Friday, January 21, 2011

A Night in Bologna, Italy - Bolognese sauce

I've been wanting to do two things. One, create a comfy, romantic dinner for my lovely Ryoko and two, make Bolognese sauce. I knew that the dish was going to be a perfect accompaniment to a candle-lit dinner with Italian red wine and Pavarotti singing in the background. It would transcend both of us right to Bologna as if we were dining under the moonlight. At least we could ignore the cold winter weather for a bit.

Italians obviously take their food and recipes very serious. Family recipes are sacred and remain secret. But recipes also remain controversial. Italians can engage in heated arguments over ingredients to a dish or preparation of a dish. So much so that the Accademia Italiana della Cucina registered the official recipe in 1982. Despite the official recipe, Italians and cooks everywhere use various ingredients. But the result should all be same; a warm, comfort sauce were flavors build and meld together creating a delicious meat sauce.

Bolognese is a meat sauce with tomatoes, not a tomato sauce with meat. The registered recipe calls for beef but I choose three different types of ground meats; veal, beef, and pork. Add in diced pancetta and you have your meat sauce.

Bolognese sauce is also known for its cooking time. The sauce is slowly-simmered for hours, which has also caused debate. Some choose shorter cooking times while I believe the lower and slower it simmers, the better it will taste. It takes time for the flavors to fully develop so shortcuts won't do.

The Bologna Chamber of Commerce states that an official Bolognese sauce should contain onions, celery, carrots, pancetta, ground beef, tomatoes, milk and white wine. Your basis of the recipe should start here and feel free to add any additional components. Set up with mise-en-place with:

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 large yellow onion
4 small carrots
4 stalks celery heart
4 garlic cloves

Start with preparation of the soffrito-the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic. Chop them into a nice and fine cut. Make sure the size is the same to ensure even cooking.

4 oz. of diced pancetta

3lb of meat mixture-veal, beef, and pork

1 cup dry white wine
2 cups milk
1 28-oz San Marzano tomatoes, diced (use liquid)
1 cup beef stock

Melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat. Add soffrito with a good pinch of salt and cook for about 5 minutes or until soft.
Add in diced pancetta and cook for 10 minutes.

Increase your heat to high and slowly add the meats 1/3 at a time. Break up and stir out the lumps of meat. Cook until you no longer see pink in the meats, about 12-15 minutes.
Add one cup of white wine and scrape up any bits on the bottom of pan. Cook out the alcohol, about 2-3 minutes. Then add in your tomatoes/liquid, milk, beef broth. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a slow simmer.
Simmer the sauce for 4 hours, occasionally stirring, not allowing the sauce to stick to the pan. You can partially cover the pan with the lid. You want a small, steady simmer.
The liquid will break down while the flavors start to build. After 3 hours the colors deepen and the sauce thickens.
Yet another debatable topic is the type of pasta used with this sauce. I prefer a heavier, thick pasta, one that will serve well with the sauce. You have to go with the classic tagliatelle or pappardelle pasta. I chose the pappardelle. Use fresh pasta if you can. I used store-bought so cook according to instructions.
To serve, use freshly shaved Italian cheese and garnish with basil. Ha, I forgot the basil....
We both absolutely loved the sauce. It hit us on all levels. The richness, boldness, depth of flavor was more intoxicating than the red wine. The trio of ground meats was the right way to go instead of using just one meat. Each meat brought its unique profile.
The tomatoes had the right amount of presense in the dish, not too much but achieved a nice base, the chunky tomato held up next to the bold meaty flavors.
The pappardelle was the perfect pasta to host the sauce. It clinged to the pasta and was the right size/shape for the sauce.
Ryoko was very pleased and we really enjoyed the ambiance from Pavarotti, the candles, and the wine but the sauce was the highlight. Despite my dressing up in a tie, she would say the sauce was the highlight as well.
 I understand why there is much debate over the recipe after eating the Bolognese sauce. Such love and care goes into making the dish. To prefecting the sauce, choosing the right ingredients, the amount of ingredients to the satisfaction gained from eating it, such debates are important I guess.  It is a dish worth fighting over.
A true comforting meal took us to Bologna, Italy for a night. It was so worth it!


  1. Milk? That is the first time I have seen milk. I checked my 'go-to' Italian cooking guide, Spoon, and didn't see any red sauces with milk. Not informed enough to debate it; just curious.

  2. Bolognese really isn't considered a "red sauce" though it can commonly be mistaken as one. It doesn't really contain a lot of tomatoes.

  3. I bet the house smells wonderful while the gravy is cooking.

  4. See, I dont even know enough to distinguish a bolognese as a red sauce or not. Nice blog. Good to know there are other people in MKE who like food. I followed you here from Burp last week and your post on Bacon came up today when i was searching for pink salt.

    I am doing the Charcutepalooza
    challenge and I wondered if you knew of a local source for pink salt. I have had Ruhlmans book for a couple of years and now I have an excuse.


  5. Audrey: I do not know of a local place that sells pink salt. I ordered mine online from the, your place for supplies in charcuterie.

    The charcutepalooza looks like a lot of fun. good luck. I'll keep an eye on the posts.

  6. I found pink salt at the Spice House downtown on Old World 3rd St. in case you ever need it in a hurry. They also had Juniper berries and a million other spices I will never know what to do with:) I live downtown so it was convienient.

    Like I said, I like your writing style and I will put you on my blog roll and send you a link when I post.

    Audrey Evans

  7. Thank you so much for blogging about this bolognese recipe. I lost my favorite recipe, my best friends dad's authentic recipe, and I am too chicken to ask for it again. I remember the first time I had it I was wondering where the tomato sauce was. I was hooked after the first bite!!!
    Your recipe is pretty close to what I remember. It's simmering right now. All I did different was italian sausage instead of pork and omitted the pancetta because I don't remember using it before. If I had some I would've have thrown it in for sure. Mmmm

    Thank you Thank you Thank you.

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