When one thinks of a sauce for pasta, most people think of the classic Bolognese. It is the quintessential comfort food, and one of our family’s favorites. Although true Bolognese is time consuming to make, it freezes well so we often make large batches that we divide into meal-sized containers that can be ready anytime.
Classic Bolognese is one of those sauces with many versions, and most Italian cooks believe that theirs is the only truly authentic preparation. Most food historians agree that the sauce was created in the city from which it is named, Bologna, the capital of the region where my husband’s family is from. People from that area are so serious about “their” recipe that they have trademarked the name and made January 17th “Ragù alla Bolognese” day. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina registered their recipe for the sauce in 1982 as the one authentic version. It organized an international Bolognese day in 2010 during which 450 chefs cooked the sauce; however, true to Italian custom, most used their own “authentic” recipes and not the trademarked registered one.
The first Italian immigrants to the United States hoped to find a land of milk and honey with streets paved of gold. In the late 1800’s southern Italy was very poor and the American railroad barons, realizing that Southern Italians could be a source of labor, produced films showing a picturesque America that was welcoming and where hard-working people could achieve great wealth. Of course, the reality was a bit different. The Italians who moved to the US were lucky to find back braking labor and slave wages. In addition, they were considered the lowest of the low in the communities they moved into. As it was in Italy, their cuisine was “la cucina povera” the food of poverty and included little meat. However, as years went by and through hard work and perseverance, many children of those first Italian immigrants were able to succeed. They craved the dishes of the wealthy Italians that their parents had told them about. However, in most cases, neither they nor their parents had ever experienced the lightness of true lasagna or the delicacy of a risotto. The Italian American community had to create their own variations of the dishes and since, in the US, bigger is better they came up with the gigantic meatball on a dish of spaghetti. Something that is not seen in Italy. So American Italian cuisine developed and should be celebrated as its own creation. Baked Ziti, deep-dish pizza, and Italian dressing are only a few of the recipes in the vast repertoire. Bolognese sauce isn’t one of them.
Meat ragu in America tends to be very heavy and the pasta almost drowns in the sauce. In classic Bolognese, the sauce and the pasta are in symbiosis and enhance each other. This is one of those sauces that is best with homemade egg pasta, and is a delicacy that, in my family, we could eat weekly.
Bolognese Meat Sauce
(From How to Cook Italian by Giuliano Hazan)
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Total time from start to finish: 3 1/2 hours
Makes enough for 1 pound dried pasta, or 3 eggs of homemade pasta
1/2 small yellow onion
1 small carrot
1 stalk celery
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
12 ounces ground beef chuck
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup whole milk
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups canned whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
1. Peel and finely chop the onion. Peel the carrot and celery and cut into 1/4” dice to get 1/4 cup each. Put the onion, carrot, celery, butter, and olive oil in a heavy bottomed sauce pot and place over medium high heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the ground beef and break it up with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and continue stirring until the meat has lost its raw red color.
3. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until it has almost completely evaporated. Add the milk and the nutmeg and cook, stirring occasionally, until the milk has mostly evaporated.
4. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and add them to the pot. Season with salt. Once the tomatoes have started bubbling, turn the heat down very low so that the sauce is barely simmering. Cook uncovered for 3 hours stirring occasionally. If all the liquid evaporates before the cooking time is up, add 1/2 cup of water as needed. After 3 hours, make sure all the liquid has evaporated before you remove the sauce from the heat.
Note: You can prepare the sauce ahead of time and refrigerate it for 2-3 days or freeze it up to 2 months.