When I was young, pasta came with one of two sauces: tomato or meat. Now, I can appreciate that there’s a lot more to “meat sauce” than I used to think there was, and anybody who has ever tried to pursue that perfect Bolognese sauce knows just what I mean. For instance, despite its appearance, tomato should not be a huge part of the sauce–a variety of meats, slowly braised and simmered, is the true star, giving this sauce a full body and an incredible complexity. Of course, no matter how you make it, it won’t be hard to find somebody else who does it completely differently. Ragù alla Bolognese is one of those personal, family tradition kind of sauces that has as many recipes as there are people on the planet at any given moment.
I was inspired by the insights into the history and approaches to this sauce, and couldn’t resist throwing my hat into the ring as well. Given how hearty this sauce is, you’ll want to enjoy it with a meal of substance, but not something that’s going to get in the way of the sauce (e.g. contrary to how you might approach seafood, the star here is the sauce!). Thicker pastas are a good medium for enjoying this sauce–tagliatelle, lasagna, rigatoni, etc–and ideally, you’ll enjoy it with freshly made noodles. Heck, I could just eat this sauce alone, lol!
As for what it tastes like: incredibly rich, meaty, and hearty all come to mind, but the words simply don’t do it justice. You’d be hard pressed to pick out any one flavor in this sauce–the sum is truly greater than the parts. I used four kinds of meats (beef, veal, pork, and lamb), and after a few hours, these humble ingredients combine into the most entrancing aroma, perfuming your house with the most amazing aromas, clearly signaling to your neighbors that they should in fact be very jealous of what you’ll be eating tonight (just like when you make a good tomato sauce–what is it about Italian food?).
Plus, just look at it. That is a sexy sauce. This recipe yields a pretty generous amount of sauce, but don’t fret–it freezes wonderfully. I would estimate that this yields enough sauce to accompany between 2 and 3 pounds of pasta (recall: store-bought boxes of pasta are usually 1 lb each).
- 4 carrot
- 4 celery
- 3 shallot
- ~14 oz San Marzano tomatoes
- 1-2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2-3 cups beef broth
- 3/4 lb beef (I used ground)
- 3/4 lb pork (I used ground)
- 3/4 lb veal (I used tougher, shoulder and neck cuts)
- 3/4 lamb (I also had the bones handy, so I included them)
- 1.5-2 cups white wine
- dash nutmeg
- 1 cup milk
- 3 whole cloves
To begin, warm up the stock in a saucepan. Reserve some in a bowl and mix in the tomatoes and tomato paste. While you’re cooking later, you will want to keep the untomatoed broth warm.
In another saucepan, scald the milk and add the whole cloves. Cover, remove from heat, and let steep for at least an hour.
Meanwhile, somewhat finely dice the shallot, carrot, and celery (called “sofrito”). Sauté the sofrito in olive oil, starting at medium/high heat and dropping to low/medium heat after 5 minutes or so. Let this sweat for 20-30 minutes, and be sure to stir periodically so things don’t stick and char. You just want them all to soften up a bit.
With the sofrito softened, crank the heat back up to medium/high and brown the meat in the same pan with a dash of salt and pepper. Once the meat is thoroughly browned all over, deglaze the pan with white wine and keep simmering until all of the wine is evaporated (figure 10-15 minutes).
With the wine evaporated, drop the heat down to medium and add in the nutmeg/tomato broth. Simmer this, cooking until the liquid is pretty much absorbed into the meat (anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes).
The rest is pretty much like cooking risotto: add in about 1/2 cup of hot broth (remember how you had that saucepan full of broth which you were keeping warm?), stirring and simmering on occasion, waiting until the liquid is absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup.
This process is a slow one and can take a few (open-ended number) hours. Just keep going until you use up all the broth and the sauce takes on a thick (but not too thick) texture that you’re happy with. If you had bones in the mix, once done cooking, go fish them out (and consider scraping any marrow into the sauce if you can get any out).
With the sauce done cooking, now, one final addition: remember the clove infused milk from earlier? Pour it in (after removing the whole cloves, of course), give things a mix, and simmer for another 15-20 minutes to get that integrated into the sauce.
Finally, the sauce is done. Take in the aroma of your kitchen and taste a scoop–this is awesome stuff. What you do with it now is up to you: I just boiled some rigatoni, topped if with some sauce, and scraped on some shreds of Parmigiano Reggiano. If you have way too much sauce for your immediate purposes, once it cools down a bit, freeze some for another day!