Spaghetti Bolognese, for many in the West, is a real slow-cooked staple for week nights. When I was in Bologna a year ago, I asked some young architect friends about the origin of this famous meat sauce. Was it really as traditional as they say or was it yet another myth born out of some earnest chef’s vivid imagination? They were unimpressed with the sauce, pointing out that “real” Bolognese cooking is really heavy and rich and not suited to today’s lifestyle. They preferred to experiment with lighter cooking styles and healthier ingredients, preferring to cook delicacies such as couscous for dinner. They pointed me in the direction of a very large bookstore where I found a number of what looked like very interesting cookery books, all in Italian, of course.
Pot sticker: Traditional Bolognese sauce is heavy and rich.
Relentlessly, I plodded on towards the magnificent old cobblestoned town square, where I found a book by La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese—the oldest traditional cooking school in the city, committed to teaching homestyle, grandmother’s cooking, using products of the region only. And yes, they had one copy in English. According to tradition, you are supposed to make this sauce with a mix of carrots, onion and celery, which you mince together and brown in lard. The vegetables act only as a seasoning to the meat. I discovered that Bolognese cooking is very meat-centric. According to the locals, the sauce is ready when you can “smell a single perfume, and not the carrot, celery and onion”. When the vegetables are cooked, you add minced beef (shin or neck, never the better cuts of meat which are used for steak). Again, this is browned, seasoned, a couple of glasses of red wine added with some tomato puree or paste, and two hours later, you have a real Bolognese sauce. Individual families have their own recipes where they add porcini mushrooms, salami or pancetta to this basic recipe.
Now, this is all very well if you have two hours or more to spend in the kitchen and an afternoon to sleep off the effects. Most of us don’t. Europeans tend to like their meat with a bit of texture. Indians and Americans are obsessed with soft, tender meat. One trick is to add milk to the recipe, straight after you add the meat. Don’t brown the meat for too long. Just add one cup and this will tenderize your mince immediately, making no sacrifices in flavour, texture or pride. Another trick, which I have used in the recipe below, is to use good quality meat or steak minced so that you don’t have to wait for it to tenderize. Also, chop all the vegetables together in a food processor. It is much quicker. Instead of lard as a cooking medium, I use olive oil, which is definitely lighter. Believe me, you will end up with a rich, meaty stew which is bold, luxurious and tender, and which is on the table in 45 minutes.
1 onion, peeled
1 carrot, peeled
1 celery stick (leaves removed)
3 big cloves garlic
½ packet button mushrooms
500gm minced meat (mutton or beef)
100gm bacon, rind removed, chopped fine (optional)
½ cup olive oil
2 tsp flour
1cup dry red wine
1cup chicken stock
2 jars of pasta sauce or tomato puree
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Chop the onion, carrot, garlic and celery. Slice the mushrooms. This can all be done in a food processor in 20 seconds. Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and mushrooms. Cook for about three to four minutes on high heat, or until the onion has softened, stirring all the time. If you’re using the bacon, add it now. Stir for another minute.
Add the minced meat and flour and stir for a minute or two, until the flour is absorbed. Add the pasta sauce and cook until the meat changes colour, stirring.
Add the wine, stock, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer very gently for about 45 minutes, or until the meat is tender and the sauce is well reduced. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve with spaghetti.
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