Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

No such thing as real spaghetti bolognese

Like chicken tikka masala and chop suey, bolognese sauce isn't something you'll find in Italy (unless it's a restaurant putting it on for tourists). Italians wouldn't normally pair a thick meat sauce with a long thin noodle; it would go with pasta shells or other shapes that would trap the sauce better, or at least flat tagliatelli. The ragu of Bologna has only enough tomato to add sweetness to something that starts with ground beef simmered in milk. That probably makes the versions that use Campbell's cream soup a little closer than you'd think. Many versions I know include liver for richness. But cooks outside Italy have been making spaghetti bolognese for long enough that familes can have their own historic versions. There's a wonderful rant by Robert Farrar Capon about how much he dreaded telling people he was a cookery writer because each and every person would want to reveal their personal recipe for bolognese sauce, each of them with ther own 'secret ingredient' - soup, carrots, vermouth, anything you can think of. My mother's recipe doesn't have a secret ingredient that I think of as a secret ingredient; it's more about what you don't put in (soup, carrots and vermouth all being on the list and to me this is just the way the sauce should be.

Fry the beef and drain off the fat (if it's lean mince I tip it all it into the simmering pot together). Fry the onions until soft. I often use a little pancetta or shredded bacon but she never did. Into a big pot with a quantity of tinned tomatoes, much concentrated tomato puree and some ground pepper. I add balsamic vinegar, which she never did, and red wine, which she did if there was any around which wasn't often. She would simmer it for hours; impatient, I usually give it 20 minutes though today it's getting hours. Sliced mushrooms go in for the last ten minutes (I often put some in far earlier then add more at this point). Originally she'd make extra meatballs and add them with the mushrooms although often she didn't bother; Italian ragu recipes switched from taking simmered whole meat out to slicing the meat in to the sauce as meat became more available.

To serve she would chop a whole handful of curly parsely and stir it in to fleck the whole sauce with green; I seldom have parsely around so I tear in basil instead. My sister started grating cheddar over her bowl; that works nicely if there isn't any parmesan and the cheddar has flavour. It's hard to get full length spahghetti now; it used to be twice the length, come in a roll of blue greased paper and take ages to bend into the boiling water. Over the years I've gone from salting the water (as she did), to adding olive oil to stop it sticking, to using a pasta insert in the pan instead, and now I boil the pasta in the water for only two minutes, then turn off the heat and let it stand for the original cooking time (ideal for not turning tortelloni into soup). Sometimes I recreate the dish I remember; sometimes I get something nice and remember the taste of what I really wanted.

Yesterday we took some mince out of the freezer to get some milk in, so I decided to make bolognese today, and as we were frying bacon for breakfast (tip when griddling bananas or frying them in the bacon pan - fry the cut side first before the banana gets soft enough to stick on the pan and become banana caramel then tip onto the skin side), I chopped up some onions and shallots, fried off the meat once the bacon was done and left the sauce simmering. By this evening we'll have a thick jammy sauce, and enough to freeze for another day. I do feel domestic...
Tags: food

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