Ragu Bolognese

I lived in Bologna, Italy for 7 months or so in college (“study abroad”), and I was, believe it or not, a vegetarian the entire time.  Bologna, if you didn’t know, has a few nicknames.  One is ‘Bologna, the red’ because it’s fully of commie college kids, and the other is ‘Bologna, the fat’ because of the food.  Bologna, in Emilia-Romagna, is near Modena (origin of balsamic vinegar) and Parma (origin of the ‘king of cheeses’) and in the historically fertile Po valley.

Italy was where I first started to get into cooking, which is so cliché, but true.  I think it was just part of the ‘having fun’ culture there, that you would start with aperitivo, continue to a home cooked meal with ingredients so fresh they were impossible to screw up, and lots of wine which was also wonderful and cheap, and then go out, taking some more wine or beer for the road.  Those were the days.  Anyway, of the many dishes Bologna is known for, ragu might be the most famous, and the one thing I could never enjoy while I was there.  To be honest, once you are vegetarian for a while, seeing someone chuck a few pounds of meat into a pot is kinda gross, so I wasn’t particularly unhappy.  The vegetables and fruit (and gelato) were more than enough to keep me sated.  And I did end up breaking my vegetarianism, when I went to visit a friend in Sicily over Easter, and his mother put down an entire fish in front of me for lunch, because not eating meat I guess means that you eat fish, right?  This fish was the second course of an average weekday sicilian meal, the first being a divine cauliflower pasta dish (to which I mistakenly added one single drop of vinegar, and my friend’s mother insisted that she make me a new dish (I refused, of course)).  The two lunches I had at her house were some of the best, most revelatory meals that I’ve ever had (discounting my own mother’s cooking, which is objectively the best in the world. :)).

Anyway, I digress.  To make up for the absence of ragu in my life thus far, I decided to make ragu for valentines day, because it seemed like an elaborate, valentines-y meal.  And if you don’t have an actual special someone, might as well make a nice meal for one.  :/

Ragu Bolognese

2 Tbsp unsalted butter

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onions, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
4-6 celery stalks, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 carrots, peeled, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1lb ground beef
1lb ground pork
1/4lb thinly sliced pancetta, finely chopped or ground
1/2 cup dry red wine
1-2 cups beef stock
6 Tbsp. tomato paste
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk
1 lb. tagliatelle, pappardelle, or fettuccine (preferably fresh egg)
Finely grated Parmesan (for serving)

Chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery, and carrots, or ‘mirepoix’ as it’s called.  I also threw in some garlic.  How long did it take you to dice all that up?  It took me 20 minutes!  I would never be able to compete on chopped, for that and many other reasons.  But I still have my fingers.  Anyway, sweat the mirepoix on medium heat for 8-10 minutes, or even more.  Just don’t brown any of it.  Keep it on a medium or medium low heat.

mirepoix

mirepoix

2. While that’s sweating, prepare the meat.  That sounds so sinister.  So here’s the deal: recipes for this ragu call for some combination of beef, pork and/or veal in varying amounts.  Some call for one pound total, some for two or more.  I decided that I did not want to use veal, even the ‘humane’ veal at whole foods, and so used 1lb beef and 1lb pork.  I think that’s about right, for making four to six portions.  You don’t want to be cooking for three hours just to make two portions!  That will only feed you and your valentine, or in my case me and me the next day.  You can always freeze it.

I decided to grind my own meat, because I’m fancy.  I bought pork shoulder (‘butt’) and beef shoulder (‘chuck’) and then of course the pancetta.  It’s a lot of meat.  Cut it into chunks.  As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been liking my new kitchen shears for this task, maybe because my knife blade is dull and my shears are new.  The key to this is that you have to divide this meat into maybe five batches and grind them in your food processor one at a time.

ragu bolognese

The resulting product is sticky and weird looking.  This is when you start to have doubts about this process.

ragu bolognese

yum

 In any case, wash your hands and all your equipment throughout this process, at least twenty times, because you are a hypochondriac.  A fancy hypochondriac.

3. Add beef, pork, and pancetta to the pot and saute for about 30 min over medium heat.  At this point in the process, I turned to Molto Mario for some advice

Apparently, boiling is not ideal here, at least not initially.  There will be a fair amount of moisture in the meat, and one should get that to cook off so the fat renders and sticks a little to the bottom of the pot.  I’m not sure I did this entirely, but you can easily let the meat cook slowly in this step for 30 min or more.

ragu bolognese

see, liquid

 

4.  Stir in tomato paste completely and continue to cook for another 15 min (or more).  Unlike some recipes, we aren’t using fresh or canned tomatoes here, so the tomato paste will have to provide all of the tomato-ness.  Hence, 6 tablespoons.  The paste will also absorb the remaining moisture and caramelize on it’s own as well.

5. Add (red) wine to deglaze, stirring and scraping up browned bits.

6.  Add one cup of stock and reduce heat to low.  Simmer, stirring occasionally for 1 hour.  Season with salt and papper.  Basically keep an eye on it.  If it seems a little too dry, add a little more stock.  I found that at this point that all of the moisture from the meat and the wine had not completely cooked off, so I held back on the stock.  I think I initially added only half a cup.  So I may have done more stewing/boiling than Mario would have liked.  If you were more successful, you might have a drier sauce at this point, and you might need more stock (btw, this is obviously not Mario Batali recipe, as he does not use any stock).

At this point you are realizing that you are not going to be eating for a little while.  You can pour a glass of the wine for yourself and your partner.  Pretend your partner is a ghost, but doesn’t realize that they are a ghost, and that, because they are a ghost, you don’t see them.  Only your son sees them.  Spoiler alert!

7.  Heat the milk for 15 seconds in the microwave (or bring to simmer in a separate pan, if you want to do more dishes later), and then add to sauce.  Raise the heat to get everything up to temperature and then drop again to medium low heat.  Again, gauge how much liquid you have and if you need more.  If you need more, just add more stock.  Simmer this for 45 minutes.  If you feel like you need to cook off some of this liquid, leave the lid to the pot off, otherwise, partially cover the pot with its lid.  Check seasoning and adjust You can make all this head of time.

ragu bolognese

8. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until 1 minute before al dente.

9. Heat a pan over medium and add some of your ragu until warm.  Using tongs, take the noodles out of the water and add them to the pan.  This way you get some of the pasta water with the noodles, which is starchy and helps the noodle absorb the sauce.  Add more ragu or pasta water until you get the right consistency.  Do all of this over medium or medium low heat so as to not overcook or burn anything.

ragu bolognese

10.  Serve with parmesean and parsley.

ragu bolognese

I don’t know if this is crazy, but this dish in some ways reminded of me of ramen!  You get the thick meatiness of the pork fat along with the carbiness of the noodles, and the cheese gives the whole dish even more of umami flavor.  This is not one of those dishes that seems healthy but is really not.  This dish tastes unhealthy and is; it also is delicious.

Though, not really valentines food.  A bit heavy, you know?  It’s more grandmotherly than romantic, ya know I mean?? 😉  Because I don’t.

 

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