Every cuisine has its signature sauce, and the staple of northern Italy’s Bologna is a thick, full-bodied meat sauce. Ragu, as the Bolognese call their celebrated sauce, is characterized by a mellow, gentle, comfortable flavor that marries gastronomically well with a broad noodle slightly wider than fettuccine known as tagliatelle.
In her book Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan devotes three pages to the preparation of Bolognese Meat Sauce. Hazan emphasizes that any cook can achieve the rich and mellow flavors of this classic sauce. She recommends using meat that is not too lean, as the more marbled it is, the sweeter the ragu. I like to use a combination of ground beef, venison and pork. Ground turkey, chicken, veal and even rabbit would work also. The addition of a cured meat like chopped bacon, pancetta or pepperoni enhances the richness of this pasta sauce.
Cooking the meat in milk before adding the wine and tomatoes mellows their acidic bite. Hazen also recommends using a very heavy pot that retains heat. I find that an enameled cast-iron pan works best. Aluminum pots or ones with reactive surfaces should never be used, as the acidity of the sauce reacts with the pot, creating a bitter aftertaste.
The final stage of preparation for Bolognese Meat Sauce is in the cooking. A proper ragu is never rushed and takes several hours to cook. With a good, heavy pot this is a very forgiving sauce that will simmer gently on the back of the wood stove, perfuming the house with its heady, meaty fragrance. You can turn the heat off whenever you need to leave it, and resume cooking when you return.
Bolognese Meat Sauce safely stores in the refrigerator for several days. This recipe makes a large batch, and freezes extremely well. Use this ragu to prepare lasagna, or toss with tortellini, rigatoni or fusilli. After a long, winter day away from home, nothing restores the soul quite like a good plate of pasta with Bolognese Meat.
BOLOGNESE MEAT SAUCE
- 2 cups chopped onion
- 2 cups chopped carrot
- 2 cups chopped celery or celeriac
- ½ cup butter
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 ¾ pounds ground meat (beef sausage, venison, veal, rabbit, turkey)
- ¼ pound cubed cured meat (pepperoni pancetta)
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- sea salt and fresh pepper to taste
- 3 cups whole milk
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 7 cups tomato puree or chopped canned tomatoes
- In a large, heavy pot, heat the olive oil and butter. Stir in the onions and cook until translucent. Add the chopped carrots and celery. Cook for about 2 – 5 minutes, stirring well.
- Add the ground meat, season with sea salt and fresh pepper. Crumble with a fork, stir well, and cook until the meat has lost its pink color.
- Add the milk and let the mixture simmer gently. Stir frequently until the milk has evaporated. Add the freshly grated nutmeg. Add the wine, let simmer until evaporated.
- Then add the tomato puree. Stir to mix well.
- When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more.