One of my favourite cuisines to cook and eat is Italian food and my go-to authority on the subject is Marcella Hazan and her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. What Mastering the Art of French Cooking did to bring French food into the American kitchen, Hazan’s Essentials did for Italian food, capturing its true essence in an uncomplicated style. If I could only have two cookbooks on my kitchen shelf, this would be one of them.
The recipe I’m sharing today is a recipe for a ragù, which is what the people of Bologna call their famous meat sauce, one that has been bastardized throughout the world with sometimes horrifying results. As I have written before, a true Bolognese sauce has very little tomato in it, at least when we compare it the the red sauce found typically in North American kitchen and restaurants. It is a weighty sauce, mellow in flavour yet made rich with the addition of milk and wine.
According to Marcella, there are some points to keep in mind when making this meat sauce:
- the meat should not be too lean; for the beef, the best portion to use is the neck of the chuck; for the pork, the neck or Boston butt are the best options
- salt should be added to the meat while browning to release the juices for the benefit of the sauce
- the meat should be cooked in milk before adding wine and tomatoes, to protect it from their acidity
- a pot that retains heat well is crucial; cast iron pans or heavy bottomed pans composed of layers of steel alloy are favourable
- the sauce should be simmered on minimum heat for at least three hours to meld the flavours together satisfactory; longer is better
This recipe provides about two heaping cups of sauce or enough for six servings and one-and-a-half pounds of pasta. I like to use pappardelle for their heft.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter, plus one tablespoon for tossing the pasta
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
1/2 pound ground beef chuck
1/4 pound ground pork
black pepper, freshly ground
1 cup whole milk
whole nutmeg, grated to produce 1/8 teaspoon
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cup canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their own juice
1 1/2 pounds pasta
freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, to serve
1) Put the oil, butter, and chopped onion in the pot and turn the heat on to medium. Cook and stir the onion until translucent, then add carrot and celery. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring to coat.
2) Add the ground meats, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper; crumble meat with fork, stir well, and cook until meat has lost it’s raw, red colour.
3) Add the milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently until it has bubbled away completely. Add fresh nutmeg and stir.
4) Add the wine and let it simmer until it has evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at a very slow simmer, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface. Cook, uncovered for 3 hours or more, stirring occasionally. While the sauce is cooking, the fat will separate from the meat and the sauce will begin to dry out; add 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must remain and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste and correct with salt.
5) Toss the cooked drained pasta, adding a tablespoon of butter and serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.