Saturday, March 1, 2008

Rigatoni Bolognese

My wife went away with some friends for the weekend, and well, I'm sure you know the old saying, "while the cat's away, the mouse will play." Of course, playing for me means cooking, and my wife being away means I can indulge all my meatiest kitchen fantasies. You see, my wife is in some state of quasi-vegetarianism (mainly for taste/texture reasons), and as far as meat goes only likes fish (as long as it's relatively mild tasting, with no skin, cooked well, etc.) and chicken (as long as there's no bones, skin, cartilage, the chicken wasn't a jerk while it was alive, you get the idea). Since I do all the cooking and she does just about everything else, and expertly I might add, it's a bit hard for me to justify cooking a meaty meal that she can't eat after a hard day of doing more things than there can possibly be time to do in a 24 hour day, especially one that takes hours on end for me to prepare, meaning I won't be helping with anything else - so suffice to say, I've never made Bolognese sauce (How's that for a run on sentence?).

I'd been fantasizing about a rich, meaty Bolognese ever since I saw my not-so-secret crush, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, make it on a truly mouth-watering episode of Lidia's Family Table. She then uses her meaty masterpiece to assemble a truly amazing lasagna with homemade spinach noodles. I've seen this episode at least 3 times, and always say at the end of the episode when she plates a humongous piece of lasagna that is oozing not with cheese, but with what appears to be a molten layer of meat, that "I'd pay at least $100 to eat that right now". Yeah, I know, I get a little carried away sometimes.

This weekend provided me the perfect opportunity to indulge myself. I had already planned on making a few loaves of rustic bread which would complement the Bolognese perfectly and I found the recipe from the show I'd seen, all I had to do was get to the store Saturday morning and pick up a few things. I hadn't really considered that it might be difficult to pull off a relatively labor intensive and time consuming recipe, while taking care of a one-year-old girl by myself (which as it happens, is a quite labor intensive and time consuming, but overall very cute, experience). And of course when I woke up Saturday morning, there was 4 inches of snow on my driveway just to make things more interesting. But I was not to be deterred. I was out there clearing the driveway at 5:30 before the baby woke up, and after a changing, a feeding, some grocery-list making, and a story being read, I made it to and home from the grocery store by 9 A.M. The next 7 hours were a flurry of bread baking, sauce babysitting, UConn basketball, and not least of all, baby maintenance (with an assist from my father). But in the end, I had my meat fix, and all the (admittedly minor) hurdles were definitely worth it.

One warning here, while this recipe can be described by many adjectives, quick is not one of them. Get ready to spend about 4 to 5 hours on this one. Lidia's recipe calls for ground beef and pork. I picked up some organic ground beef, but there was no ground pork at the grocery store , and I was informed by the butcher that they would not do any grinding. So I bought some boneless organic pork chops that looked like they had a decent amount of fat, cubed them, and pulsed the cubes in the food processor until they resembled ground pork.

Lidia loves to cook by building flavors, adding ingredients to the pan a few at a time allowing them to caramelize and contribute their own little signature flavors before adding more ingredients. The first layer of her Bolognese recipe is a pestata of pancetta (I used bacon) and garlic. Pestata is an Italian verb that means to crush, grind, or pound. The bacon and garlic cloves are indeed ground into a fine paste in the food processor.

The pork and ground beef get broken up by hand and mixed together, then some dry white wine is added and the meat is mixed again ensuring that all the meat is moistened by the wine.

While the food processor is out, give it a rinse and use it to make quick work of the onion and celery, which need to be minced. Add the olive oil and pestata to a large pot (Lidia recommends a 6-qt capacity dutch oven - I halved the recipe and used a 4-qt which was plenty big) and place it over medium-high heat.

After about 3 minutes, when there is a good amount of fat rendered into the pan, add the onions and saute until they start to wilt, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Add the shredded carrot and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, until everything is wilted and golden, about 5 minutes.

At this point comes another one of Lidia's favorites, the "hot spot." Move all the vegetables to the side of the pan so you can see the bottom, this is the hot spot, then add the meat to the hot spot. Since it is in contact with the bottom of the pan, rather than the vegetables, it can get brown and caramelized a bit (as you can see from my pictures, I didn't do this very well). Mix the meat around and make sure it all gets its turn near the bottom of the pan.

The meat releases quite a bit of juice, and the next 30 minutes of cooking are dedicated to simmering that juice right out of the pan. You should also begin heating the milk at this point if you have not already done so. After most of the juice has evaporated, make another hot spot and add the tomato paste.

Add enough milk to just cover the meat, bring to a simmer, then cover the pan. From this point the sauce simmers for the next 3 hours (yep, 3 hours). Stir every 20 minutes, or more frequently, making sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. Whenever you need to add more milk to bring the liquid level up, do so. The idea here is to continually reduce the liquid concentrating the flavors in the meat more and more. If you run out of milk, Lidia suggests hot water or turkey stock (I used about 1/2 cup of chicken stock instead). The picture on the right shows the sauce after about 1 hour of simmering. I deviated from the recipe here and added about 1 1/4 cup of crushed tomato because I wanted my Bolognese to have just a little more red color and tomato flavor. I think it was a nice addition.

After 3 hours you should have a thick, almost creamy looking, meat sauce. Right before you finish cooking, taste it and add a bit of salt (I added 1 teaspoon) and ground pepper to taste. Serve over pasta. Tagliatelle is the traditional pairing, but I thing any hearty, wide, or ridged pasta will do okay (no angel hair). I obviously went with rigatoni, which is my favorite macaroni shape. Just drain the pasta, add a ladle full of sauce to the empty pot, and stir the drained pasta back in. Serve in bowls with a healthy scoop of Bolognese on top. A little parmigiano reggiano (or whatever grating cheese you like) and you're good to go.

This is really a great sauce. Time consuming yes, but definitely worth it. The meat flavor is intense but not overwhelmingly so, and the sauce is rich, but not so heavy that you start to feel sick after a few bites. I can't even imagine how good a lasagna with this sauce would be. Make sure you have some good bread to mop up any sauce left in the bowl. This isn't a bread post, but the rustic bread that I baked to go with this dinner unbelievably stole the Bolognese's thunder a bit. It was so good, definitely the best I've ever baked, that I didn't even want to wipe sauce all over it, I just wanted to taste the bread. Chewy crust, perfectly tender crumb, a truly great bread (I tossed a picture down below because I'm just so darn proud of this bread). But I digress...I will definitely be making Bolognese again at some point (and until then I have a little stocked away in the freezer to hold me over until the wife's next getaway).

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Bolognese Sauce (adapated from Lidia's Family Table)
About 4 1/2 hours - Makes 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of sauce, enough to dress about 2 to 2 1/2 lbs of pasta for 6 to 8 servings depending on size
  • 1 lb ground beef (Ideally 85% lean)
  • 1 lb ground pork (Ideally 85% lean)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 3 ounces bacon or pancetta
  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 1 large rib celery, minced
  • 1 medium carrot, grated
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 4 cups hot milk (the more fat, the richer your sauce will be, don't use skim)
  • About 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or more to taste if you like nutmeg
  • 1 1/4 cups crushed tomato
  • 1 cup (or more) hot chicken stock, or hot water
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  1. Put all the meat in a large mixing bowl and crumble/mix with your hands
  2. Pour the wine over the meat and mix until it's evenly moistened
  3. To make the pestata, cut the bacon into one inch pieces and combine in a food processor with the garlic then pulse until you have a fine paste
  4. Add the olive oil and pestata to the pan
  5. Put the pan over medium-high heat and stir to break up the pestata, cook until a good amount of fat has rendered and everything is sizzling and fragrant, about 4 minutes
  6. Stir in the onions and cook until they begin to sweat, about 3 minutes
  7. Stir in the celery and carrot and cook the vegetables until wilted and golden, stirring frequently for about 5 minutes or more
  8. Raise the heat a bit, create a hot spot by clearing some space on the bottom of the pan, and place all the meat in the hot spot
  9. Brown the meat in the hot spot then stir it in with the vegetables
  10. The meat liquid will almost cover the meat, cook at high heat, stirring often, until all the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes (lower the heat as the liquid diminishes so as not to burn the meat)
  11. Slowly heat the milk and stock in separate pans
  12. When the meat liquid is gone, create a hot spot and add the tomato paste, cook it in the spot for a minute, then blend it with the meat and cook for 2 minutes
  13. Stir in the crushed tomato and cook for 1 minute
  14. Add the hot milk until it just covers the meat
  15. Stir in the nutmeg
  16. Stir extremely well, making sure to scrape all caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan (this will be the generally rule for stirring from now until the end of the recipe)
  17. Bring to a lively simmer, cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 3 hours
  18. Check the sauce every 20 minutes, give it a good stir, and add milk to cover the meat if necessary (The sauce should be reducing by about a cup between each addition of milk, if this is happening very slowly, increase the heat, if it's happening very quickly, lower the heat)
  19. About 5 minutes before the end of cooking, taste and season with salt and pepper (about 1 teaspoon of salt and 10 to 15 grinds of pepper should do it, add more to taste)
  20. Stir well and serve over pasta of your choice (a wide noodle or hearty, ridged macaroni shape is recommended)
*Note* The amounts given in this recipe have been halved from the original recipe

1 comment:

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