By: Alexander Ehasz, Columnist
As restaurants shut down and staying home as much as possible becomes the only responsible course of action, learning to cook is more important than ever. At the same time, the almost therapeutic and meditative peace found in preparing a great meal makes this a great time to learn some new recipes, sharpen your technique, and get into the kitchen.
In my opinion, Italian home cooking is the epitome of comfort food. Straightforward preparations of fresh produce and vibrant herbs along with rich, savory cheeses and meats yield deeply satisfying results. Whether cooked with strict adherence to a codified recipe developed centuries ago by Roman shepherds or made more in line with Italian-American fusion dishes like Chicken Parmesan, there is a world of enjoyment to be found in simple preparation of great ingredients. During times like these when tensions are high and grocery stores run low, simple and comforting food is more important than ever.
This bolognese recipe can be adapted according to what is available. Ground beef (ground fresh from chuck steak, if possible) and pancetta yield a relatively traditional and, in my opinion, optimal result. However, pork, veal, and most other common ground meats would still yield a good sauce. Any dry or off-dry white wine will work. A red wine would also work, and substituting with additional chicken or beef stock would work in a pinch. Every ingredient should be as fresh and high quality, as is practical.
An important disclaimer: This sauce is not a strictly traditional Ragù alla Bolognese (as formally standardized by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina). That “official” recipe is absolutely worth trying as well, and yields a result different from the more American-style tomato-forward meat sauce presented below.
Adaptable Bolognese Recipe
Serves: 3-4 people
Cook Time: 2-4 hours
- 1 pound ground beef, preferably ground chuck (opt for 80/20 if not grinding at home)
- 4 ounces pancetta, cubed or thick slices
- 28 ounce can tomatoes, preferably San Marzano variety
- 2 cups chicken or beef stock
- 1 stalk celery
- 1 medium onion
- 1 large carrot
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- ½ cup dry white wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Wide flat or tube shaped pasta, fresh or dried (tagliatelle, rigatoni, paccheri and Demi-paccheri are all good options)
- Grated Italian hard cheese such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, or Pecorino Toscano
- Chopped parsley for garnish
Prepare the vegetable soffritto: Peel the carrot and onion. In a food processor or with a knife, cut the celery, onion, and carrot down to a fine mince.
If the pancetta used is in slice form, cut it into roughly quarter inch cubes. In a large pot, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom and heat on high until it starts to shimmer. Add the ground beef and pancetta (or other meats used) and cook until browned, stirring regularly.
Reduce heat to medium and add the vegetables and tomato paste. Continue cooking for several minutes while stirring. Add the half cup of wine (or stock) and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan.
Add the tomatoes and crush with a wooden spoon or similar implement. Chunks are ok – they will break down as the sauce cooks. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
Simmer the sauce uncovered for several hours (anywhere from 2 hours on the higher end of medium-low heat in a narrow pot or 4 hours on a lower temperature in a wider, shallow pot). until it is significantly reduced and very thick. Make sure to stir regularly and reduce the heat as needed to prevent it burning once it reaches this stage.
Add two cups of chicken or beef stock and stir in. Cook the sauce down again to the same thick consistency as before. As the sauce nears completion, boil 1 pound pasta in salted water according to the package instructions, making sure to reserve half a cup of the pasta water after it’s finished cooking. Once the sauce is fully reduced to a thick paste, salt to taste.
Stir the pasta and starchy water into the sauce and stir until well mixed. Serve and top with a generous sprinkle of fresh grated cheese and chopped parsley.