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Dennis Patillo: Ragu alla Bolognese | Good Living

Way more often than not, I prepare meals in 30 minutes or less. Granted I tend to move at an organized yet chaotic pace, often with three or more burners active, and focusing on the respective cooking times of the elements of the meal, aiming for all the elements to complete the cooking, resting, and plating at the exact same time. Friends tell me that I look a little frantic, but that is the way I have always cooked. Very high heat with pants on fire.

There are times though when the proper preparation of a particular dish cannot be rushed. Only through the slow passage of time can the layers of flavor, the appropriate mouthfeel, the aromas, and the visual appearance be developed.

Ragu alla Bolognese is one of those dishes. This is a luxurious meat sauce that can only be properly prepared over a span of about four hours. Mercifully most of this time is spent in benign neglect as the flavors and textures come together.

Italian ragus are meat sauces. They are definitely not to be confused with tomato sauces that have meat as an ingredient. While a number of classic ragus have tomatoes, the tomatoes play only a minor role as the meat takes the center stage.

As you would expect, Ragu alla Bolognese, originated in Bologna, Italy. It was first mentioned in a cookbook published around 1891, so clearly the dish had been prepared sometime before that. Its primary ingredients are a combination of ground meats. Traditionally, equal parts of pork, lamb and beef were used. Some recipes also call for the addition of chicken livers that have been liquefied in a blender and added in the later stages of cooking. Try that if you want. I have tried it and it is not for me. Pancetta can also be used in the preparation of the sofrito, and we will talk more about that in a little bit.

There is no one recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese. Like all great dishes, every chef has their own take on the classic. Today we will focus on this ragu as prepared by Marcella Hazan. Marcella Hazan wrote classic Italian cookbooks that were published in English. She is credited with bringing classic Italian recipes to England and the United States. Her cookbook by her, “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” should be required for any serious study of Italian foods.

The recipe today, for the most part, is hers.

The recipe begins by making a sofrito. The sofrito is composed of finely chopped onions, celery, and carrots. If I am feeling “chefy” I do this by hand. If no one is looking I use a food processor. The vegetables are sweated using both olive oil and about a quarter cup of finely diced pancetta. It is important that the vegetables be softened but not browned. Once cooked, the sofrito is moved to a bowl.

I use a pound of ground beef and a pound of ground pork for this recipe. In the same pan in which you made the sofrito, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil is added and the ground meats are added and cooked. It is important that the meats are crumbled to their smallest possible sizes. I find that a pastry cutter does a great job of this.

Add the sofrito to the meat and add a couple of cloves of minced garlic. Add about a cup of whole milk and cook until the milk has bubbled away almost completely. Now add about a cup of dry wine and simmer until it has evaporated. I will usually use white wine for this, but you can also use red wine. It is only important that the wine be dry and not sweet.

Add a 28 ounce can of whole, seeded San Marzano tomatoes (that you have finely chopped) along with their juices. I know it is a pain, but it is so worth it. Now add about a cup of whole milk. Add a couple of bay leaves, some thyme, and a scant grating of nutmeg.

Once the dish has come to a boil, reduce the heat to the barst of simmers. Partially cover and let it simmer for about three hours. Check it regularly. You do not want it to stick. If it starts to dry out add about a half a cup of water. For the final product, all of the water should be evaporated.

Serve over a hearty pasta like tagliatelle with some freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano. Unfortunately for me, I am watching my carbs, so the picture shows it served over spiralized zucchini noodles. Oh well, the sauce is at least great.

Dennis Patillo is a committed foodie and chef. He has spent a lifetime studying foods from around the world as well as regional cuisines. His passion for him is introducing people to ingredients and techniques that can be used in their home kitchen. He and his wife, Louise, own The PumpHouse Riverside Restaurant and Bar.

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