Today: A ragù that works around your schedule -- and might even be better than Nonna's, thanks to a secret ingredient or four.
It you're looking to make a correct bolognese or a definitive bolognese -- and you're looking to do so while avoiding scolding -- this is not the recipe for you.
There are times to make Bologna's saucy gift to the world -- a proper version, in all its delicate, slow-cooked glory. Let us appreciate it, and cook it sometimes -- but (please) let us also then play around with it, and make it new, ours, and, in our various ways, better.
Nigel Slater's version in The Kitchen Diaries is humbly named: "A really good spaghetti bolognese" doesn't begin to cover it. But it's not correct. In just about every way, it does the opposite of Marcella Hazan's bolognese, by many accounts the Platonic ideal.
More: Tomato sauce with onion and butter, another Platonic ideal from Marcella Hazan.
Hazan speaks to her sauce quietly, over long stretches. Plain ingredients -- ground beef, onion, celery, carrot -- melt. She doesn't brown a thing; she doesn't raise the knob above medium. "No less than 3 hours is necessary, more is better," she says. And that's after you've already watched tides of milk, then white wine, then tomatoes ebb away at a very, very slow simmer.
When you have a Sunday to loll near the stove, do this. If you want to really understand a classic bolognese, stand by, tasting here and there to see how the sauce mellows and sweetens and swells with time. To be fair, Hazan notes that you can stop at any point, then resume. But that doesn't get you to dinner in time for tonight.
In Slater's blasphemous, really good recipe, every step is brilliantly layered within the others, so that while your onions are softening, you're chopping carrots and celery; once they're in, it's onto the next.
The recipe is a model of kitchen efficiency and focus. If you're a compulsive mise-en-placer, that's okay (see ingredient shot above) -- you can still follow along.
Unlike in Hazan's standard of patience and virtue, heat gets cranked, and bits are left to color. On top of workaday soffrito, Slater pulls from the large-and-in-charge ingredient roster: there's pancetta, red wine, bay leaves. If you're feeling really hungry and feisty, there's even a ground lamb option, and it is outstanding. Perhaps most genius of all: there are portobello mushrooms.
Not only do the mushrooms plump up the earthy notes and umami, they also go all buttery and soft. Any textural subtlety you've lost in cooking your sauce a bit more aggressively is returned with the swollen swish of portobello. In about an hour and a half, you have an exceptionally supple, meaty ragù, one you'll consider eating without the interruption of pasta, or anything else on the plate.
But about that pasta. Slater calls for spaghetti. Counterpoint, Hazan: "Meat sauce in Bologna is never served over spaghetti." Fresh tagliatelle, yes. Lasagne, classic. Fresh tortellini, good. Twirly dry shapes like rigatoni, conchiglie, fusilli, irreproachable. We used linguine. Not irreproachable. But really good.
"I made it during the week," Food52er JadeTree told me when she sent it my way, "since I had a rare hour of freedom to chop (and chop you will), but we all agreed that this is company food, hands down. Just because you want a bigger crowd to marvel over it."
Adapted slightly from The Kitchen Diaries (Gotham Books, 2006)
For the bolognese:
4 tablespoons butter
3 ounces cubed pancetta
1 medium onion
2 fat cloves garlic
2 stalks celery
2 large, flat mushrooms such as portobello, about 4 ounces
2 bay leaves
1 pound ground beef or lamb
1 cup crushed tomatoes or passata
1/4 cup red wine
3/4 cup stock
3/4 cup half-and-half or cream
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52er JadeTree for this one!
Photos by James Ransom