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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pasta Bolognese

The dish that stopped the Italian-American war that never actually happened

A hot bowl of Italian

A couple of months ago a friend on Facebook named Lyle posted the question, "What is pasta bolognese?" There were a variety of answers, but the only detail people seemed to agree on was that it was a tomato meat sauce with some sort of dairy in it. Even though I'd traveled fairly extensively in Italy, bolognese is the local sauce from Bologna and we overslept the day the day we were supposed to go there. Since we had to get Nicole to the airport, we had to blow right through it. No Bologna for us, so I could offer nothing to the discussion other than what Abe Lincoln had said about it on the interwebz.

In a bizarre twist of fate, a few weeks after his posting I had to take an unexpected trip to Bologna for a client. What!? Yes!!! The first week I was there, much bolognese was consumed. It was served in the cafeteria at my client site and it was on the menu in every restaurant. I ate it at least once, sometimes twice a day. Let's just consider it "research". :) It was delicious! It has a unique flavor profile that I couldn't quite put my finger on and had never had in the bolognese sauces back in the US.

One of the things I love about traveling for work is learning about foreign culture from my colleagues that grew up there and live there. You can't quite get that experience from people working in the tourism industry. In Italy, both men and women tend to live with their families until they get married. They're amazingly warm and loving and will invite you into their home like family. Towards the end of my first week, one of my colleagues said, "Ah! You come home with me today. My grandmother make bolognese so you can learn." S.C.O.R.E.!!! He told me it was about a 3 hour process but Italians don't eat dinner until about 8pm so we finished up our day and headed to to meet "Nonnina" (Italian for "little grandmother"). She was in her upper 80s and spoke very little English but he was all too happy to translate for us. To fully appreciate how generous offer was, you have to understand that Italians (especially in this region) really do not eat pasta with dinner, they eat it with lunch. The entire family was willing to go against the grain to share their culture with me. Did I mention I <3 Italy?

The first part of the sauce takes about 30 minutes, but the rest of it is just waiting for it to simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, during which time it is customary to snack and drink. And drink and snack. And in the end, I don't know how they had room for pasta but Italians never cease to amaze. :)

She asked what I thought bolognese was. I said that I thought it was a tomato meat sauce with cream added. "Bah!", She scoffed. Then she squinted her one good eye at me and gently wagged her index finger, "People today and their bad shortcuts. Hurry, hurry, always in hurry. You cannot put cream on tomatoes and call bolognese! Here, I show you." Then she flashed me her toothless smile and said the correct way to make it (and the only way to get the unique flavor profile) is to cook the meat, then add milk and reduce until it's mostly evaporated. Then add white wine, evaporate. These caramelize as they evaporate. (If you try to add it all at once with the tomatoes, it will just boil and you won't get the flavor from the caramelization, it'll just taste kind of flat and one dimensional.) Then add the tomatoes and simmer on low for 3 hours.

She laughed when I told her I'd be posting the recipe on the internet. Then she lit up a cigarette and in a raspy voice and broken English said there are some rules I need to share with you:
  • The meat proportions can be altered, but the beef should never make up more than half of the mixture as it would be too dry and crumbly in the sauce. (BTW, did you know you can ask the butcher in your grocery store for exact weights/amount of ground meat? Yes, you can! And even better, they grind it fresh for you.)
  • You cannot substitute tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, stewed tomatoes or diced tomatoes for the whole peeled tomatoes. She said it changes the flavor profile. Canned tomato sauce has already been cooked down so while it may be fine for a quick pasta sauce, this requires cooking and reducing for 3 hours and it will taste like ketchup. The crushed/diced/stewed tomatoes have calcium and preservatives that when cooked for several hours end up tasting metallic. Not good! When I asked about fresh tomatoes, she explained that the tomatoes in grocery stores are picked too soon and didn't develop that ripened tomato flavor. The ones that are canned are canned when ripe. Then she raised one wrinkled gray eyebrow at me, "anyway.... you living in 1920s? Who does this these days?" LOL
  • After the tomato sauce has been simmering for about an hour, it will begin to splatter and also can have a tendency to burn because it gets too hot. To avoid this, when the sauce started spattering an hour into it she rolled up some foil lengthwise, curved it into a circle and put it on top the burner to elevate the pot. It works like a charm! Both times I didn't do this, my sauce burned near the end and was barely edible. See how-to photos in step 6.
  • With a big toothless grin as she was crushing garlic she said, "Garlic like bull, too strong, hide other flavors. We no use, but for you, I put garlic." Then she tossed a handful into the pot. (She's referring to the American misconceptions about garlic and Italian food. Also very kind of her!) :)
  • "Bolognese use butter. No olive oil. Olive oil for everything else, butter for bolognese." I smiled and joked that I thought all Italian food had olive oil. She waved her hand dismissively, "Bah! Americans."
  • In her heavy Italian accent she said, "nobody cook with red wine, too bitter. Always cook with white. Red for drink only." Then she poured me another glass of their homemade family red wine, lit another cigarette and we continued to get sauced.

  • 8 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 stalk of celery, diced
  • 8 oz ground beef
  • 8 oz ground pork
  • 8 oz ground chicken or turkey (traditionally, this would be veal but good luck finding that in the states!)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 cups white wine
  • 2-28oz cans of peeled whole tomatoes (not flavored)
  • 2 pounds of pasta (fettuccine is the traditional pasta served with this dish but whatever you have on hand is fine)
Directions: (The finished sauce can be frozen in quart-sized zip lock bags for a month or so which makes it quick to thaw)
  1. Melt 6 tbsp of the butter and sweat the onion, carrot and celery over medium heat for about 5 minutes until translucent.
    Sweat over medium low heat, you're not sauteing so there should be no browning of the vegetables.
  2. Add all the meat and salt. Cook over medium heat, constantly breaking up into tiny pieces with a spoon until no pink remains. Be careful not to brown the meat. It should be very soft and tender.
    There should be no pink in the meat and all the pieces should be very small
  3. Add the milk and garlic and cook uncovered until the milk is almost completely evaporated, about 15 minutes.
    The milk evaporates after about 15 minutes
  4. Add the wine and cook uncovered until almost completely evaporated, about another 15 minutes.
    Surpisingly, the wine also almost completely evaporates after 15 minutes
  5. While the wine is reducing, put the canned tomaoes in a blender one at a time and blend slightly.
  6. Add the blended tomatoes and cook uncovered until the tomato for about an hour. It will become thicker and will start spattering.
    After boiling for an hour, it will be a bit thicker and begin to spatter.

    Tear off a piece of heavy duty foil about a yard long. Roll it lengthwise into a log.

    Shape the foil into a circle and place on the burner
    Place the pot on the foil and continue simmering the sauce. This will allow you to continue cooking it without burning it or splattering all over the stove.

    After about 2 more hours, the final sauce will be very very thick
  8. Stir the remaining 2 tbsp of butter into the sauce.
  9. Boil the pasta and toss with the sauce.
    Oh yeah, toss that sauce!
  10. Dish and serve!
    A hot bowl of Italian


  1. I had learned to not brown the meat first, but instead add the milk and raw meat at the same time, and "steam" the meat almost. I wonder what difference that would make...

    1. Thanks for your question! :)

      The trouble with doing it that way is that you can't effectively break the meat into tiny pieces during cooking when floating in the milk. The final sauce should have extremely tiny pieces of meat.

      I've tried putting it all together after cooking the meat and then just simmering for 3 hours but it doesn't even taste like the same sauce. Plus, it still takes exactly the same amount of time to evaporate all the liquids so there's no time savings.

  2. Dear Miss Suzy Homemaker;
    How do I get those pesky "splatter" stains off? It even splatter on my blue dress?

    Concerned Intern

    1. Dear Concerned Intern,

      Spray'n'Wash works really well on stains, but wash in cold water even though the instructions say otherwise. Unless, ofcourse, the stains are presidential in nature in which case you should save the dress until you publish your book.

      Suzy Homemaker

  3. That's terrific! I'm so glad you liked it. :)