How to Cook . . . Something: Bolognese (2023)

How to Cook . . . Something: Bolognese (1)(Emily Weinstein)

This week, Emily continues her quest to learn to cook by tackling the classic meat sauce for pasta from Emilia-Romogna. –MB

When I think of those dishes that every home cook should have down pat, or would at least like to have down pat, tomato sauce is at the top of the list. (Roasted chicken and great scrambled eggs are a toss-up for second place; I’m curious to see what dishes other people think are must-knows, so post them in the comments if you have input.) My rationale: Tomato sauce is tasty. It’s versatile. You can use canned tomatoes without shame. It can be made as healthy or unhealthy as you want, and in quantities large or small should you have guests. Even the most basic forms are good, if not terribly exciting; pretty much everyone likes spaghetti with tomato sauce. And cooking boxed pasta is only a shade more difficult than boiling water.

I wanted to make something classic this week, and, since the weather had cooled to the point at which you might wear a winter coat after dark, I also wanted something cozy — which to me almost always means something meaty. And although my burn is healing both physically and metaphorically, I decided to keep matters on the stovetop and away from the broiler.

I settled on Bolognese sauce and chose Marcella Hazan to be my guide. Marcella, I’d recently learned, is widely credited for teaching Americans to cook Italian. Like many people who are not cooks, my go-to recipe source is the Internet, where I found an adaptation of her Bolognese recipe. I’ve always known that, unless it’s coming from a familiar source, a recipe found online comes wrapped in a red flag. But it never occurred to me until now that for a beginner, reading a recipe in the context of the book — those introductory paragraphs, the details embedded here and there but not in the actual recipe procedure — makes a difference. In the name of making a better Bolognese, I invested in a copy of “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”

I rounded up the ingredients — beef, pork, onion, celery, carrots, milk, nutmeg and white wine — did a little prep work, chopping and dicing, and set about adding them one by one to the pan. I listened to the radio as I stirred them per Marcella’s instructions, which seemed almost lyrical to me as I reread them at the stove — the sauce was to cook at “the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.” The vegetables were in the pan and my apartment smelled wonderful. The slapstick act of previous weeks was replaced by calm. Four or five more hours and I’d have Bolognese.

When I chose this recipe, I was more intimidated by the cooking time than anything else. In my mind, the amount of time elapsed has always been an indicator of how difficult a dish is prepare — not a crazy metric, but one that’s not always true either. But, as it turned out, the Bolognese was playing to my strengths. Since it was on the stove and not in the oven, I was able to keep an eye on it easily, I could adjust the seasonings at will, and I could taste it when I got curious about how the flavor was developing (or hungry) — a big plus, since I’m not really into suspense. Also — and this is crucial — presentation would not be too difficult. Odds were that however it turned out, I’d toss it with the pasta and it would at least appear to be appetizing. I told myself I’d found my niche: things you make on a stove and serve with a spoon!

But the real challenge soon revealed itself, as it always does. Judgment. I had to have some. As easy as it was to read Marcella’s instructions, only I could determine when the onions were sufficiently cooked, when the wine had sufficiently simmered off, and then the milk; how low to keep the flame so that the ingredients would stay at those “laziest of simmers”; whether or not to add water to the pan, for Marcella had said I could if the meat got too dry and the fat had separated to the top. But the top of what? My sauce looked so sad and dry, more a pan of crumbled meat with some sauce in it than something you’d gaily spoon over a big bowl of tagliatelle. And this was even after half-cup after half-cup of water was added over the three hours it simmered. Bolognese is not the sauciest of sauces, but I knew something wasn’t right. Did I add enough water? Was the heat too high? All I had were a bunch of question marks and a pan on the stove.

And so it was no surprise that the final product, served with rigatoni and some steamed haricots verts on the side, was a bit shy of “saucy.” I think I’ve identified the culprit: my simmer wasn’t lazy enough, and so the liquid cooked off. I kept playing with the temperature to get it right, but the heat must have been too high — every time I heard that burble of bubbles bursting as they broke the surface of the liquid in the pan, I’d jump off the couch and lower the temp, only to raise it again a few minutes later when it appeared to not be simmering at all. But despite the industrious simmering, the sauce was tasty, and all in all, easy. And that’s why tomato sauce is at the top of the must-know list, right?

Next week I’m off the sauce, and onto kale. –Emily Weinstein

Print Recipe

Bolognese Meat Sauce

Yield 2 heaping cups, for about 6 servings and 1 1/2 pounds pasta

Time At least 4 hours

Marcella Hazan

How to Cook . . . Something: Bolognese (2)


-The meat should not be from too lean a cut; the more marbled it is, the sweeter the ragu will be. The most desirable cut of beef is the neck portion of the chuck.

-Add salt immediately when sauteeing the meat to extract its juices for the subsequent benefit of the sauce.

-Cook the meat in milk before adding wine and tomatoes to protect from the acidic bite of the latter.

-Do not use demiglace or other concentrates that tip the balance of flavors toward harshness

-Use a pot that retains heat. Earthenware is preferred in Bologna and by most cooks in Emilia Romagna, but enameled cast-iron pans or a pot whose heavy bottom is composed of layers of steel alloys are fully satisfactory.

-Cook, uncovered, at the merest simmer for a long, long time; no less than three hours is necessary, more is better.

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon for tossing the pasta
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2/3 cup chopped celery
  • 2/3 cup chopped carrot
  • 3/4 pound ground beef chuck (or you can use 1 part pork to 2 parts beef)
  • Salt
  • Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • Whole nutmeg
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
  • 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta
  • Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese at the table
  • 1. Put the oil, butter and chopped onion in the pot and turn the heat on to medium. Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent, then add the chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring vegetables to coat them well.
  • 2. Add ground beef, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble the meat with a fork, stir well and cook until the beef has lost its raw, red color.
  • 3. Add milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating -- about 1/8 teaspoon -- of nutmeg, and stir.
  • 4. Add the wine, let it simmer until it has evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must be left and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.
  • 5. Toss with cooked drained pasta, adding the tablespoon of butter, and serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

Source: "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Knopf)


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