Ball Dont Lie Food Don't Lie

Ragu Bolognese

Hours of reducing for hours of flavor.

Ragu Bolognese

Ragu Bolognese

Spaghetti. I’ve made probably a hundred shitty spaghetti and meat sauce meals in my lifetime, going back to a time where most of my meals consisted of a $5, coma-inducing portion of General Tso’s Chicken on a college campus. Buy a jar of Prego/Classico tomato sauce, plop it into a pot, open a small can of Heinz tomato paste, use a small fraction of said tomato paste, throw the rest of the can away and add as much meat as humanly possible. “I cooked dinner!” I’d tell my mom, as she experienced deja vu to a five year old me proudly holding an indeciperable finger painting up for her assessment. “It tastes great!” she’d exclaim, despite the acidic and more-meat-than-sauce meal that was assailing her tastebuds.

Well, screw that noise. The game has changed, Ma.

My first exposure to a simple tomato sauce was the Smitten Kitchen recipe for a simple pizza sauce. Roma tomatoes, garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil, white wine, salt, pepper and sugar. So simple and such a revelation to the jarred crap I’d been buying for years. I’ve used it over and over again over the years as my go to tomato sauce, as it’s easy to remember and I already have most of the ingredients in the fridge at any given time. And life was pretty good.

Then I saw this Mario Batali video on YouTube. It had a couple effects:

  • Thought: Don’t you miss real cooking shows, instead of shows hosted by Guy Fieri where the person to stuff the most hot dogs in their nose wins $1000? Batali is such an artist in this video. He conveys the love/appreciation of his craft so viscerally. Unfortunately Hot Dog Hustle™ has better Nielsen ratings.
  • It made me really want to make a bolognese.

Newly inspired, I did what I always do: wrote “make a bolognese” into my phone and sat on it for several months. And then a few weekends ago we planned to have some friends over, and I wanted a Saturday at home, so the stars aligned for bolognese goodness.

Naturally Kenji from The Food Lab had already written a tome on how to make his ultimate bolognese. Equipped with his brains and a trip to Fairway later, off I went.

I didn’t make his recipe exactly, as I had to downsize things on the fly due to a smaller dutch oven. I also didn’t bother with gelatin or heavy cream. Other than that I largely followed the recipe as written.

There are a lot of ingredients, including three kinds of meat (beef, lamb, pork), chicken livers and pancetta. Everything else is generally typical tomato sauce fare: tomatoes, herbs, mirepoix (onions/celery/carrots), garlic, and parmesan.

Better than Bouillon: chicken broth with size constraints.

If you watch the Batali video you’ll see that the theory behind a bolognese is to reduce a variety of liquids (wine, milk, broth) into the meat over several hours to build a deep flavor profile. I dig that, and in a perfect world I have quarts of homemade chicken stock ready to go in my freezer for such an occasion. In an imperfect NYC world I have a miniature freezer already full of frozen things.

I keep chicken Better than Bouillon in my fridge whenever I need stock. It’s a condensed chicken paste that dissolves in water to make a solid chicken broth replacement. I mean, “solid” given that it’s a paste out of the fridge. It’s more size and cost effective than buying cans or tubs of broth, and I can better control how chicken-y I want the broth to taste.

Life protip: make a mirepoix in a food processor.

One massive time savings trick that I used this time was to cut my mirepoix in a food processor (or, in this case, the food processing attachment to my hand blender). Due to the long cook times of a bolognese the vegetables disintegrate anyway, so I figured I might as well aid that disintegration process by increasing surface area.

Random shout out to the hand blender we got off of our registry for being one of the best space-saving kitchen tools we have. It’s a blender, a food processor and an electric whisk all in one. Big ups to Kitchen Aid.

Repeat for celery and onions.

I know that people who cook appreciate all types of food, but I still think liver is gross. Kenji adds pureed chicken livers to the meat sauce to add another depth of “meatiness”, and I suppose that’s what happened here. It’s hard to say what the sauce would taste like without a single ingredient when you make one batch.

The resulting sauce didn’t taste “iron-y” though, which is the reason I don’t like liver in the first place, so that’s good.

Watch for flying pureed chicken organs. Protip for using a hand blender: a submerged blender head is a happy blender head.

Mmm… meat… liquid…

The biggest difference when it comes to tomato sauce, which I’m 95% sure at this point isn’t just savvy marketing, is getting real San Marzano tomatoes. Real San Marzano tomatoes are imported from San Marzano sul Sarno, Italy, and are marked on cans with a D.O.P. symbol indicating they originate from where they claim to originate.

The bad is that San Marzano tomatoes are expensive – like $5 for a 28oz can expensive. There are also a lot of BS cans on the shelves that will say “San Marzano” but will be canned in the USA.

The good is that they’re freaking delicious and tomatoes generally lose limited flavor/potency when canned. Make sure to look for the “D.O.P.”.

Ingredients en masse: pureed livers, basil, garlic, pancetta, parsley, sage, parmesan, mirepoix, pureed tomatoes, lamb, beef and pork (clockwise from top left).

Cook the meat.

Cook the pancetta, butter, mirepoix, garlic, and some herbs.

Incorporate the pureed livers into the meat.

Combine the vegetable mixture into the meat mixture and combine.

Incorporate tomatoes and chicken broth.

Add whole milk (in lieu of heavy cream).

A bay leaf and ready for the oven.

Place into 300F preheated, tiny NYC oven.

After 45min-60min of baking. The tomatoes caramelize nicely and a fond develops on the inside of the pan which is scraped back into the sauce. Little pools of fat separate from the sauce below.

Mix everything up and put it back in the oven.

Repeat after pulling from the oven after another 45min-60min.

After three hours of bake time the sauce reduces enough to begin to separate the fat manually.

Captured and removed fat.

The bolognese is beginning to take shape. Adding in the rest of the chopped herbs.

Fish sauce: smells like hell, tastes awesome. Much perplexing. Dat umami.

Bolognese in its final form, incorporating the herbs and fish sauce and reduced a little bit longer on the stove.

Served with a fat, wide noodle like pappardelle, and mixed together in a pan for serving. Topped with grated parmesan. I wish this photo was better, but such are the risks of documenting a cooking blog with an iPhone.

I’ve heard stories from numerous sources about how bolognese is a sauce that gets better with refrigeration, as the depth of flavors better incorporate after sitting together for a bit. We ate all of the sauce so I’m not able to test that theory.

All in all I’d say this was a winner. The flavors were good and it’s not a terribly stressful way to spend a day inside. There’s a lot of prep, but I can imagine that with a sufficiently sized pot you can make this in huge quantities and go way beyond your average baked ziti.