Being that I’m not Italian and never eaten a Bolognese made by a real Italian, in Italy, I do feel a little nervous calling this an “authentic Bolognese”. But, all anxiety aside… it’s the real deal. Once you taste this you’ll never look at ground beef and tomato sauce “Bolognese” sauces the same way again. It really has this amazing quality of feeling and tasting very rustic, yet very 5-Star extravagant all at the same time. When I make it, I can’t decide if I should be pretending to be a old-world Italian, making this over a wood-burning fire while looking over a field of olive trees, or an award winning executive chef, dressed in stark white, in a vast commercial kitchen of stainless steel (a little stereotypically cheesy but, there it is). But, then again, imagination is fleeting when making this, my mind being overrun with salivating thoughts of the final product. It has a perfect balance of slow cooked depth but still tasting, somehow, fresh. You cannot go wrong in making this for someone.
I should say that, in defense of my claim to authenticity, the term “Bolognese” is used, accepted and, thusly, adapted somewhat loosely. Without going into great length on the origin of a ragù, which is essentially what this is, and Northern Italy’s cuisine prior to the introduction of ragouts by the French and the impact of the tomato being brought back from the new world, what you need to know is that, like all food, debate over one “true” recipe for something could cause wars. The almighty ragù varies from region to region, all working with the same general principles and ingredients, however, differing in ratios and quantities (and a few other things): some are more stock and/or wine based (red or white) while others are more milky; some use more tomatoes, or less, while some use none; some use finely minced or ground meats, which may be but are not limited to pork, beef, veal or any combo of those, while some use large chunks. In the case of Neapolitan Ragù, a large roast is actually simmered/braised in the sauce to flavor it but pulled out and served as a second course rather than with the sauce and pasta. Some recipes will even call for liver or other type of offal to enrich the sauce. I guess what I am really getting at here, again, is that its authenticity is, for me, challengingly unchallengeable (and is also not pureed tomato sauce from a jar—sorry).
When I make Bolognese, the liquid the meat is stewed in is mostly stock and wine, with just a touch tomato to give the sauce a bit of bright acidity. The wine in question, for me, is always white because I find that it contrasts against the deep, rich meatiness of the beef very well, rather than mimic its depth as a red would. I almost always prefer chardonnay, so you still get a full-bodied and boisterous taste without being overbearing. If you can’t bring yourself to use white, red will do just fine—I just recommend something a little more medium-bodied so it doesn’t become overpowering, like a pinot noir or even Côtes du Rhône. Then there’s that whole milk thing. It sounds strange to cook milk in something like this, because most people think of it as turning the sauce into a creamed tomato sauce, but remember; this isn’t a tomato sauce. The milk varies among different recipes, some having you add the milk in with the meat and cooking it down to almost nothing, while others would have you just add it in with the rest of the liquid. I think the intention is that the milk keeps the meat moist because, even though you’re cooking it in liquid, the meat can still dry out. I have to say that when I’ve made it this way I can’t detect a difference in the meat so I opt for adding it in at the end.
Oh yeah, then there’s the meat itself. I kind of borrow from the Neapolitan ragù by using larger cuts of meat rather than ground or minced, but instead of pulling the meat out I shred it into pieces and add it back to the sauce. Most every Bolognese recipe you find will use some sort of ground meat but I think that ground meat can either get too tough, or too gristly, or too dry, where as this meat stays tender, moist, and full of flavor. Also, I use top eye round roast. I know, it sounds strange—this cut is usually reserved for, as you might imagine, a roast, although its very good for a medium-rare steak, too—but I love stewing with this cut of meat. It has a really good beef flavor and has just enough fat to keep it moist without flooding the pot with copious amounts of fat. Instinct tells us to reach for chuck when we’re stewing but I have to confess that it’s been a long time since I’ve been impressed with the flavor of chuck. Sure, it’s fat keeps it tender and moist, but at the cost of getting all of that fat into the sauce. I’m not clamoring about chuck’s fat in some anti-fat crusade as a martyr in the name of arterial health, but I don’t want an oily sauce not least because it wouldn’t even stick to the pasta. Top eye round (or top eye round) does take a little longer to soften while stewing but it’s well worth the wait. Essentially, I cut the roast into 3 or 4 steaks (about 1 ½” thick), and sear them in a Dutch oven that I’ve rendered some pancetta in. A good sear here is essential for adding deep, complex flavor at the very least.
Once the beef is seared, moved to a plate, and covered with foil, refresh the pan with either a little olive oil or remaining fat from the rendered pancetta. Then in goes finely chopped onions, carrots, and fennel. Normally you’d see celery in lieu of the fennel but, I prefer fennel here; I find that celery can be overbearing even when cooked whereas cooked fennel, despite being blindingly strong with minty-anise flavor when raw, is gentle, mellow, and sweet. And if you’re a fennel-phobe, don’t let this deter you. I don’t know many fennel lovers, but I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t love this Bolognese.
Garlic, herbs, chili flakes, and tomato paste is added and cooked just briefly before tomatoes, wine, and stock go in (and if you have some Parmigiano rinds in the freezer, here’s a great place to throw one or two in). The beef and pancetta are added back in and the whole thing is brought to a boil before going into a preheated oven, covered, for about 2 ½ to 3 hours.
Once the beef is tender, remove it to a wide and shallow bowl. Ladle over about a cup or so of the sauce from the pan to keep the meat moist—don’t worry if there are chunks of vegetables in the sauce, too. Cover the beef with some foil to keep warm while you puree the sauce; if you’re doing it in a blender, do so in batches so you don’t overfill the blender and get splattered with hot liquid. I use an emersion blender for this, and it couldn’t be easier. Shred the beef, add it back to the sauce, and stir in the cream; all that’s left is to toss it with cooked pasta, parsley and, of course, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The pasta in question is usually, or traditionally, something flat and wide like tagliatelle or pappardelle but, because I use larger chunks of meat rather than finer minced or chopped pieces, I find something shorter and sturdier is more preferred. I love it with rigatoni, and you can find it in every grocery store or super market (being in New Haven now I can find countless pasta shapes in every market, but back in Michigan finding tagliatelle or pappardelle at a grocery store would have been close to impossible). Either way, make sure you save some of the pasta water before you drain it. It’s fortified with starches, thrown off by the pasta, and if the sauce is a little too thick to coat the pasta when you toss the two together a few splashes of the cooking water will help loosen the sauce enough to coat the pasta but still give it body from the starch.
If you’ve ever dreamt of visiting Italy, eating a big bowl of this, sitting around a crowded table of family and friends will instantly transport you to Emilia-Romagna. Aside from a few loaves of rustic and chewy bread for soaking up any sauce leftover on your plate, I can’t think of anything else you’d want or need.
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