Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Master Recipe - Bolognese Ragu

There are some recipes that are important parts of a chef's repertoire. They provide a tool for learning and perfecting certain cooking skills and a foundation for flavor exploration. Armed with such recipes, cooks can easily provide a meal for themselves, of for a large party for family and friends. Because it's pasta month here at “Mormon Foodie,” I wanted to share a fundamental pasta ragu - Bolognese.

Ragu's are rich, meaty sauces, and this one is no exception. Named after the city of Bologna in northern Italy, Bolognese sauce is a rich, meaty mixture of beef and soffritto – a finely chopped mixture of celery, onion, carrot and garlic. I like to serve it with tagliatelle (a cousin to fettucini) noodles, but it would work great with many different pastas, such as spaghetti or penne.

To total prep time for this sauce is about 1 1/2 hours, and serves 6. It can easily be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator for about three days, or in the freezer for up to three months.


1 celery stalk, trimmed
1 medium yellow onion
1 medium carrot
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup beef stock
1/2 cup red wine
14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg,
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Parmesan cheese

Finely chop the celery, onion, and carrot. Pour the oil into a large pot, then add the butter. Put the pot on a burner over medium heat until the butter melts and foams. Turn the heat down to low.

Add the celery, onion, carrot, and garlic to the hot oil and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for about five minutes, or until the vegetables just start to soften, but not brown.

Add the ground beef and break up with a large spoon. Cook until it looses it “redness”, stirring frequently. Sprinkle in the flour and mix well.

Add the tomato paste, beef stock, red wine, nutmeg, salt, and pepper and stir together. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low to get a slow simmer. Partially cover the pot, making sure that some steam can escape.

Cook for about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so, to make sure the mixture doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. If it does start to stick, add a little water and stir well.

When the sauce is ready, it will be thick and glossy. Taste to check the seasoning. If there's excess fat on the top, it can be removed by blotting it up with paper towels. Add more salt, pepper, or nutmeg, if desired (although it shouldn't have an obvious nutmeg flavor).

Keep the sauce warm while cooking your pasta. Pour over hot pasta and mix before serving. Top with fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

Secrets to Success

If you really want this recipe to work, you've got to use a deep, heavy pot. That way, things won't thicken too quickly. Cook the vegetables slowly so they will release their fullest flavors. Don't skimp on the rest of the cooking time, either. Long, slow cooking is one of the secrets of a great Bolognese.

While this recipe lists canned tomatoes, feel free to chop your own fresh ones. I just don't see the point when it comes to long cooking sauces. Save the fresh tomatoes for other dishes.

I listed Parmesan cheese because it's more traditional. I actually prefer Romano. Asiago is a wonderful grating cheese for ragu dishes, too. Fresh cheeses can be expensive, but they're so much better than the pre-grated variety that I can't recommend anything else. You can easily grate them with a box grater. Try slicing thin curls off with a vegetable peeler if you're feeling adventurous.

Red wine is traditional, as well. It's normally recommended that you don't use any wine you wouldn't drink. As a Mormon, I'm not supposed to drink wine anyway, so I make do with the cheaper "cooking" varieties. I think cooking sherry works better with this dish.

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