Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bon Appétit's "the one, the only classic ragu Bolognese"

From Bon Appétit, May 2011 -- "the Italy issue." Stand back in amazement at the fact that the recipe includes no garlic (did they forget it?), nor any herbs or spices except the basic salt and pepper. Stand back in amazement, also, at the quantities of time that preparing this meal will absorb. As with so many recipes which seem at first blush so involved, there is actually more waiting than working required. Still, one and a half hours here, forty-five minutes there, do add up. Bring a book. Read a blog. Keep up with the news. Run out to the store and buy a bottle of wine.

Classic Ragu Bolognese 

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled, diced
  • 6 oz. ground beef ("85% lean,") and 6 oz. veal (I used a pound of ground beef)
  • 3 oz. thinly sliced pancetta, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 3 cups beef or chicken stock, divided
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 pound pasta ("tagliatelle or fettucine, preferably fresh egg")
Heat the oil in a large heavy pot. Add the onions, carrots, and celery, and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes.

Add the veal, beef, and pancetta, and sauté, breaking up the meat and cooking until it loses its pink color, about 15 minutes. (Note: if you simply use one pound of ground beef, I suggest you do what I do: brown the beef separately, spoon off its fat, and add it to the vegetables and olive oil.)

Add the wine, and boil one minute, stirring and scraping the browned bits in the bottom of the pot. Add 2 and 1/2 cups stock and the tomato paste, and stir to blend. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer the sauce gently for one and a half hours. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat the milk in a saucepan or the microwave. When hot, gradually add it to the sauce. Cover and return to a simmer for about 45 more minutes, adding more of the remaining stock to thin the sauce if needed.
At this point, the ordinary home cook would say, "serve over cooked pasta," but the May 2011 Bon Appétit went to great lengths to teach us how to make our everyday pasta dinners soar beyond spaghetti with sauce. The trick, it seems -- actually there are several of them -- is to finish your work by: combining the sauce and the slightly underdone pasta in a shallow pan; using a tongs to toss and mix everything; and, while tossing, pouring in half a cup of the heavily salted cooking water that you reserved when you drained the pasta. How heavily salted? Think 1 tablespoon salt per quart of water, which is going to seem a startling amount when you dump handful after handful of salt into three quarts of water. ("You're not using nearly enough salt.") Adding a dollop of butter to everything at the very end, and tossing and tonging while it melts into your dinner, is also normal. "Yes, all the restaurants do it," the authors say.

The key word here is "restaurant." The one tiny little problem with Bon Appétit's 10-point Pasta Perfect instructions is not that they are too difficult to follow. In fact they are excellent and I have used them to make (small) free-form, non-classic-ragu spaghetti dinners to delightsome effect. The tiny problem is that we are talking ideally about restaurant techniques for dinner for two. Conceive using the technique on a dinner for four or more. Conceive one of the appetites at table belonging to a sixteen-year-old male who can inhale food the way the rest of us just inhale. How does one cleverly toss a whole pound of spaghetti with its ground beef or clams or whatever in a sauté pan, especially supposing you make bold to cook more than 12 modest ounces of meat? A shovel and a cauldron seem much the more appropriate tools.

Anyway in my house we did what Bon Appétit sniffed at. We served forth the pasta and the classic ragu qua "noodles with a bunch of sauce dumped on top." And it was very good. Can you see it below, underneath all the freshly grated Parmesan cheese?

And did you run to the store to buy a bottle of wine? Or did you read a book or keep up with the news? -- I recently finished Elizabeth Longford's Queen Victoria, first published in 1964. Among other things I learned that in the nineteenth century, if one abstained from wine one was considered to be following a "low" diet, not in the sense of lower class but in the sense of risking lethargy .... Our thoughts would at least begin with Chianti, would they not?

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