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Warning! You are about to read a lot about a dish that many would think could be discussed in one paragraph – Bolognese Ragu. After two trips to Bologna, I really began to understand how seriously the people there take their food. Because we are always on the search for the traditional and authentic ways of cooking regional specialties, I was fascinated by the depth of information, history and passion the Bolognese have for this sauce. It is a testament to the amazing people and culture of this small city. Here at We Are Never Full, I’m sure you’ve already grasped that we really want to know the history and culture behind the food we make. The best part about this sauce, you will learn if you dare continue reading, is that it differs from family to family and is still a cause of debate within the city as to ‘what is an authentic recipe’. We think it’s well worth a read – but if you don’t agree, skip to the bottom for the recipes. – amy and jonny
Alessandra Spisni’s Ragu w/ Red Wine (w/ Homemade Garganelli)
We spent two separate short trips to Bologna in the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy – the first in late 2006 and the second last summer (2007). Within the first few minutes of arriving in the city, I instantly fell in love. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Rome, but I fell in deep, passionate love with Bologna. Besides being one of the most influential culinary cities in Italy (and the world), it is also beautiful, rich in culture and very livable – plus, they know how awesome they are without having ego. To make us fall in love even harder, my husband’s favorite author, Umberto Eco, is a professor of semiotics at University of Bologna. And even though we recently received a $322 ticket from the City of Bologna for supposedly driving in a ‘locals only’ zone last July (oh, we’re fighting this one HARD), I still have much love for the place.
There are probably two things that come to mind when one thinks about Bologna, whether or not you have visited it – Pasta Bolognese (or Ragu alla Bolognese) and bologna (sing it with me if you know it, my bologna has a first name it’s O-S-C-A-R), sometimes written “baloney” in American-speak (which gives me a shiver up and down my spine). We could write a whole post (which, come to think about it would be a good idea… I’ll add it to the list) on REAL, AUTHENTIC bologna, called mortadella, not the crap that’s sold with the O-S-C-A-R/ M-E-Y-E-R label on it. But we’ll save that lesson for another day. This post is going to be an ode to the hearty, fabulous and traditional sauce – the Ragu alla Bolognese.
Ragu w/ Chicken Livers and Milk (with Homemade Tagliatelle)
Many people may mistake a Ragu alla Bolognese sauce for a ‘meat sauce’ which is right to a certain extent. But most Bolognese people would die if they heard it described as just a meat sauce because it is so much more to them. The problem is, like many other authentic Italian dishes, Pasta con Ragu alla Bolognese has been reinvented into an over simplified meal (read: finding faster, cheaper and grosser ways to cook it) by other countries (ie: “Spag Bol” in England or “Ragu – It’s IN There!” jarred American red sauces) and has also become a sort of tourist-trap meal. I remember even while in Spain seeing Spaghetti Bolognese on a tourist menu – in SPAIN. You know what I’m talking about – those gross tourist restaurants that have the large sign in the front begging you to come eat there with pictures of each menu item they serve. People, if you don’t know how to translate Spaghetti Bolognese into English and you need a picture to show you what it is, PLEASE, do yourself a favor, keep walking! Not to mention that the picture usually resembles a bit of overcooked noodles with a can of red dog food plopped on top. Narsty.
What is important for you, dear-readers-on-the-search-for-the-authentic-and-traditional, to know and understand is if you are ever in Bologna/Northern Italy and they try to serve you Spaghetti alla Bolognese do not, I repeat, do not order it and immediately leave that restaurant. The Bolognese would never pair their traditional ragu with spaghetti since it is not a local type of pasta – it is local to the south, specifically Napoli. Tagliatelle would be a very traditional pairing, even tortellini, two types of egg pasta created in Bologna. Although I jest, you can choose to eat Bolognese with Spaghetti in Bologna if you so choose, I’m just trying to help you ‘spot the tourist trap’. It’s very important when traveling (wink, wink).
Today we’re going to talk about making the real, the traditional and the authentic Ragu alla Bolognese sauce. It’s a regional specialty that has many different ways to make it depending on family recipes and methods. All the recipes include soffritto (carrots, onion and celery), meat and wine. Some include a few other ingredients including some sort of cured meat like pancetta and others add sausage. Other recipes are a bit bolder and more complicated, adding milk or cream (a source of controversy with the Bolognese), some add nutmeg and white wine, while others use a mixture of meats. But, the one thing all Ragu recipes have in common is that they are all to be made with love and patience because it should always simmer away for hours for the flavors to build. This ain’t no 30-minute meal.
Back when the sauce was created, old cuts of beef were used which were very tough – long simmering was necessary and was known to create flavor. Oh, and you know what else is often missing from a traditional Bolognese sauce? TOMATO. Yup, that’s right folks, I know you don’t want to believe it but it’s true. At best, most authentic Ragu alla Bolognese recipes will only have a bit of tomato paste or some whole, peeled tomatoes. But, then again, that may depend on which Bolognese ‘mama’ you talk to. As Anna Nonni, owner of a restaurant outside of Bologna, says in the latest issue of Saveur, “[Ask] ten women, you’ll get ten different recipes, all of them traditional.” I like the idea that each recipe has been passed down through the years by family members. In fact, this is still a hotly debated issue in the area – will the real Ragu please stand up, please stand up?
On a lazy Saturday, Jonny and I were inspired by the latest issue of the wonderful Saveur (#110) magazine to create two different types of Ragu alla Bolognese. That issue of Saveur contained six different recipes for ragu. We had the time to spare and we were curious to do side-by-side comparisons of two very different, but traditional recipes. I chose the most simple recipe (Alessandra Spisni’s Ragu alla Bolognese) and a more complicated and richer recipe containing chicken livers and milk (Ragu Enriched with Chicken Livers). If we had time and stovetop space to cook all six, we would’ve! Bottom line, both sauces were absolutely, ridiculously delicious and I would recommend anyone who wants to impress family and friends to choose to make either. There was something so unbelievably satisfying about the Spisni’s Ragu. It was so simple to make, I felt like I barely cooked. I just let the gas stove do the work. To me, it was the quintessential Italian meal – simple and hearty with flavors coming together with time to blend perfectly. It tasted like the Bolognese I ate in Bologna. Spisni’s Ragu is almost exactly the same as the Ragu recipe that is in the “La Cucina Bolognese della Tradizione” (Traditional Bolognese Cooking) cookbook I bought at the famous Tamburini food store (Via Caprarie 1, Bologna, TEL: 051234726), so I feel like I tested three Ragu recipes!
On the other hand, the Ragu Enriched with Chicken Livers recipe blew my socks off, probably because it had those other elements of flavor that just made it stand apart from the Spisni’s Ragu. For instance, this recipe used milk, cloves, nutmeg and white wine. There were also more steps involved than Spisni’s (ie: making a tomato-paste broth and simmering milk with cloves) and the use of three types of meat, pork, beef and chicken livers, was slightly flavor-changing. I’ve always been a big fan of cloves and nutmeg in cooking and these spices, combined with the use of milk, created a beautiful ragu.
Because of the hotly debated topic of ‘what is authentic ragu’ in Bologna, in 1982, the Bologna chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina researched and investigated what should be the official recipe of Ragu. This academic society whose aim is to preserve Italian food and techniques created the “Classic Ragu alla Bolognese”. We didn’t choose to test this one because it was more similar to the Ragu with Chicken Livers recipe and we wanted to distinct and different flavors to compare. But check out the recipe here.
I am copying these recipes virtually word for word from Saveur magazine because I followed this recipe word for word (except I added just a touch more tomato paste in both). I really hope you will trade in your store-bought meat sauce for one of these recipes. At least, I hope you give a big F-You to people like Sandra Lee and Rachel Ray by screwing the ‘semi-homemade’ or ’30-minute meal’ rule and taking the time to try these long-simmering sauces just once. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. Better yet, make a huge batch, then ‘Rachel Ray’ your little heart out by grabbing some leftovers from the freezer for a delicious and authentic 30-minute meal! If you can’t go to Bologna, bring Bologna to you!
ALESSANDRA SPISNI’S RAGU ALLA BOLOGNESE (makes alot – about 8 cups)
- 1/2 cup lard (butter works)
- 3 small yellow onions, finely chopped
- 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
- 2 ribs of celery, finely chopped
- 2 lbs. ground beef chuck
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 2 3/4 cups canned tomato puree
- Salt and fresh ground pepper
What to do:
- Heat lard in heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are somewhat softened, about 8 minutes.
- Raise heat to medium-high, add beef, and cook, stirring constantly, until meat is broken up and just cooked through, 6-8 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally until evaporated, about 4 minutes.
- Stir in tomato puree and 1 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally until the sauce is thick – about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Season with salt and pepper and serve over pasta.
RAGU DI FEGATO DI POLLO (Ragu with Chicken Livers) – makes 4 cups – double recipe to match one above
- 4 cups beef broth
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste (I added a bit more, maybe one more tablespoon)
- 1 cup milk
- 3 whole cloves
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 2-oz. piece of pancetta, finely chopped (I went to my deli and asked for a 2 inch round that I cut up)
- 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
- 2 ribs celery, finely chopped
- 1 medium size yellow onion, finely chopped
- 3/4 lb. ground beef chuck
- 1/4 lb. ground pork shoulder (I used regular ground pork)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/8 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
- 2 chicken livers (about 2 oz.)
What to do:
- In a small saucepan, bring broth to a simmer over medium heat. Put tomato paste into a small bowl and pour in 1 cup broth; stir to dissolve. Set tomato-infused broth aside (Keep remaining broth hot.)
- In another saucepan, bring milk to a simmer over medium heat. Add cloves, remove from heat and let steep, covered, for one hour.
- Meanwhile, heat olive oil and butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add pancetta and cook until fat has rendered, stirring occasionally. Add carrots, celery and onions and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and caramelized (about 30 minutes). Stir in beef and pork, cook, breaking meat apart with wooden spoon, until browned. Season with salt and pepper. Increase heat to medium-high and add wine and cook until wine is evaporated.
- Lower heat to mediu, stir in nutmeg, and reserved tomato broth and cook, stirring occasionally until liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes.
- Lower heat to medium, low and add 1/2 cup reserved hot broth and cook until liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. Repeat 1/2 cup at a time until all broth has been used (kind of like risotto) – this can take some time. ***NOTE: Although this may seem very time consuming, don’t take it too seriously. You can walk away and do other things during this ‘liquid absorbing’ part. Don’t go stir crazy – this does not have to be perfect!
- Add chicken livers to the sauce and cook for 8 minutes until soft. Using a fork, mash livers on the side of the pot (or remove and do it on a plate) with a tablespoon into the sauce. Add the milk and simmer until thick and velvety – another 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve with pasta.
Check out some other posts you may enjoy:
- LIDIA’S LAMB CHOPS (Lamb Chops with A Mustard Anchovy Sauce)
- GNOCCHI DI PATATE WITH A BROWN BUTTER, SAGE, BREADCRUMB SAUCE
- ORECCHIETTE WITH SAUSAGE AND KALE
- ITALIAN-STYLE SLOW ROASTED PORK SHOULDER WITH SALSA VERDE
- LIVORNESE FISH STEW
- PAPPA AL POMODORO (Tuscan Tomato and Bread Soup)
- SWEET ANISE-FLAVORED SALMON IN A POUCH (SALMON EN PAPILLOTE)
- SPATCHCOCK CHICKEN (A TUTORIAL)