I’m not sure exactly when it started; it’s been years and years that I’ve been making Bolognese on Friday evenings. It certainly began round about the time when my kids hit their teens and headed off into the big wide world of night-time West London on a Friday evening and wanted to go out early … too early for any sensible adult to want to eat. The beauty of Spag Bol was being able to leave a big pot of ragu simmering in the afternoon and then everyone could just help themselves to spoonfuls when they wanted to eat. The kids have long gone but I still almost always have pasta and ragu on a Friday evening if I’m in … being a nostalgic Single Gourmet … and anyone who turns up on a Friday evening is likely to get it too unless I’m in posh dinner party mode. I always make a big pan of it so that some – packed as individual portions – can go into the freezer. It’s almost one of my ‘Can’t Live Without‘ foods and when the freezer is bare of Bolognese ragu, as it was today, then I just have to make some. The great thing about keeping some in the freezer is it’s a great shortcut to something a little more complicated like lasagne – then the main sauce is made making the necessity to also make a bechamel sauce and prepare lasagne sheets not so daunting. I’ll even top the ragu with creamed potato to make a Cottage Pie or throw in some red kidney beans and chilli to make a Chilli Con Carne. They may not be authentic … but they taste good!
I don’t usually look at a recipe but I thought, if I’m going to write this up in the blog, then I need to get the ingredients right. I don’t want to put any recipe on the blog that I haven’t tried and tested myself so I’ve found myself measuring out ingredients when I haven’t done so for years. I remembered that my ragu evolved from Marcella Hazan’s wonderful recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook (No. 2 in my Top Ten) so got that down (from the frequently consulted shelf) and compared it to Claudia Roden’s in The Food of Italy that is another favourite. I remembered that Marcella adds some milk to ‘keep the meat creamier and sweeter tasting’ and uses white wine where Claudia uses red. I tend to use whatever is around or I want to drink … and given that I’m most likely going to want to drink a nice Italian red (or possibly a Spanish rioja) with the meal, then it’s usually red. Claudia adds cream at the end but I decided to stick with Marcella’s milk. I also remembered that many years ago I regularly used a book by Robin Howe who was an author I worked with a few times in the 1970s. She wrote a prodigious amount of wonderful cookery books, mainly about the cuisine of wherever she and her foreign correspondent husband were living at the time. I visited them twice at their home in Italy in the late 1970s and she gave me books of hers each time, including The Pasta Cook Book. Like Claudia, she adds mushrooms to her Bolognese ragu; like Marcella she adds white wine. Of course, this only shows there is no absolute recipe for Bolognese ragu; there are only variations on a theme.
I’m calling it ragu because Spaghetti Bolognese as such is not an authentic dish, although Marcella tells us that ‘the Bolognese claim one cannot make a true ragu anywhere else’. So, the following is an evolution of my using these three favourite cooks’ recipes and thus might be called,
The Single Gourmet Traveller’s Bolognese Ragu
Into a large pan put a finely chopped medium onion and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and fry very gently for a couple of minutes. Add 2 finely chopped carrots and 1 finely chopped celery stick and 1 crushed garlic clove. Continue to fry very gently for about ten minutes until the vegetables are softening, and the onion going translucent, but not brown (this is the soffritto). Now crumble in 500g of minced beef (use good quality – either 10% or 5% fat) and add salt and pepper. Turn up the heat a bit now as the meat is better cooked at this stage on a higher heat, and stir occasionally – but not all the time or the meat will release liquid and thus steam more than fry. Once it’s lost most of its raw colour and just starting to brown, then add in 100g of chopped mushrooms (nice Chestnut or Portobello with lots of flavour – not those white ones with no flavour at all). The reason for waiting to add the mushrooms is that they release lots of water when they cook and you don’t want that to happen before the meat has browned. Stir for just a couple of minutes until the mushrooms start to wilt then pour in 250ml of red or white wine. Allow to bubble over a medium heat until the wine evaporates. Then add 100ml of milk and a good grating of nutmeg; again allow to bubble until the liquid has been absorbed.
Now add 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes (this is more than any of the chefs above, but I like my ragu quite tomato-y). Add 1 tablespoon tomato puree and a good pinch of mixed herbs (I’m still using Yiannis’s wonderful mix). Stir round well and once the mixture starts to bubble, turn the heat down to the lowest point you can manage, cover with a lid leaving just the smallest crack of a gap open, and leave to simmer for as long as you can wait! Marcella cooks hers for ‘a minimum of three and a half hours’ while Claudia settles for one and a half. Of course, if you leave it for hours you need to check it’s not drying out from time to time. I usually manage a minimum of one hour and a maximum of two. Eat as soon as it’s done with pasta and a nice green salad on the side. The Italians – and certainly Marcella – would choose tagliatelle rather than spaghetti; the sauce clings to it better. Cooking the ragu earlier and leaving it to ‘mature’ for a few hours gives an even better flavour. And always make sure you have some extra for the freezer … it’s pretty wonderful to come home after a day out and be able to take this gorgeous ragu from the freezer and heat it up for supper. Your very own ready-made meal!