Bolognese Meat Sauce

Oh, friends, I love this basic meat sauce. 

Our copy of Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is splattered and stained--but most so on the pages for this sauce, for it is one that has served us quite well for many years. The first time the husband (who is generally the one who makes this recipe, and on whom I blame those splatters and stains) made this sauce, I declared it Mom Sauce.

My mother used to make meat-based spaghetti sauce all the time when I was growing up. Usually, she would throw this in the slow cooker in the morning, and by dinner time (yes, 5:30), we had an beefy and tomato-y sauce for over cooked pasta. Indeed, this sauce tastes like an Illinois kitchen in the early 80s. In the good way.

I know, I know. I don't always talk about my Midwestern meals with the breathless quality I reserve for the California cuisine I now cook. But this standard Italian dish is worth every sigh, every ooh, and every ahh.

Marcella Hazan, the godmother of Italian cooking, cautions that a ragú should be gentle and mellow, so plan to spend your whole day making this sauce. Thus, I doubled the below recipe; one half will show up in an upcoming baked rigatoni (more details soon) and the other half is being shepherded into my freezer for later meals.

Further, Hazan advises that the beef should not be from too lean of a cut; the "more marbled it is," Hazan promises, "the sweeter the ragú will be." I am certain my own mother simply chose whatever ground beef was on sale, and more power to her. I am also certain my mother did not cook the meat in milk and wine before adding tomatoes, but I do know my mother added milk. Like in her chili, she adds milk to beef. I know, it sounds a little weird, but I (as well as Marcella) promise that it keeps the sauce (or the chili) from being too acidic. It's worth it. The milk brings out that desired and enviable mellow feel and taste. 

Finally cook, uncovered, at the merest simmer for a long, long, long (okay even longer) time; no less than 3 hours is necessary, more is better. Devote your afternoon. Reap the benefits for the week.

And I'll be over here, savoring the nostalgia of Mom Sauce.


Bolognese Meat Sauce

2 heaping cups, for about 6 servings

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter 
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
3/4 pound ground beef chuck, not too lean
Black pepper
1 cup whole milk
Whole nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio)
1 1/2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice

Cooked pasta of your choice, some butter and Parmesan

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 cooked 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 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.


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