Monday, 23 January 2006

Ragu alla Bolognese

Spaghetti Bolognese
For several years now I've been trying to 'perfect' this popular Italian pasta sauce. Also called 'Spag Bol' or Spaghetti Bolognese (when served with that shape of pasta), I read in several books that Italians themselves wouldn't dream of serving this with spaghetti. They apparently use tagliatelle and after tasting this with a fresh version of that pasta, I could say I share their sentiment completely. This sauce can also be found in between lasagne sheets. Well, I've already got the Pinoy version of this plus even my son can come up with a bottled version (just brown some minced beef and pour in the bottled spaghetti sauce). But I fervently wanted to recreate the great taste of the meat sauce that we often get from Italian restaurants. This led me to looking it up in almost all the cookbooks and food magazines I come across. When I chanced upon the great collection of cookbooks in our local library, I was able to research on the authentic versions and derive a lot from it.

The word 'ragu' refers to slow cooked meat with little sauce. As with most traditional dishes there are a lot of variations even in Italy, not just from town to town but even probably from household to household. Some have all beef, have combinations of beef and pork, some use veal. Most use finely minced meat while others have diced ones. Versions also vary on whether or not to put vegetables, tomatoes, and milk or cream. The one thing that's universal in the more authentic recipes I found is the very slow and long cooking time, the use of wine (red or white), and spices. This version, which eventually met with the approval of my family, is one I culled from several cookbooks and the last one in particular from Anthony Worrall-Thompson who suggested Worcestershire sauce and anchovy sauce. It did the trick of adding a certain top note of yumminess to it. For one, my family loves its sauce very tomatoey therefore the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree are in. I also followed Delia Smith's and AWT's suggestion of browning the beef separately - it resulted in a more flavourful meat than if I did the browning right there in the stewing pot. I opted to use veggies in it because it imparts a slight sweetness, while the wine gives it body. Anyway, enough of my ramblings do try this and believe me just the aroma filling your kitchen would entice your housemates in.

Ragu alla Bolognese

1 kg  minced beef (or half beef, half pork)
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 medium onions - finely chopped
125 g  pancetta or streaky bacon - finely diced
1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1 Tbsp chopped fresh or 1 tsp dried thyme*
1 tsp dried oregano*
1 1/2 Tbsp chopped fresh or 1 tsp dried basil*
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 1/2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp anchovy sauce [optional]
1 bay leaf
1 cup white wine
2 x 400 g  can of chopped tomatoes*
1/4 cup double concentrate tomato puree (tomato paste)
2 tsp sea salt (or to taste)
freshly milled black pepper
1/2 cup beef stock or water
butter or olive oil
125 g  chicken liver - trimmed, washed and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
3 Tbsp single cream (light cream) [optional]
  1. In a pan (preferably non-stick), drizzle some olive oil and heat it up. Brown the minced beef in batches. Set aside.
  2. Wipe the pan and heat up some more olive oil or butter. Cook the chicken liver until well cooked and crumbly - about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, then using a fork mash it up. If need be, finely chop some of the bits of liver that refuse to get mashed.
  3. In a big stewing pot, heat the 1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil and gently fry the bacon until it changes colour.
  4. Turn heat to low and add the garlic. Cook for 1 minute.
  5. Stir in the onion and cook gently for about 4-5 minutes or until translucent.
  6. Turn up the heat to medium and add the carrots and celery. Cook for about 3 minutes or until soft while stirring occassionally.
  7. Add the spices - basil, thyme, oregano. Stir and cook for about 1 minute or until aromatic.
  8. Tip in the browned minced beef and wine. Simmer until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Stir occassionally.
  9. Add the chopped tomatoes, concentrated tomato puree, bay leaf, nutmeg, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy sauce, chicken liver, salt, pepper, and stock.
  10. Bring to boil then bring down heat to lowest setting and simmer for *at least* 2-3 hours.
  11. If you have more fresh basil lying around, chop about 2 Tbsp of it and stir in the sauce.
  12. Add the cream and stir. Cook for another 1-2 minutes. Serve with freshly cooked al dente pasta such as spaghetti or tagliatelli.
  • In place of the basil, thyme, and oregano, you may use 1 Tbsp of Italian mixed herb.
  • You may use 500 g  passata in place of the chopped tomatoes and reduce the tomato paste to 1 Tbsp only.

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