’s face it, that recipe you got from your friend’s mom isn’t bad, but isn’t anywhere near as good as what you’ll get in a fine Italian restaurant. And this Bolognese is better than what you’d get in most restaurants.
(I came to this wisdom only somewhat recently. As a teenager, I made hand-cranked pasta with my friends and brothers all the time, but we never did anything appropriate for sauce. Usually we just grabbed “the paint can,” which was our nickname for the gallon can of Ragu Old World Style we could buy at King Stoopid’s, our local grocery, for like $7. It looked and tasted about like tomato soup.)
The other reason to take the trouble is that this recipe isn’t actually that difficult. It’s not like some soufflé, or a perfectly poached egg, or anything you bake, where practice, skill, and finesse are required. Bolognese would be hard to screw up. If you put in the time and energy, it’ll come out great every time.
I mainly make this Bolognese when I have houseguests (especially family, since there are lots of nieces and nephews to whom I can outsource the endless task of stirring and simmering it), and every year I host a huge pasta party for my bike club. I like to think I’ve made a lot of people angry.
So here’s what you do. Get a very large pan or pot or a Dutch oven. Don’t use some cheap tinny thing because your sauce will scorch. (The stainless steel paella pan you’ll see in my photos has a copper core.) If you’re making a lot, use two vessels or you’ll be at the stove all day. Turn the flame to medium. Melt the butter in the oil. (You’ll be staring at a frightening amount of fat, perhaps more than you’ve ever seen in one place, but don’t kid yourself that restaurants don’t use just as much. That’s why their food is so good, and why you shouldn’t eat out too often.) Sauté the onion until it’s translucent. (No, you don’t have to hold it up to the light.) Add the celery and carrots, cook them a couple minutes, and then put in the beef. Add a little salt. Mash the beef around in there until it’s not so red, but not yet brown. Don’t ever brown meat! It should look just a bit more cooked than this:
Pour in the wine, turn up the flame to medium-high, and cook until the wine has pretty much evaporated. This will take a good while. And you have to stir it fairly often. It can seem kind of pointless, but it isn’t. While that cooks down, open your cans of tomatoes, measure out your milk, and add the nutmug to your milk. When the wine is mostly gone, you add the milk. Look at this photo … the wine isn’t completely gone, just mostly gone.
Ahh, look at how nice and opaque that milk is. Don’t use 2% or skim. Why would you? The whole idea here is packing as much fat as possible into a food that somehow isn’t greasy. That’s like alchemy. I grew up drinking powdered milk, which was so thin and weak it was translucent and almost had a blue tint to it. (But don’t use cream. There’s a limit to this fat-equals-flavor principle.) Now you cook this down again until most of the liquid has gone. Why not just add milk powder? Look, would you give that up already? There are no shortcuts! The point is that the meat cooks in the milk. This makes it really tender to where it will practically dissolve later, in the tomatoes. Think about it: this sauce cooks for like 5 or 6 hours … if you didn’t do this magical thing with the milk, the meat could get tough eventually.
When the milk is cooked off, you throw in your tomatoes, whole. You don’t have to pre-chop them or anything. Throw the juices in there too … even though that’ll make this thing a liquid all over again. Seems kind of futile, right? How every time you reduce the sauce, I tell you to add a bunch more liquid? Like you’re stuck on the wheel of life and can’t get off? Yeah, it’s true. At least you don’t have to go crazy mashing up the tomatoes. They’ll basically dissolve on their own over time.
From here, you’re just going to spend the next 4 hours or so reducing the sauce over low heat, stirring it frequently. Could you lower the heat to barely simmering and stir it less frequently? Sure, but it’ll have to cook for 5 or 6 hours. Your call. (If you make a smaller batch it won’t have to cook quite as long.)
I snapped the photo above at 4:48 p.m., which was two hours into the process. Note the timestamps, and the depth of the sauce in the pot, in the next 4 photos.
Salt this to taste toward the end. Err on the side of too little, since diners can always add more later, but don’t underdo it either because some people don’t understand about salting their food. I myself used to think salting food made it salty. It doesn’t, if you do it right … it just makes it tasty.
That last photo should show you what the Bolognese looks like when it’s done. Rule of thumb: when you drag your wooden spoon through it, the bottom of the pan should be visible for a second before the sauce oozes back down. It’s almost not a sauce at this point. It should be very, very thick. Thicker than chili. Lift up a blob of it on the spoon, tip it over, and it should tumble off the spoon. If it flows or pours down, it’s not sufficiently reduced yet.
Now, if you’re making a really large batch like this, you want to cool the leftover sauce down pretty quickly. I learned this from a friend who worked at Skyline Chili in Cincinnati. He said after they made a giant batch, they’d put a huge block of ice in the middle—“chilling it down”—so it wouldn’t hit that perfect temperature at which stuff starts to grow in it. Now, I’m not about to add fricking ice (i.e., water) to my Bolognese once I’ve finally got it nice and thick. So I spoon it into small glass containers to cool faster. (Don’t use plastic. The sauce is too hot, and besides, it’ll stain the plastic.) Throw these in the fridge with the tops loose so the steam can escape. Snap the tops down later.
So, how do you serve this sauce? Over handmade pasta, of course, though good commercial pasta like De Cecco is perfectly good as well. Now, you shouldn’t heap this sauce on there in the quantities of a normal marinara sauce. Bolognese is super-rich. Toss that pasta with extra virgin olive oil, and then add just enough Bolognese. Mix it around a bit on the plate, or dab into it, whatever, and you can always add a bit more sauce later if you were too stingy at first.
Don’t go serving a giant portion of this to a kid because he might not need that much, or (gasp) even want that much. Kids can be such little trolls, picking at really good food before getting distracted and wandering off, or demanding more garlic bread instead. It’s a crime wasting any of this glorious Bolognese, after all that work! Those damn kids! You know what I do? When I have my big pasta party, I start the evening with a giant batch of homemade mac ‘n’ cheese and let the philistine little runts get full on that! Save the Bolognese for the adults! (Note: my own children are an exception. They would never waste this glorious food. In fact, I sometimes worry they’ll join forces and attack me for my plate.)
And whatever you do, don’t use that horrible powdered parmesan, that comes in the green cardboard canister! And don’t use the pre-shredded stuff in the tub, either. Use a hunk of hard parmesan and grate it right over the pasta. I like to use a Microplane grater (look at the photo of the ingredients—it’s there on the right), which is really more like a zester, and shaves the cheese so finely it melts like snowflakes. Throw a little shredded Italian parsley on there too if you’ve got it.
Is there more to life than Bolognese? Well, yes, in fact, but that’s a whole other post.
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