Italian Cooking & Language Blog

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Buono!: Bolognese Sauce

Onions and garlic sautéing

Bolognese sauce simmering

Dinner is served!

Welcome to Buono!, a new series where you ask questions about Italian food and I answer them the best I can. Learn more about Buono! here.

In response to a reader question, today I’ll help simplify Bolognese sauce. This is a red meat sauce for pasta that originated in the city of Bologna. I first learned how to make this sauce properly in a cooking class run by chef Benedetta Vitali in her restaurant Zibibbo in Florence, Italy (she still offers classes and I’d highly recommend them.) You can find her recipe in Soffritto, her lovely cookbook named after the onion, celery and carrot mixture that begins many Italian dishes. This recipe from Anne Burrell on the Food Network is fairly similar. 

As you’ll learn in this series, I don’t actually cook by the book. Most nights I don’t have time to do everything the exact traditional way. I use what I have on hand to save time and money.

With that in mind, here are the key elements of my Pasta Bolognese Sauce recipe. Feel free to alter it however you see fit.

Pasta Bolognese Sauce for Four Hungry Folks
1 yellow onion diced
2 cloves of garlic diced
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 lbs of lean ground beef
3 14.5 oz. cans of diced tomatoes
¼ cup of (cheap, but tasty) red wine
2 bay leaves
salt, pepper, hot pepper to taste

While it would be proper to start with a soffritto, I usually just start with onions and garlic. So, with that in mind, let's get started. In a pot, slowly sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil until the onion pieces become mostly clear. While a large saucepan with a heavy bottom would be ideal, I use a pot I bought at Ikea over five years ago. It works fine, as long as you keep the heat low so that the olive oil doesn’t burn.

Add the beef and slowly brown it. It is more traditional to use a beef, veal and pork mixture, but you can use whatever meats you prefer. You can buy a package with the three meats mixed together, buy them separately or squeeze out the pork from sausage casings for pork. Some friends like to use ground turkey because it is leaner. I like the heartier taste of the beef.

Once the meat is brown, add the three cans of tomatoes. Fresh Roma tomatoes would be optimal, but I usually use canned tomatoes. Again, canned Roma tomatoes are great, but no one has complained with my Target brand canned tomatoes. There, I said it. I sometimes shop at Target.

To get all of the tomato goodness from your can, run a little water in each can and swish it around before pouring it into your pot. You’ll be boiling the sauce down and a little extra water won’t hurt.

Now pour in the wine. This step isn’t obligatory, but it does help to thicken the flavor and sauce. Some folks will add sugar here to help counter the acidic flavor of the tomatoes. The sugar in the wine will do this for you, too.

Add a bit of salt, pepper, hot pepper and the bay leaves. Bring the sauce to a boil and then lower the heat to a low simmer. Since it is such a thick sauce, it will need to be mixed regularly (every twenty minutes or so) and, as it settles, it will start to bubble and splash a bit.

Let the sauce simmer for about two hours. Your goal is to boil down the water and thicken the sauce. If the meat is fully cooked and you like a more liquid sauce, then don’t boil it too long. You can always add more water (or wine or broth), if you like.

Serve over al dente pasta: spaghetti or your favorite pasta that can hold a heavy sauce. Garnish with grated cheese. While I’m lax about the soffritto, I’m firm on this point: Freshly grate your own cheese. The cheese sold on a shelf far from the refrigerated section doesn’t taste like cheese. It needs its own category. Buy a hand grater like this or this or  toss the chunk of grating cheese (parmesan or  pecorino romano) into your food processor the day you are serving the dish. 

If you have leftovers and start to get bored with eating the same dish again and again, try adding a scoop or two of ricotta in your re-heated pasta. You could also bake it with a layer of mozzarella on top of the pasta and meat sauce.

You can freeze extra sauce, if you’ve made too much and want some more for later. I don’t recommend freezing cooked pasta. It gets quite mushy when it is defrosted (I’ve tried.)

I look forward to hearing how it goes!

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