By: Jerry Finzi, Grand Voyage Italy
Growing up, one of my favorite things to ask for when my family went to a restaurant was “meat sauce.”
Meat sauce on spaghetti. Meat sauce on ravioli. Meat sauce on veal cutlets. I’d even ask for meat sauce on top of chicken parmesan! Well, I’ve grown up and matured (OK, somewhat). In this article I’ll show you how to make a grown-up version of “meat sauce”–Ragù alla Bolognese.
One of the very first meals we had during our voyage to Italy was Pici al Ragù…a Tuscan version of Spaghetti Bolognese. We had just gotten off the train from Rome in the small Tuscan town of Chiusi Scalo (“Scalo” designates the part of a town that surrounds a railway station). Chiusi proper, a historic Tuscan town with proud roots back to the Etruscans, was up on the nearby hilltop.
We were so weary from having traveled about 16 hours or more, first by air to Rome and then by train from Rome to Chiusi, where we were to pick up our rental car. And at this point we were also famished–needing to re-fuel. When we got off the train, the Hertz office was closed for riposa (a 3-hour siesta), so we had planned to have lunch while we waited. I had already picked out the trattoria that we would eat at, selected weeks before while fine-tuning the details on my Google Earth maps…we would eat our first Italian meal at Trattoria Porsenna, one block from the train station. It was a fantastic choice. With only 12 tables and a casual country style, we ordered a bottle of gassata for the table and waited for our meals. When the Pici al Ragù came, I couldn’t believe how delicious it was.
By the way… Pici is a sort of thick, hand-rolled spaghetti. Ragù is basically a meat sauce, the best of which is Ragù alla Bolognese, which originated in Bologna but is found all over Italy nowadays. People will tell you that “spaghetti Bolognese” doesn’t exist in Italy–but it does. The sauce will just be called “Ragù” instead of “Bolognese”, as in “Spaghetti al Ragù”, and typically in place of spaghetti the dish is usually served with tagliatelle, a long, flat, fresh pasta noodle–“Tagliatelle al Ragù”.
Historic records even prove that in centuries past, spaghetti (dried) was commonly used with a Ragù sauce anyway. (NOTE: In the weeks that followed, we saw “Spaghetti alla Bolognese” listed on many menus). So, whatever the name, and no matter what type of pasta you put under it, I knew that this was the Ragù I wanted to duplicate when I returned back home.
2 pounds ground beef (80% or less fat)
1/4 pound speck (cut 1/4″ thick), 1/4″ dice (Speck is a smoked prosciutto)
1 large Vidalia onion (or 2 large yellow onions)
1 teaspoon sugar (for sauteing onions)
4 tablespoons canola oil (for sauteing)
3 carrots, 1/4″ dice
3 celery stalks, 1/4″ dice
4 garlic cloves, smashed then diced
5 bay leaves (remove after cooking)
1-1/2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 cup full bodied red wine (Primativo, Montepulciano, Chianti, etc.)
1 28-ounce can Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 cup heavy cream
- Heat 4 tablespoons of canola in a large stock pot, then add the onions, carrots and celery. Sprinkle in the sugar. Saute on medium heat until onions are translucent.
- Add the diced Speck and saute for 1 minute, then add the diced garlic. Cook for another minute or two, but don’t burn the garlic.
- Add the ground beef and cook on moderate flame, stirring occasionally until lightly browned. You can add the spices at this point… basil, thyme, pepper flakes and bay leaves.
- As the meat cooks, turn over the mixture to allow for equal browning and distribution of the spices.
- Turn up the flame and add the wine. Using a flat bottom wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pan (you want to get up any fond that might have developed). Cook for 2 minutes until the alcohol has evaporated from the wine.
- Turning the flame down to medium, add the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, and combine well into the meat/vegetable mixture. Cook for 3-5 minutes.
- Next, add the heavy cream, mix, then turn the flame down to simmer (use a smaller back burner, or use a heat diffuser plate under your pot).
- Simmer, stirring occasionally and cook for 3 hours covered. Then, remove the lid and continue simmering for another hour or until the sauce thickens considerably (making sure the bottom of the pot doesn’t burn). If you feel like your sauce hasn’t thickened enough, you can always use the old Italian Nonna trick…toss in a handful or two of breadcrumbs).
This recipe will make enough Bolognese sauce for several meals. It also freezes very well.
If you would like to make fresh tagliatelle to go with your Bolognese sauce, read Making Fresh Pasta at Home: Not a Necessity, but a Tradition.
Also, try Baked Standing Rigatoni in a Mug. It’s also wonderful spread on a bruschetta for a small lunch or snack.