Friday, January 3, 2020



Bolognese, Italian Meat Sauce for Pasta

 

I was once a purist on Italian pasta sauces, or so I thought. I liked either a clean, meatless, tomato-based marinara or a rich red sauce with Italian sausage or meat balls. I grew up around southern Italians.

Served on Spaghetti Squash; Plate by Maria Dondero, Athens GA
In contrast to the precise, elegant red sauces, the “meat sauce” of my childhood seemed clunky, like dull loose hamburger cooked up with tomato. However, as an adult I encountered really excellent “Bolognese” and learned how subtle and luscious a meat sauce can be. Local, freshly ground meat makes it even better.

“Ragù alla Bolognese” [bo-lohn-N(Y)AY-zay], named after the Northern Italian city Bologna, is a regional specialty commonly served with tagliatelle there and with spaghetti elsewhere. Bologna, less auspiciously, also gave its name to baloney, that greasy cold cut which on Wonder Bread makes the gummy, horrible sandwiches downed by generations of kids at school and homeless people at soup kitchens.

Although the real Bolognese would generally contain ground beef or veal, or sometimes pork, I frequently use ground turkey, which gives a light-bodied richness. The sauce often has a little cured pork cooked into it, like pancetta or bacon.

A “short” pasta, like penne rigate or rigatoni, or even vegetable spaghetti squash, is good with Bolognese, despite long pasta’s typical role. And although in general I prefer the hearty sheep’s milk cheese, Pecorino Romano, with pasta (showing my culinary exposure to Sicilians), the lighter and more elegant Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano), a Northern Italian cow’s milk cheese, is more traditional for Bolognese.

The recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.

1 medium-large carrot, finely diced
1 medium stick celery, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1/4 of a red bell pepper, diced
2 thin strips of bacon or slices of pancetta (optional), finely diced
3 tablespoons olive oil (4 if not using bacon or pancetta)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 pounds ground turkey, pork or beef
1 large bay leaf
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper or a pinch cayenne
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup red wine
1 large (28-ounce) can crushed tomato (Hunt’s or Kroger’s is good)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 pound pasta (such as penne rigate)
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

In a heavy stainless steel or enamel pan, gently fry diced vegetables and bacon or pancetta in the olive oil, stirring occasionally, until carrot is tender. Stir in garlic, and fry 1 minute.

Ragù alla Bolognese simmering
Raise heat and stir in ground meat, breaking it up as it heats. Add herbs and spices. When meat color has fully changed, add wine and simmer 10 minutes, covered. Add crushed tomato plus a little water for rinsing out the can. Simmer 10 minutes, covered. Add sugar and salt. Simmer 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Taste, and add salt if needed. Add parsley and simmer another minute. Remove from heat, but keep warm.

When sauce is done, cook pasta in a large amount of boiling salted water, stirring frequently at the beginning, so pasta will not stick together. When just tender to the bite, drain pasta well in a colander, but do not rinse.

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