Saturday, 17 November 2012

Bolognese sauce

It seems to me that there are only four essential ingredients of a Bolognese sauce although the Bolognese themselves might well disagree - just as they would never serve this sauce with spaghetti. For reasons I have articulated elsewhere (round food) I don't rave about spaghetti much anyway. My pasta of choice with this sauce is tagliatelle. James Bond and I would disagree about the choice of pasta if not the sauce. In Thunderball, one of the "three obsessions which belonged to his former life and which would not leave him" was: "a passionate longing for a large dish of Spaghetti Bolognese containing plenty of chopped garlic and accompanied by a whole bottle of the cheapest, rawest Chianti (bulk for his empty stomach and sharp tastes for his starved palate)". This is possibly the first dish I was ever taught to cook and it got me through university. When I first published this version, I received a particularly helpful critique and have incorporated some of the suggestions from it into this revised version.

Those essential ingredients, then: an onion, about 1 lb or 500 g of minced beef, a small tin of tomato purée (I would not have added an accent but the device I am using cleverly did so) and the empty tin filled with water and stirred so as to leave the tin shiny and no remnants of tomato within it. There will be ample fat in the mince for cooking purposes. Just these ingredients will make a rich sauce far better and more cheaply than anything from a jar. One of those dishes like Shepherd's Pie which is simply not worth eating other than at home.

That said, I have refined the sauce over the years and would add the following optional ingredients: a clove of garlic, a pinch of thyme or oregano, a bay leaf, a little freshly ground black pepper, a finely-chopped carrot or two, a stick of celery, a tin of chopped Italian tomatoes, a splash of olive oil and a splash of red wine. The imprecision of some of the quantities given is not intended to sound airy or unhelpful but to demonstrate that, unlike some other recipes, it's fairly flexible. NOT, though, when it comes to certain additional ingredients...

Let me do some explaining. This, above all, is a meat sauce. The onion, garlic, celery and carrot are condiments only, to melt unobtrusively. You do not want great lumps of them in this sauce. Nor, in my view, should other, alien ingredients, such as mushrooms, peppers or, dare I say it, sweetcorn, be added. Nor am I convinced by the addition of a handful of lardons or pancetta, which is contrary to what I said in yet another earlier version of this post. The recipe continues to evolve! I like to think I favour liberalism in cooking. And if you fancy a mince and vegetable sauce for your pasta, fine. But it seems to me that too many extra vegetables or whatever cross the line between what can legitimately call itself Bolognese and what cannot. The other thing to add, while I'm being principled, is that this is a thick meat sauce: it shouldn't be watery.

The method, leaving out steps depending on the optional ingredients...

1. Finely chop an onion. My only tip on avoiding tears is this. Peel it all first and don't chop off the ends until you've done so. You want to minimise the amount of time following the first cut which starts to release in vapourised form the (very dilute) sulphuric acid that attacks the eyes.

2. Heat about a teaspoon of olive oil in a frying pan. If you're not using any oil, leave out step 5: ie add the mince first, followed by the onion.

3. Finely chop the garlic if you're using it. Warm it gently in the oil. Remove once it's added flavour to the oil.

4. If you're using lardons, fry them at this stage.

5. Fry the finely chopped onion, stirring frequently to prevent it from burning.

6. Put the mince into the frying pan, turn the heat up and brown the mince on all sides. Gradually mix the mince with the onion. Stir frequently, breaking up any clumps of mince as you do so and stopping the onion from burning. Shake the pan every so often. If there's a lot of fat in the pan, now's a good opportunity to pour it off.

7. If you're adding any of the other optional vegetables (carrot and celery), add them at this stage, as finely chopped as you can. To repeat myself, they are condiments. Similarly, the thyme, bay leaf and FGBP can all go in at this stage.

8. Add the tomato purée. Because of its thick consistency, it may be a struggle at first to mix it with the mince. Persevere: the heat will rapidly cause it to melt. Don't add water at this stage, but stir furiously. You don't want the tomato - or anything - to burn but the direct heat at this stage seals in the flavour. I think.

9. The trick, I have decided, is to cook everything on the highest possible heat you dare (stirring furiously as burnt onions are horrid) until you add the water, whereupon you turn the heat as low as it will go.

10. Add the splash of wine and/or chopped tomatoes if they're going in.

11. Finally, add the water. Turn the heat down to its lowest possible setting. Let the sauce bubble gently. Scrape down the sides of the pan every so often. Stir and/or add a little more water every so often if there's a danger of sticking.

12. I think this should be allowed to simmer for 45 minutes or longer. There should be some, but not too much, rich red liquid on the top. Cook the pasta. Eat.

Some reminiscences. This was the first thing I was taught to cook before I went off to university. It's still a staple. On one occasion - this was before I had learned to cook it - we had all been to the theatre with an extended party of family and friends. The plan was that Mum was going to cook this when we got home afterwards. But she had to be dropped off at the local hospital, having got something in her eye. So my father took us all home and asked us what we'd like to eat. In an injudicious attempt to lighten the atmosphere, I said airily, "Oh you know, some smoked salmon, some caviar, something like that". In my defence, I hadn't appreciated my mother was actually in casualty; she happened to work in the hospital and I'd thought one of her colleagues was going to sort her out. In any event, my father didn't lose his temper in front of guests but we were swiftly banished from the kitchen and he put together a bolognese sauce about which one of my cousins was a little doubtful. My roasting came the following day after everyone had left...

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