Classic Bolognese: A Celebration Of The Chuck

Monday, February 22, 2010

A classic Italian dish both here in America and in Italy is the Bolognese sauce. In America, it's often known as "meat sauce" because of its use of ground beef as the main, identifiable ingredient.

Bolognese sauce or "ragu" (pronounced "ragoo") is a very thick, very concentrated heavy sauce that is a beautiful thing on a cold winter night. The classic recipe from Bologna (northern Italy) where cured meats and fattier cuts are the main choices for dishes calls for ground chuck. Ground chuck is ground beef but with a higher fat content. Most often in American markets you will find ground sirloin or ground beef with 10% fat; these are considerably leaner cuts of beef that are ground up. They're great if you're watching your weight, but you must realize with certain dishes (like burgers or bolognese) you're going to sacrifice a lot of flavor and texture if you go with the leaner beef.

Ground chuck is usually 15% fat and comes from the neck and shoulder of the cow which are more flavorful parts. Hence, a considerably tastier product. If you can't find ground chuck at your market, you can do a combination of half ground beef and half ground pork whereas the beef will give you the flavor and the pork will provide you with the fat you need. Italians (especially in America) use that combination all the time.

The traditional Bolognese ragu also uses pancetta in the base, as well as cream as a finisher. Bologna is known for its intensely rich dishes (this is the land, afterall, of salami, pepperoni, and virtually all the cured meats we all know and love). My recipe below omits them because for me, using ground chuck is frankly flavor (and fat!) enough. But if you're up for a traditional ragu, then by all means add a slab of chopped pancetta with your olive oil before the onions, and finish off the ragu at the end with cream after you add your herbs. My recipe also adds a teaspoon of red pepper flakes because I love a little heat with that amount of flavorful beef. And on a cold night especially, it's a great warmer. But certainly you can use less or more, or omit it entirely.

The pasta of choice for the bolognese sauce is tagliatelle, which is a wide flat noodle. It's wider than a fettucine and therefore offers more surface area for the rich sauce to grab onto. If you can't find tagliatelle pasta, then you can use fettucine or even rigatoni. The idea is the same; you want pasta that can stand up to the thickness of the sauce and not wilt in its awesome power.

And always finish off a bolognese sauce with a grating of good quality, imported Parmesano-Reggiano or Pecorino-Romano. These saltier cheeses will offer a nice bite to stand up to the richness of the sauce.

Now on to the recipe!

Classic Bolognese
olive oil
1 small onion, chopped very small
1 carrot, peeled and diced very small
1 celery stalk, trimmed and chopped very small
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 lb ground chuck (or combo of 1/2 lb lean ground beef and 1/2 lb ground pork)
1 (28 ounce) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

recommended pasta: tagliatele or fresh fettucine

Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, carrots and celery and cook on medium heat until vegetables become soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute, until garlic is fragrant. Add the ground chuck and using a wooden spoon or spatula, break up the pieces of meat and incorporate into the vegetables. Season with salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes if using, to taste. Cook until the meat becomes browned, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and continue to cook until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. You want the water from the meat and tomatoes to be pretty much evaporated, leaving a very concentrated and thick meaty sauce.

Add the parsley and basil and taste, adjusting with salt and pepper if needed.

To serve, add the boiled pasta directly into the bolognese pan. Using tongs, gently toss the pasta in the sauce, coating it well. Portion out into serving bowls and top with a generous portion of grated Parmesan cheese or Pecorino-Romano.

Serve hot.


Use San Marzano canned tomatoes. If you are planning to use Heinz or any other canned tomato, then do not make this recipe. Or any Italian recipe for that matter. San Marzanos are the best tomato in the world to use for cooking, especially Italian cooking. They come from Sicily and are harvested, par-cooked and canned at their peak, perfectly preserving their sweet and delicious flavor. Use them. Often.

The onion-carrot-celery mixture is a classic base for this sauce but isn't entirely necessary. If you have all the ingredients but the carrots then don't sweat it; you don't need to drop everything and run to the market for a carrot. If you have them then use them. The main points you can't skip on are the chuck, garlic, tomatoes, herbs and cheese.

If you don't like fettucine and can't find tagliatelle, then go for a larger and sturdier tube pasta like rigatoni. Try to look for the tube pasta that has ridges on them and avoid the ones that are smooth like penne. Using spaghetti or cappelini will make for a soggier dish in the end as they will literally melt under the weight of the thick bolognese. Especially the cappelini. That pasta is for olive oil and chopped tomatoes...only.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love it mish. I cook mine almost the same now. But I always added tomato paste too. I thought you had to. Trying this in the next few days!!