This is a ‘bolognese’ sauce in essence, but of course we are better informed in 2018 and know we must never talk about ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, especially to an Italian – and particularly one from Bologna! Certainly you will find meat ragù in Italy though and the first recorded version of a meat sauce served with pasta came from Imola, a city near Bologna, in the late 18th century. And the famous Italian cookery book writer, Pellegrino Artusi, who wrote La Scienza in cucina l’arte di mangiar bene (science in the kitchen and the art of eating well) in 1891, gave a recipe for a Maccheroni alla Bolognese.
In fact, the sauce we tend to call ‘bolognese’ is more akin to the Naples version of meat ragù – alla Napoletana – where tomatoes, popular in the south, are added. In the north – Bologna – there is much controversy about whether to add any tomatoes at all. My favourite local restaurant, Masaniello – where head chef Livio comes from Naples – serves the best version of meat ragù I’ve ever had – slow cooked and of the Naples kind. He uses braising meat rather than mince, which I’ve been meaning to try … but it was mince this evening. Mine makes no pretension to emulate his – its only claim is to be an Italian-style sauce I make a lot.
I’ve written about ‘bolognese’ before and it was one of the first recipes I wrote on the blog, back in 2011 (click here). I talked about it being a ‘Friday Night’ dish in my family as I always had a big pot simmering on the stove when my kids were old enough to start going out on their own on Friday night. They could have their supper early, leaving their dad and me to eat ours later – no spoilt meal, and everyone could eat when they wanted. I think it’s clearly nostalgia that makes it still a regular Friday night meal – either just for myself or with anyone else who happens to be here! I still make a big pot but nowadays freeze it in separate portions. In fact, it almost never happens that there is none at all in my freezer. When I get down to the last packet, I make more. My son has been known to raid my freezer, asking for a couple of packs of ‘your bolognese’ to take home with him, and grandson Freddie (3½) loves it too (though he possibly loves Livio’s more as he often chooses it rather than pizza in Masaniello). The mother in me – and indeed, the Nonna – likes having packs of comforting food in the freezer, ready to hand out to hungry family. If you love cooking, there are few things more wonderful than feeding those you love.
Rather inevitably, as I’ve been making this for so many years, the recipe changes slightly as time goes by. My current favourite way to cook the sauce is to add some diced pancetta and also to cook the sauce very slowly – hence, ‘slow-cooked’ – for a long, long time. Generally three hours. It really does make a difference to the flavour. In my original recipe I added mushrooms – I think a habit that came from following a recipe that I had from a cookery writer (Robin Howe), who lived in Italy, and I was working with many years ago when editing lots of cookery books. It’s not a usual ingredient but while looking through some ragù recipes today I saw some people added dried porcini mushrooms, so I decided to try that, knowing they’d bring a great deep flavour to the sauce.
As with all cooking, but particularly Italian, buy the best quality ingredients you can afford but especially the pasta. The difference between a good quality pasta rather than a cheap supermarket own make is enormous. And do eat meat ragù with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti. Italians like to match pasta to the kind of sauce they’re serving and meat ragù wraps itself round tagliatelle much better than it does spaghetti.
Tagliatelle with Slow-cooked Meat Ragù – Makes enough for about 8 portions
- 10g dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 250ml warm water
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 77g diced pancetta
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 stick celery, finely chopped
- 3 small-medium carrots, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 800g extra lean minced beef
- 200ml red wine
- 500g passata
- 1 x 450g tin tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- tagliatelle, about 70g per person
Put the dried porcini in a jug and pour over the warm water. Leave the mushrooms to soften and a lovely ‘stock’ form to go into the ragù.
Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the diced pancetta, vegetables and garlic. Cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until the pancetta has coloured and the vegetables are softening. This base is called a soffritto (though more often made without the pancetta) and it’s important to take the time to cook it properly before adding other ingredients as it gives a depth of flavour to the sauce.
Tip in the meat, turn the heat up a bit, and stir carefully, turning from time to time so the meat colours all over. You want the meat to cook fairly fast – to ‘fry’ rather than ‘steam’. When it’s nicely coloured, pour in the wine and mix well. Cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the wine has been absorbed (this also burns off the alcohol).
Remove the porcini from the jug and chop finely, then add with their ‘stock’ to the meat. Add the passata and tinned tomatoes. Sprinkle over the dried oregano and season with salt and pepper.
Stir everything together well and bring to the boil – just bubbles round the edge; not a ‘rolling’ boil. Then turn down the heat to the lowest possible setting and put a lid on the pot, leaving just the smallest gap for steam to escape. Leave to simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 2½-3 hours, or until the liquid is almost totally absorbed and the mixture fairly dry.
Cook your tagliatelle according to the instructions on the packet – usually about 4 minutes. Drain. Tip back into the dry pan. Add a couple of large spoons of the ragù. Mix carefully but well over a low heat for just a minute or two. Italian never dump ragù on top of the pasta; it’s always carefully folded in. Now spoon on to a plate or shallow dish. Serve with a side green salad.
There’s something so wonderfully comforting about this dish. For me it’s full of memories – family meals, Italy – but it’s a dish everyone loves because it is so good. And I really do recommend making a big, big pot and freezing portions. It’s just great to grab one from the freezer for a quick meal … or to give to hungry sons.