A Bolognese from The Lab

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I may have mentioned my recent deep dive into cooking before. It’s been a fun journey, I’ve learned a lot, and actually lost a lot of weight on the way (but mostly because of exercise…). I most enjoy complex, time-consuming recipes as they have room for experimentation and a little room for error followed by a great feeling of satisfaction when it actually goes right. Oh, and an amazing meal.

This bolognese sauce is the result of many hours of all-out experimentation. It started when I decided to make my own pasta. I got good at it, but wanted a sauce worthy of the time and effort that takes. So why not spend an extra six hours making one, right? After seven major variations and a few failures, I’ve got it down to a four hour process (most of which is a slow simmer) that I’ve replicated a few times now. It’s best served with a wide noodle pasta like pappardelle or fettuccine, but if you’re making your own an inch-wide noodle cut from a pasta sheet is amazing with it.

Bolognese is a meat-based sauce originating from Bologna, Italy. It’s a lot of meat. If you’re vegetarian, don’t try to replicate this with TVP or anything else. The whole point of it is the meat and the fat. I was vegetarian for 17 years, and I’m pretty sure the effort is better spent making actually good vegetarian food.

Since we’re on the topic, we’ll talk about health for a moment. This recipe involves a decadent amount of salt and fat. I’ve had high blood pressure and cholesterol since my late teens, and it got worse when I gained a lot of weight. I tried controlling salt and fat intake, but it didn’t make any difference. Since I’ve lost the weight and started regular exercise, my blood pressure and cholesterol are perfectly within normal range. I’m eating drastically higher amounts of fat and salt (and way less sugar) and doing better than ever. I’m absolutely not a doctor and am offering no nutritional advice, I’m just saying that avoiding fat and salt caused more boredom than it provided better health for me.

Ok, back to the recipe.

I moved away from the traditional base of celery, carrots, and onion for a few permutations and learned a lot in the process, but I’ve gone back to it for this “final1” variation. So this is almost traditional.

A few notes

The beef: I don’t eat a lot of beef, but when I do I source all of my meat locally. If you can find a good provider of grass-fed beef in your area, it’s worth it. This recipe uses only beef, but you can substitute in pork up to 50% of the meat content without changing the directions. I’ve also seen it with chicken livers, but I really can’t get into the taste of liver.

For the beef, the 4/1 meat-to-fat ratio is vital. Get 80% lean/20% fat ground beef. Don’t screw around with that.

The pot: this recipe (aside from roasting the spices) is all be done in a single pan/pot, so it needs to be pretty large. I’ve found a 5-quart sauté pan or a dutch oven to be ideal.

The wine: this recipe also calls for a significant amount of wine. Use a good, bold red wine, and one that you’d be happy to drink. “Cooking wine” seems like a valid idea until you try it with good wine. I recommend a Zinfandel or Cabernet for this. My last version of this was made with Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel.

Salt: one thing I’ve learned in the last year is that the line between the perfect amount of salt and way too much salt is thinner than you think. One of my favorite chefs is Yotam Ottolenghi, who shared his quest to find the perfect amount of salt in an interview that I can’t find now. But the ratio of salt in his recipe demonstrates the concept nicely. Try the Black Pepper Tofu, you’ll see.

Roasted spices: you can use dried spices if you want to, but you absolutely can’t beat the results of roasting the whole seeds along with the bay leaves and red pepper flakes, then grinding it down. Get a spice mill if you don’t have one.

Thyme and nutmeg: I’m actually not a huge fan of thyme in most dishes, but this one is better with it. Take 4 or 5 sprigs of time and fashion them into a bundle tied well with string. If not properly secured, you will end up with stems in your sauce.

The nutmeg absolutely has to be ground from whole nutmeg. You only need a few scrapes with a zester to do the trick. This $10 zester has more than made up for it’s cost, as it gets used for grating harder ingredients as well as zesting citrus (lemon is an amazing ingredient in unexpected places).

Spiciness: This recipe calls for red pepper flakes and whole pickled peppers. The same-day result is warm but not unbearable to anyone who likes a little heat. Refrigerating overnight increases the spiciness, though, so be aware and moderate the spicy elements as needed for your or your guests’ tastes.

Simmer vs braise: I’ve tried cooking this by simmering for 3-4 hours as well as braising in an oven at low temp (250°) for 6-8 hours. I definitely prefer the simmered version. It takes a little more manual effort, but it’s worth it. If you want something you can put 45m into and then leave overnight, though, braising instead of simmering is an option.

Texture: Multiple recipes I’ve tried have called for using an immersion blender to smooth out the sauce. I hated the resulting texture. I like it chunky. Feel free to make your own choice there.

Brett’s Bolognese

  • Serves: 6
  • Prep time: 45 minutes
  • Cook time: 4 hours

Ingredients

Bolognese:

  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for seasoning
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped onion
  • 2/3 cup roughly chopped celery
  • 2/3 cup roughly chopped carrot
  • 1/2 small bunch thyme
  • 1/4 cup pickled peppers
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Whole nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups canned whole tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef chuck (20% fat)
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp Fresh Basil, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Fresh Mint, chopped
  • A spice mill or a mortar and pestle

For serving:

  • 3 ounces Parmesan, finely grated (about ¾ cup)
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Start with the spice mix. Dry roast the bay leaves, cloves, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, and black peppercorns in a small pan until it becomes very aromatic. Don’t burn them. Remove from heat and cool for a few minutes before using a spice mill or mortar and pestle to grind them into a powder. (This is way easier with a spice mill than a pestle, totally worth a few bucks to have one around.)

Use a food processor to purée the garlic, celery, onions, and carrots. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil in your pot over medium heat until it glimmers and then add the purée to it. Cook until it softens and starts to brown, then add the pickled peppers (whole), the spice mixture from the first step, and 1 1/2 tsp of sea salt. Cook at medium heat until it’s browned and all water has evaporated. This can take about 15 minutes.

Break the ground beef up with a fork and add it to the pot. Season it with some more salt (but not excessively, you’ll be adding more salt as this goes). Mix to coat and then continue cooking over medium heat until browned. I don’t just mean the pink has disappeared, I mean browned almost to the point where you think it’s burning. Trust me, browned meat tastes great in a sauce like this.

With a wooden spoon, scrape up any burnt bits from the pot and mix in the tomatoes. You can add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste here for thickness, but it’s not required. Lower the heat to medium-low and add a cup of whole milk and a grating of nutmeg. Cook this, stirring occasionally, until the milk has completely evaporated, 5-10 minutes.

Add the wine and the bundle of thyme and continue cooking to reduce by half. (Take note of where on the side of the pan the liquid comes up to and watch for the level to drop. I usually raise the temperature up just a little for this part.) When the wine is reduced, add 2 cups of water and bring it to a rapid simmer. Then lower the temperature to a very, very slow simmer and set a timer for 3.5 hours. Leave it to simmer, uncovered.

You don’t need to stir very often. Check it at 30 minute intervals and give it a thorough stir. After the first hour, start taste testing and add salt as desired. Throughout the cook time, as the water evaporates, add more by 1/4–1/2 cup at a time. The repeated reduction is what will give you the most flavorful and melt-in-your-mouth meat. When the time is up, though, you want the liquid to be evaporated and the fat separated from the sauce.

Remove from heat and stir in fresh basil. After it’s cooled for 5-6 minutes, stir in the fresh mint. This sounds weird, I know, but it’s awesome and works well in just about any tomato-based soup/sauce I’ve tried it with.

Serve with a wide pasta (pappardelle or fettuccine), buttered, and top with parmesan and black pepper. Enjoy the looks of ecstasy on your friends and family’s faces. The sauce will keep refrigerated for 5 days, and up to a month in the freezer. Note that the spiciness will increase over a few days in refrigeration.

  1. We both know that’s not true.