I usually prepare meals in 30 minutes or less. Admittedly, I tend to move at an organized but chaotic pace, often with three or more burners active, and focus on the respective cooking times of the meal’s elements, with the goal of allowing all elements to complete the cooking, resting, and serving complete at exactly the same time. Friends tell me I look a bit hectic, but that’s how I’ve always cooked. Very high heat with burning pants.
However, there are times when preparing a particular dish properly cannot be rushed. It is only through the slow passage of time that layers of flavor, mouthfeel, aromas and visuals can develop.
Ragu alla Bolognese is one of those dishes. This is a luxurious meat sauce that takes about four hours to cook properly. Thankfully, most of the time is spent in benevolent neglect while the flavors and textures come together.
Italian ragus are meat sauces. They are definitely not to be confused with tomato sauces, which contain meat as an ingredient. While some classic ragus contain tomatoes, the tomatoes only play a minor role as the focus is on the meat.
As you might expect, Ragu alla Bolognese hails from Bologna, Italy. It was first mentioned in a cookbook published around 1891, so the dish had clearly been prepared before. Its main ingredients are a combination of minced meat. Traditionally, equal parts pork, lamb, and beef were used. Some recipes also call for the addition of chicken livers, which have been liquefied in a blender and added at the later stages of cooking. Try that if you like. I’ve tried it and it’s not for me. Pancetta can also be used in the preparation of the sofrito, and we’ll talk more about that in a moment.
There is no recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese. Like all great dishes, every chef has their own take on the classic. Today we will focus on this ragu as prepared by Marcella Hazan. Marcella Hazan wrote classic Italian cookbooks published in English. She is credited with bringing classic Italian recipes to England and the United States. Her cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook, should be a must for any serious study of Italian food.
Most of today’s recipe came from her.
The recipe begins with making a sofrito. The sofrito consists of finely chopped onions, celery and carrots. If I’m feeling “cooky,” I do it by hand. When no one is looking, I use a food processor. The vegetables are sautéed with olive oil and about a quarter cup of finely diced pancetta. It is important that the vegetables are soft but not browned. After cooking, the sofrito is placed in a bowl.
I use 1 pound ground beef and 1 pound ground pork for this recipe. In the same pan you prepared the sofrito in, a few tablespoons of olive oil are added and the ground beef is added and cooked. It is important that the meat is crumbled to its smallest possible size. I find that a dough cutter does a great job.
Add the sofrito to the meat and add a few chopped garlic cloves. Add about a cup of whole milk and cook until the milk is almost completely gone. Now add about a cup of dry wine and simmer until evaporated. I usually use white wine for this, but you can use red wine as well. The important thing is that the wine is dry and not sweet.
Add one 28-ounce can of whole, seeded San Marzano tomatoes (that you finely chopped) along with their juices. I know it’s a pain but it’s so worth it. Now add about a cup of whole milk. Add a few bay leaves, some thyme and a small amount of nutmeg.
Once the dish has come to a boil, reduce the heat to the lowest simmer. Partially cover and simmer for about three hours. Check it regularly. You don’t want it to stick. If it starts to dry out, add about half a cup of water. For the final product, all the water should be evaporated.
Serve over a hearty pasta like tagliatelle with some freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano. Unfortunately, I watch my carbs, so the picture shows it being served over spiralized zucchini noodles. Well, at least the sauce is great.
Dennis Patillo is a dedicated foodie and chef. He has spent his entire life studying foods from around the world as well as regional cuisines. His passion is introducing people to ingredients and techniques that can be used in their home cooking. He and his wife Louise own The PumpHouse Riverside Restaurant and Bar.