Remember back last spring when I was doing that whole “Countdown to Italy” series? Because I was going to visit some friends in Rome for a week and I was super excited about it, and thus cooking all kinds of Italian food at home and/or writing about that cooking class I took a few summers back in h
eaven Lecce? Good times, right? Well, if you enjoyed that, then you’re really going to like this next bit of news. That’s right, readership, Headline Foods is back in Rome! And this time for good! For the foreseeable future I will be blogging from the heart of the Eternal City as I overdose on carbonara and gelato, improve my Italian from “Ciao! Come va?” to “I can actually participate in your conversation”, and, hopefully, find some sort of gainful employment (any leads for a job in Rome? Send ’em my way.) So get ready for a blogful of pastas, pizzas, polentas, prosciutto, etc., and, if you have a week or two to spare, come visit!
Okay, now that we have that important announcement out of the way, let’s get to the meat of the post. Literally. Because today is all about the bolognese. Specifically Baity’s Bday Bolognese (BBB). Which isn’t terribly different from Maddie’s Ferragosto Bolognese, or Maddie’s Sunday Afternoon and it’s Kinda Cold Out Bolognese, or really even Maddie’s I Feel Like Chopping a Lot of Onions and Making Elizabeth Cry Bolognese, but since BBB is the most recent iteration, that’s what we’re calling it today. Baity’s Bday Bolognese is prepared annually, on or around January 10th, in honor of the birthday of my dear friend Mr. Baity. It is the result of several hours of hard, culinary labor. Strike that…it’s actually the result of about 45 minutes of hard, culinary labor, and then an absolute minimum of 90 minutes of sitting around watching football and drinking wine while it simmers on the stove. And, like so many other delicacies here on Headline Foods, it is a recipe familiar to all, but ingrained in my mind from the summer of Enrica’s kitchen. For those of you just joining us, Enrica’s kitchen is where I embarked on a gastronomic adventure during the heat of the Puglian Summer of 2007. Basically, I took cooking classes from this really awesome Italian lady in her kitchen in Lecce, whipping up gnocchi, pesto, polpette, cozze, and, yes, bolognese, along the way.
Now, a quick lesson on nomenclature. Bolognese refers specifically to Bologna, capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in the northeast of Italy, quite a bit north of where I was (Puglia is the “heel” of the Italian boot). Thus, when we made it, Enrica described the dish simply as ragu, which is the generic name for meat-based pasta sauces. So, what we made that day, and what I have made as often as possible since then, is not a traditional bolognese, per se. But, bolognese is more fun to say, is in fact a type of ragu, is actually pretty darn close to the way I prepare it, and, particularly for the purposes of this post, makes the title alliterative, and I always enjoy some good word play. Call it ragu, call it bolognese, call me ignorant for not making a clear distinction between the two, but whatever you do, call me if you’re cooking this, because I simply can’t get enough. But don’t call me Shirley.
The sauce begins with the sauteeing of 1/4 pound of finely diced pancetta in a large stockpot or dutch oven (if you have one of those nice little Le Creusets – use it. I’m jealous). Once the fat has rendered and the pancetta starts to crisp, add in the diced carrots, celery, and onion (if you’d like to get into another linguistics lesson, this holy trinity is also known as mirepoix or soffritto, depending on where you’re doing the sauteeing. For brevity’s sake, I generally just go with CCO) Generally I have a cup of each veggie – this breaks down to about two large carrots, four celery ribs, and a large onion. I like to dice it as small as possible, but my sous chef last week took some creative liberties with the carrots, leaving them a little larger. The coin-sized carrots ended up standing out a little more in the final sauce and lending a touch of sweetness, which was nice. Something to keep in mind for the future. Anyway, so you’ve got the CCO in with the pancetta, stirred together, sweating a little over medium heat, with a little extra olive oil thrown in there if necessary. Cook this until the onions are soft, but not yet starting to brown. Then, it’s time for the meat.
With the meat, you have yet another opportunity to branch out a little. We first made this with just ground beef. The second time around, I inadvertently, but totally not regrettably, used about half ground pork as well (oh, the occasional serendipity when embarking on the perils of the unlabeled ground meat in a collegiate freezer). I liked that balance, and have used it moving forward. You can also incorporate some veal in there. Whatever your porcine or bovine preference, the key is not get it too lean, unless of course you want the meat to dry out as the sauce slow simmers to perfection. Oh, and you’ll need two pounds of the carnivorous combination, whatever it may be. I generally combine and season the meat as I’m starting everything else, to give it a little time to come to room temp and let the salt and pepper sink in. Which means that when the pancetta and CCO are done cooking down, the meat is ready to add in! Once the meat is added to the pot, be sure to break it down with a wooden spoon, combining well with the other ingredients. Stir periodically as the meat browns over the next few minutes.
With the pancetta crisped, the CCO softened, and the meat brown, it is officially tomato time. I use a single, 24oz can of pureed tomatoes, which, notably, is yet another place where I veer away from the traditional bolognese, which tends to rely just on tomato paste (I use that too). Consequently, mine ends up a little saucier, but I’ve yet to hear a complaint…
With the tomatoes in the pot, it’s time to just sit back and simmer. Over the next 90 minutes – 9 hours (let this thing cook all day and it would just get even better), it’s important to pop into the kitchen periodically to do important things like give the sauce a little stir, add in some wine to the sauce, add some wine to your glass, drop in a spoonful of tomato paste to help it thicken a bit, steal some tastes as it cooks, season to taste as it cooks, then taste it again to be sure, you know, all of those really essential steps.
Once you’ve let it simmer so long that you can actually taste the air in the kitchen, boil some water, cook a little pasta, toss it all together and indulge. Then ask for seconds. Then freeze a little bit so you can enjoy again at a moment’s notice next week. And then move to Rome because it’s amazing here.