Sometimes you just have to make things the way you want them to be. And that would go for Bolognese sauce. Many American cooks my age, unless they were blessed with an Italian nonna, were raised with red sauce with meat and spaghetti because that’s what there was and it was cheap. Meatballs might show up on a big day. That’s what there still is if you go down to most of the local, inexpensive Italian places across the U.S. They also usually make a pizza the town adores or eats anyway along with a bottle of cheap chianti for date night and American beer on tap for the rest of the time.
Soldiers returning from Italy after World War II brought with them their desire for the foods of a grateful but war-torn nation. Enterprising immigrants opened restaurants providing the soldiers with the foods they had developed a craving for and introduced the soldiers’ families to spaghetti and meatballs, sausage and peppers, ravioli, lasagna, manicotti, baked ziti and pizza.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, Italian food was becoming a part of the American diet and delicatessens offered salami, capocollo, mortadella, pepperoni, mozzarella and provolone, while spumone was a popular dessert, and variations of minestrone abounded. During the 70s and 80s, many Italian-inspired regional dishes became popular in America — Eggplant Parmigiana, Fettuccini Alfredo, Penne alla Vodka, Shrimp Scampi, Chicken Piccata, Chicken Cacciatore, Steak Pizzaiola, Osso Buco, Veal Marsala, Pasta Primavera, Fried Calamari, Saltimbocca, Caponata, Calzone and Stromboli. Grissini, semolina bread, risotto, broccoli rabe, arugula, radicchio, Gorgonzola, Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, olive oil, pesto, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, pizzelle, cannoli, zeppole, torrone, gianduja, panettone and espresso were common additions to meals.
I’ve had a hankering for pasta lately. Last week, Dave and I stopped for lunch at Panino’s –one of our local red sauce joints, albeit with the largest variety of panini I’ve ever seen — and he couldn’t believe I ordered a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce. “What?” I simply craved it. It was absolutely edible, but it didn’t satisfy the hunger for what I really wanted on the menu: bolognese.If I get a hankering for fresh pasta and Bolognese, then I just have to make myself. (Especially if Emily’s coming home for a few days.) I learned to cook sauce in a few places. I had an aunt who learned from the Italian restaurant down below her Chicago apartment and passed a few tidbits onto me. Of course I watched my mom, who made the best Irish spaghetti around with her home-canned tomatoes. I also worked in an Italian restaurant nearly all the way through college, but mostly I read Marcella Hazan. THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK was published in 1973, which was the year before Dave and I married, and it was updated in 1992. Combined at that point with MORE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING, it then became ESSENTIALS OF CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING. They’re perfect, pleasant, loving, precise, and delicious tomes dedicated to just exactly how to do that Italian thing the way it should be done. Read this NYT article for more info on my talented long-distance, long-time mentor, who by the way never wrote in English. Her dear husband translated all of her work.
Over the years, I’ve made it exactly like Marcella wrote or even just like Tyler Florence thought it should be done and it’s always lovely either way. (We are big Tyler fans.) This time, though, I simply went ahead and fixed it just as I wanted to. Which meant a little more tomato than Tyler and a lot more tomato than Marcella. Bolognese, the real deal, has just a little tomato and no herbs at all; it’s meat sauce and is eaten with a little sauce and a ton of pasta. Like 1 cup of sauce to 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 pounds of pasta. Nothing like Americans are used to. (Perhaps because we eat pasta as a main dish and, for the Italians, it’s a first course -primo–served between the antipasto and the secondo, which is a meat or fish dish.) I like it just in between, but I do want a little more sauce to the meat and add a bit of thyme and bay because I like them. Period.
Here’s my wiki info to share:
Meal stage Composition Aperitivo apéritif usually enjoyed as an appetizer before a large meal, may be: Campari, Cinzano, Prosecco, Aperol, Spritz, Vermouth. Antipasto literally “before (the) meal”, hot or cold appetizers. Primo “first course”, usually consists of a hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, or soup. Secondo “second course”, the main dish, usually fish or meat. Traditionally veal, pork and chicken are most commonly used, at least in the North, though beef has become more popular since World War II and wild game is found, particularly in Tuscany. Fish are frequently caught locally. Contorno “side dish”, may be a salad or cooked vegetables. A traditional menu features salad along with the main course. Formaggio e frutta “cheese and fruits”, the first dessert. Local cheeses may be part of the antipasto or contorno as well. Dolce “sweet”, such as cakes (like Tiramisu) and cookies. Caffè coffee. Digestivo “digestives”, liquors/liqueurs (grappa, amaro, limoncello, sambuca, nocino, sometimes referred to as ammazzacaffè, “coffee killer”).
So here’s how I did it and maybe you’ll try my version when you’ve a hankering for Bolognese with a bit more something or other and you have a whole afternoon for it:
Alyce’s Bolognese Sauce serves 6 as a main course or 8-10 as a first course (Primo)
Bolognese is the risotto of sauces. You cook, you add liquid until it’s gone; you do it again and again until the Bolognese is a shiny, thick ragu you can’t wait to dive into.
Because it’s so necessary to eat pasta immediately after it’s cooked and tossed, have a salad after or alongside the pasta…
- 1/4 pound bacon, minced
- Olive oil
- Crushed red pepper
- 1 very large onion, minced
- 6 carrots, minced*
- 6 celery stalks, minced
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 pounds ground beef or 1 pound ground beef and one pound ground veal or ground pork
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme and 1 bay leaf
- 2 cups whole milk
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 cups white wine
- 2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, crushed with your hands
1 pound fresh Tagliatelle or linguine** (Not available? Use Cipriani’s tagliarelle bianchi–order here.)
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and cook the bacon in it over medium flame with 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper. Add onion, carrots, and celery. If you’ve done the whole thing the food processor, add all of it to the olive oil heated with the crushed red pepper. Season bacon and vegetables mixture with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables are softened and onion is translucent — about 10 minutes. Add garlic and, stirring, cook another minute or so. Your house is already smelling like heaven.
- Stir in meat, breaking up well. Season with a bit more salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until lightly browned–no more. Add thyme and bay leaf; stir. Pour in milk, season with a few grinds of fresh nutmeg and let it simmer, stirring regularly, until milk has disappeared.
- Pour in wine and let simmer again, stirring occasionally, until the wine has disappeared. Add tomatoes, stir well, and let simmer for 3 hours or more, stirring regularly, until thickened. If you’d like, you can cook this sauce for hours and hours. Add a little water if it becomes to thick or starts to stick.
- When the sauce — ragu — is as thick as you’d like, skim off most of the fat and discard. (Marcella would leave it in and also butter the pasta.) Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed. It should need it. Make the salad while the pasta water comes to a bowl and place it on the table. Yes, you might put it in the fridge, though I don’t think it has to be so darned cold all the time.
- Meanwhile, bring an 8-10-quart pot of well-salted water to boil and add tagliatelle; cook 3 minutes and drain. (Or cook your pasta according to package directions.) Toss the hot pasta very well indeed with 3 or 4 ladles full of sauce in a large shallow bowl or in the pot until all of the pasta is well-coated. Leave no stone unturned! (Leave no piece of pasta unsauced.)
- Serve immediately in warm bowls with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and, if you wish, a sauce boat of extra sauce for American tastes, which is what we do. I like to leave the pepper grinder on the table for those that would like a bit more heat.
*If you have a food processor, chop these vegetables along with the bacon there.
**If you read this blog often, you’ll know I’m a fan of Whole Foods 365 pastas, particularly their whole wheat pasta. If you’d like, you can substitute this or another good quality dried pasta for fresh. Most supermarkets do carry fresh or frozen fresh pasta, as do Italian delis or shops.
“Marcella was always very distressed when she would read complicated chefs’ recipes,” Mr. Hazan said. “She would just say, ‘Why not make it simple?’ So the sentiment holds. We will make it simple.”
Wine: We had this meal with an inexpensive Querceto chianti and were quite happy. There’s a little video about them on youtube to view HERE. I adore viewing these short videos—it’s beautiful to see from whence the wine comes!
Dessert: My friend and neighbor Jan–quite the cookie baker– makes biscotti and freezes it. Sometimes, if you invite her at the last minute, she’ll bring a small bag of it to share. She was to dinner last Monday and a few biscotti remained. Emily and I ate them with a decaf espresso and a piece of hazelnut chocolate while Dave did the dishes. Tucker stayed at our feet. He’s so happy when Emily is “home.” Us, too.
I missed you at dinner. Where were you?
Sing a new song,