Updated: Apr 8, 2019
My partner calls himself a "Non-Practicing Italian."
I don't think anyone is 100% sure what that means. But what I do know is that he comes from a very Italian family (on his dad's side, at least) and that means these people know how to eat. And they know how to do it in style.
This weekend we're driving out to see his cousins, who are the proud parents of an obscenely adorable newborn baby boy. And my lovely partner thinks we should do something nice, such as taking some food down for them to keep for easy meals. Which is a lovely, wonderful thing to do.
Of course, this means I need to cook something for them while he goes out and buys every bib, nappie, and onesie he comes across. (Disclaimer: this was totally my idea, I'm just blaming the fact that I actually have to do it now on him.)
We needed something that another non-practicing Italian who's a long way from home will really appreciate.
Enter bolognese: built to be cooked in volume, beautifully freeze-able, and infinitely useful.
Fortunately for all these non-practicing Italians, I learned to make bolognese from a full-time practicing Italian. As the lovely Emilia, my octogenarian-Italian-neighbour during graduate school, taught me, bolognese isn't complicated. It just needs some time. This is not a quick recipe, but trust me when I tell you it is worth every second you put in.
Start with the bacon. I like pancetta for this: it's got amazing flavour and good salt content. You want some seasoning going from the very beginning. Brown it--but not 'til it's crispy--and then get it out of the pan. Leave the fat, though. Throwing away bacon fat should be illegal.
Next, the vegetables. I use onions, carrots, celery, fennel, and garlic. You can leave out the fennel and garlic if you like, but I really love the character they add. I like mine finely chopped. Partly because I think it's a better texture... but mostly because if you throw them all in the food processor it's waaaaay easier and waaaaay faster to chop them up. Plus, buzzing them up releases more of their juices, which means more flavour. But if you want a chunky sauce, go ahead and chop them up however you like.
I chop them all into large-ish chunks and throw them in the food processor. Use a low speed if your food processor has one--you're looking for a coarse paste here, not a full-on puree. If you don't have a low speed setting, use the pulse function and stir it up every few pulses if necessary.
N.B.: if you're making a double (or triple!) recipe, don't crowd the food processor, do this in batches. Otherwise, everything at the bottom will be goo while nothing on top gets chopped up at all. Trust me. I learned this the hard way.
This vegetal goodness goes right into that luscious bacon fat. Leave it alone for a bit while you clean the food processor and put it away. Give it the occasional stir, but what you're looking for here is browning. When you have to start scraping off the bottom of the pan, you're ready to move on. I find this usually takes about 20 minutes.
Next, the meat. I usually use mince beef and mince pork. The ratio is up to you, but my base recipe calls for 1 kg beef to 500 g pork. You'll get good results so long as you have about 1.5kg of meat. Season the meat generously with salt, break it up nicely, stir it in, and let it go. Much like the vegetables, you're waiting for brown scrapeage (about another 15 minutes).
Then the tomato paste. A whole, big tin of it. Which seems excessive, but as Emilia told me, "It's traditional, and you don't argue tradition with an Italian."
Stir it in... and brown it. Let it go for a couple minutes, then stir, scraping from the bottom of the pan and getting the rest in contact with the direct heat. Repeat several times, until everything is a lovely red-brick colour, which takes roughly 10 minutes.
Now for the wine. A whole 750ml bottle of something nice and dry. This is the place to use a good Italian wine, like a Chianti (which is made from sangiovese grapes, if you see one on the shelf). But a pinot noir, bourgogne, or merlot would work well, too. Pour the whole thing in--no cheating, and no glass for the cook!
Stir everything up nicely and crank the heat to high. Bring it to the boil and let it reduce for a good ten minutes (you want about half of the liquid to be gone).
And now, water. Just plain water. When I asked Emilia if I should use stock, she gave me the same answer she gave me about the tomato paste. Plus, we've gone to a lot of time and effort so far to develop layers of flavour. This sauce simply doesn't need it.
Pour in enough to cover the meat and vegetables by an inch or two. Tie up a good handful of fresh thyme sprigs and a couple sprigs of fresh oregano and throw them in. I usually throw in a couple sprigs of chopped rosemary at this point, as well. (You could also substitute a tablespoon or so of dried Italian seasoning or oregano if you don't have fresh herbs to hand--just rub it between your palms to crush it up a bit as you drop it in. This helps release the oils in dried herbs and gets more flavour out of them.)
And, for goodness sakes, don't forget to put the pancetta back in the pan. Wasting bacon ranks at the same level as wasting bacon fat. It is Not. On.
Bring all this goodness up to a boil, then turn down the heat to low. For the next three hours, all you need to do is watch it simmer gently. Give it a stir every 20 to 30 minutes just to make sure the bottom doesn't burn (the sauce will settle as it sits), and add more water if it gets too thick before the three hours is up.
When it's done, and thickened up nicely, pull out your bundle of herbs. Taste it and give it some salt if it needs it. Finish it with some freshly chopped oregano, basil, or parsley if you like.
This sauce makes an epic lasagne, and is particularly good with penne rigate or orachiette, since they've got ridges and pockets that pick up the sauce. And it wouldn't be pasta if it wasn't finished with a good sprinkling of parmigiano.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
200 g smoked pancetta lardons
2 large yellow onions
2 large carrots
2 stalks celery
1 bulb fennel
4 cloves garlic
1kg mince beef, preferably lean (5% fat)
500g mince pork, preferably lean (5% fat)
400g tin double concentrate tomato puree (tomato paste)
750ml bottle dry red wine (such as a Chianti)
15 or so sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh oregano
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves stripped and chopped
Pinch crushed red chilli (optional)
Stand the fennel on it's core and cut into quarters, then cut out the core from the bottom of each quarter. Take the ends off the onion and peel the onions and garlic. Chop fennel, onions, carrots, celery, and garlic into large chunks and place in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Puree on low speed or pulse until it's a coarse paste. Alternatively, chop them all to the desired size.
Put a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot or casserole on a medium to medium-high heat. Pour in the vegetable oil and fry the pancetta until lightly browned but not crispy. Using a slotted spoon, remove to a paper towel. Reserve the fat in the pan.
Add the finely chopped vegetables to the reserved bacon fat. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add the pinch of crushed red chillies if you like. Brown for roughly 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Dump in the beef and pork. Season generously with salt, break up with the back of a wooden spoon, and stir to thoroughly combine. Cook for roughly 15 minutes, until browned and the bottom is starting to crisp.
Throw in the tomato concentrate. Stir in completely. Let it cook for a couple minutes, then scrape from the bottom and stir through. Repeat for about 10 minutes, until the entire mixture is an earthy, red brick colour.
Pour in the entire bottle of wine. Stir to combine and make sure to really scrape up the bottom of the pan. Turn heat to high, bring to the boil, and let it cook for about 10 minutes or until the wine is roughly reduced in volume by half.
Add the pancetta back in, along with the chopped rosemary. Stir to combine. Tie the thyme and oregano sprigs together into a bundle and pop into the pot. Pour in enough water to cover by an inch or two, stir. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low.
Simmer three hours, adding water along the way if things thicken up too much. Stir occasionally to prevent the bottom from burning.
Remove from heat and discard the bundle of herbs. Stir in some chopped fresh herbs (such as oregano, basil, or parsley) if desired. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve with pasta, layer into a lasagne, or use to cover some cheesy cannoli. To store, cool as quickly as possible. Keeps in the fridge for 4 days. If frozen and stored properly, bolognese keeps for up to two months. This recipe doubles or triples perfectly.