A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 29 April 2013

Spaghetti Bolognese

Spaghetti Bolognese (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

One of the endlessly fascinating things about cookery is how difficult it can be to get even the simplest dishes right. Of course, we're often in such a rush, we haven't time to check the recipe, we think we know what we're doing. And I'm sure most of you brilliant cooks and chefs out there do know what you're doing. But, speaking for myself, I must admit that if I hurry and guess and estimate, the result can sometimes be mediocre, if not plain inedible.

What I'm really saying is this: respect for those of us who can cook standard dishes brilliantly, whether it's a Sunday roast dinner, a full English breakfast, a loaf of bread, a vegetable curry, a beef casserole, a cottage pie (got this one cracked— the best recipe in the world has got to be Delia Smith's cottage pie, which includes swede as well as carrot, a surprising half-teaspoonful of cinnamon, fresh thyme and parsley, and cheese-encrusted leeks on top) or a simple poached egg.

To reinforce my point: how often have you eaten any of these dishes, whether at the house of a friend or a family member, or even at a restaurant, and thought: this is legendary! Not often, I bet. (I don't want to sound mean here. Naturally, we're very forgiving of and generous to friends and family!) To rest my case: during my mammoth South West Coast Path walk, when I stayed in B & Bs most nights, only one breakfast in ten showed all three attributes of love, care and skill.

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing a thought which came to me this afternoon. Spaghetti bolognese! Yes, an ordinary, classic dish, beloved of adults and children alike. We've probably consumed many in our time. Yet how do you get it perfect? There are hundreds of recipes out there in cookery books — and many more to be found on the internet (and the internet can be a minefield for recipes). I must have cooked this dish a million times, yet it's often just adequate rather than sensational.

There are so many variable factors. I mean, do you add white wine or red wine — or no wine at all? Do you make it with a mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery, or some other combination? Fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes? And if canned tomatoes, what sort? How do you avoid the sauce turning bitter? And how long do you cook the sauce for? (Recipes vary from 20 minutes to 3 hours!) Which pasta do you use (spaghetti, linguine, tagliatelle or some other kind)? And do you include either chicken livers or streaky bacon with the minced beef? And is the mince top-quality butcher's steak or fatty, supermarket mince of dubious origin? And what do you use for stock? Which herbs do you favour, and are they fresh or dried? And why does Italian food always taste much better in Italy than if you try to replicate it elsewhere? (The Italian ragù alla bolognese is rather different from UK and US versions.) And how do you eat the spaghetti — with a fork, or with a fork and spoon? And is there an elegant way to eat it, or doesn't it matter? You see, there are endless variables. You could spend your life debating the ins and outs. If you hadn't anything better to do.

My challenge to you is this. Let's discover the perfect spaghetti bolognese! If you have a wonderful tried-and-tested formula, do post it in my comment box. If you want to take part, and experiment with different cookery book or internet recipes, please report on the result. If you want to join me in trying out any suggested recipes from mutual blog friends, do this too. No rush — we can do this over a period of months!

(Apologies to vegetarian readers — but any contributions, suggestions and ideas about tomato-based sauces would be very welcome.)                  


Ruth said...

I'm not wasting any time to get on this cook's wagon. Spaghetti bolognese is one of my favorite dishes, but here in the U.S., not one I've had until going abroad! We had a favorite dark little restaurant in Alexandroupoli, Greece we went to when we lived in Istanbul, and its bolognese was fantastic. I fell in love! I have made it once, and it wasn't bad, but I don't remember what recipe I used.

I am a thorough believer in America's Test Kitchens via Cook's Illustrated. You can get an inexpensive subscription, and it's one of the best investments I've made. They really test and test and retest their recipes. Here's their bolognese. I also have it in one of their cookbooks, with a long wonderful explanation of the process they used to finalize the recipe. Another question is whether to use cream. According to the long and detailed explanation in my cookbook, milk and cream are "definitely not included" in Bologna.

Ragu alla bolognese


This recipe makes enough sauce to coat 2 pounds of pasta. Leftover sauce may be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to one month. Eight teaspoons of gelatin is equivalent to one (1-ounce) box of gelatin. If you can’t find ground veal, use an additional ¾ pound of ground beef.

1cup low-sodium chicken broth
1cup beef broth
8teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 onion, chopped coarse
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped coarse
1 celery rib, chopped coarse
4ounces pancetta, chopped fine
4ounces mortadella, chopped
6ounces chicken livers, trimmed
3tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3/4pound 85 percent lean ground beef
3/4pound ground veal
3/4pound ground pork
3tablespoons minced fresh sage
1(6-ounce) can tomato paste
2cups dry red wine
Salt and pepper
1pound pappardelle or tagliatelle pasta
Parmesan cheese, grated, for serving


1. Combine chicken broth and beef broth in bowl; sprinkle gelatin over top and set aside. Pulse onion, carrot, and celery in food processor until finely chopped, about 10 pulses, scraping down bowl as needed; transfer to separate bowl. Pulse pancetta and mortadella in now-empty food processor until finely chopped, about 25 pulses, scraping down bowl as needed; transfer to second bowl. Process chicken livers in now-empty food processor until pureed, about 5 seconds; transfer to third bowl.

2. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add beef, veal, and pork; cook, breaking up pieces with spoon, until all liquid has evaporated and meat begins to sizzle, 10 to 15 minutes. Add chopped pancetta mixture and sage; cook, stirring frequently, until pancetta is translucent, 5 to 7 minutes, adjusting heat to keep fond from burning. Add chopped vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until rust-colored and fragrant, about 3 minutes.

3. Stir in wine, scraping pan with wooden spoon to loosen fond. Simmer until sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in broth mixture and return to simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook at bare simmer until thickened (wooden spoon should leave trail when dragged through sauce), about 1½ hours.

4. Stir in pureed chicken livers, bring to boil, and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste; cover and keep warm.

5. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Reserve ¾ cup cooking water, then drain pasta and return it to pot. Add half of sauce and cooking water to pasta and toss to combine. Transfer to serving bowl and serve, passing cheese separately.

The Solitary Walker said...

This sounds an extraordinarily good recipe, Ruth. I agree about pappardelle or tagliatelle — the sauce just slides off linguine.

Just to be absolutely clear: have you made this recipe yourself? Should we try it?

Grace said...

This post pretty much explains why cooking (and eating) is so much fun!

For some reason I have never made Spaghetti bolognese! I feel that I am missing out on something:)

My go-to cookbook has a recipe so I will be sure to try that one. The cookbook is "The New Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook". Include cream and red wine (or beef broth).

My Jamie Oliver cookbook (Food Revolution) version does not include cream or wine.

Which is more authentic? I can only imagine there is a huge difference in flavor.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it's fun, isn't it, Grace!

Jamie Oliver is good — I have several of his cookbooks. So far I've never put cream into spag. bog. — but I think I'll now be trying it...

Ruth said...

I agree, I was not clear. I have NOT made this recipe, but the ingredients and methods sound like they would result in a fantastic sauce, based on the little experience I've had. I think the multiple meats, plus the chicken livers, and the gelatin for silkiness, all sound superb. I don't know if I can find mortadella; I wonder if any pork sausage would do?

Wendy said...

I'm an on-again, off-again enthusiastic cook - mainly because I'm the only cook... We had guests for a week and I used my entire repertoire of vegetarian dishes that could please slightly finicky Chinese eaters... and as soon as they left I could NOT remember what I knew how to cook. Maybe it's the changing seasons (oh, you ask, "is the season changing?")... but lately I can only think of summer things and the ingredients are lacking yet!

Sorry, I'm contributing nothing to your Spaghetti thread here but just wanted to convey my pleasure that at least someone out there is enthusiastic about cooking and I will certainly lurk around in case it's catching! :)

The Solitary Walker said...

Ruth, I agree, the recipe sounds fantastic. Mortadella is easy to come by in any UK supermarket — perhaps some other pork charcuterie would be ok, but I think it would be fine to leave it out and increase the pancetta. I have never, ever done a recipe with such an amalgam of different raw meats, and obviously this is a 'special' rather than an everyday, family recipe, but I would love to try it!

Thanks for your lovely and spontaneous comment, Wendy — it's funny, but I'm terrible at remembering recipes, and how to cook what I really know how to cook without checking up on things first... hence my post! Enthusiasm is always strong among my blog commenters, so I hope you stay around..!

Goat said...

I haven't been keeping up with blogs lately, having been so busy with my own and the endless bloody walking and photography, etc, but not along ago I recall you saying you were trying to eat less meat! And I notice a gentle climb in the number of cooking posts on your blog. I need to check your other site to see how the weight loss is going!

Having never cooked meat, as such, I have little to offer here although I admit with some shame that in my early vegetarian days we would often cook bolognese-style meals with that hideous product known as "TVP". It seemed OK at the time, but we were usually dining after an evening of imbibing cask wine and marijuana, which certainly helped.

The Solitary Walker said...

Goat, I am exposed! Actually I'm still cutting down on meat, and have done so for a while, but I admit certain recent posts seem to run counter to this! I have put on a couple of pounds, it's true. What with one thing or another, I've been less active than usual, and forced tp be more domestic than itinerant.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I love spag bol Robert - if I want to make it really special I add chicken livers. But I heard an Italian cook say the other day that it is not actually a dish that Italians eat! When I was in Bologna I had it in a cafe solely because I thought I should have it because of where I was - and it was delicious. Now I wonder whther the cook was correct. Do you know?

The Solitary Walker said...

From what I can tell, Pat, the derivation of our English version of spag bol is shrouded in mystery. However, the way we eat it is certainly not authentically Italian. For a start, the Italians would never eat such a sauce with spaghetti, as the strands are too thin to 'carry' the sauce (tagliatelle is better). And as for the sauce itself, a traditional bolognese ragù contains no herbs, no garlic and no tomatoes — just meat, onions, wine, vegetables and a little tomato paste.

The Solitary Walker said...

This is Antonio Carluccio's authentic Italian version — similarities with Ruth's recipe, but simpler: fewer meats and no herbs. Looks good to me.

Tagliatelle al Ragu Bolognese

(Tagliatelle with Bolognese Sauce)

This is by far the best-known Bolognese recipe which, to be genuine, has to be made with fresh tagliatelle and not spaghetti.

Serves 4

500g (1 lb) fresh tagliatelle or 400g (14 oz) dried egg tagliatelle
60g (2 oz) Parmesan cheese, grated

For the ragu:

55g (1 ¾ oz) butter
55g (1 ¾ oz) minced prosciutto far or pancetta
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
100g (3 ½ oz) minced lean veal or beef
100g (3 ½ oz) minced lean pork
1 glass of dry red wine
A little beef or chicken stock
3 tbsp tomato paste
Salt and pepper

To make the ragu, heat the butter in a large pan, add the prosciutto fat or pancetta, carrot, celery and onion and fry gently for about 10 minutes. Add the minced meats and stir with a wooden spoon to break them up into smaller chunks.

Cook for about 15 minutes to brown the meat, then add the wine and bubble for a few minutes to allow the alcohol to evaporate little. Stir in a little stock to prevent the mixture sticking to the pan. Stir in the tomato paste and dilute with a few tablespoons of stock to give a sauce like consistency. Leave to simmer for 1 ½ hours, adding more stock if the mixture becomes dry. At the end of the cooking time, add a little more stock to obtain a smooth consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook the tagliatelle in boiling salted water until al dente, then drain and mix with the sauce. Serve with the Parmesan cheese.