Monday, January 13, 2014

Ragu alla Bolognese

Introducing my co-chef, head chef, and sous chef, depending on the day- my husband Spencer:

He is brilliant in so many areas of life, one of them being culinary creativity. He is silly. And serious. And seriously silly. And I love him so. I found our first recipe in a food memoir entitled My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss. I really did not care for the book overall (far too much whine whine whine and woe is me me me, for my taste. I mean, a MEMOIR written in your 30s with the climax/end being your wedding? Really?), but she did have a few recipes I thought I might try. One of which was Ragu alla Bolognese. And Spencer was head chef for this one. 

He even took pictures as he whipped up this recipe! He did a great job dicing the carrots and onions super small:

He browned the meat with the veggies:

He added the wine (Oh the wine! So many Italian recipes include wine!):

He pureed the tomatoes:

And we let it sit in the crock pot on low for about seven hours:

The finished product:

The original recipe:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, finely minced
2 large carrots, finely minced (you want roughly equal amounts of minced onion and carrot)
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
½ cup red wine
1 (28-ounce) can peeled San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Put the oil and butter in a large cast-iron pot over medium heat to melt the butter.  Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, until the onion is well cooked.  Do not let it take on any color.  Add the minced carrots and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring now and then.  Add the ground meat to the pot, and using a wooden spoon, stir and chop up the meat so that is cooks and breaks down into uniformly tiny pieces.  Raise the heat to medium-high or even high as you do this.  It takes a good amount of elbow grease and a little bit of time.

Continue to stir and cook until the meat is no longer pink (at no point, however, should the meat be browning).  There will be liquid at the bottom of the pan.  Continue to cook until that liquid has mostly evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes.  Add the wine and stir well to combine.  Simmer until the wine has mostly evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the pureed tomatoes and the salt, and stir well to combine.  The sauce will come to a simmer almost instantly.  Lower the heat to the lowest possible setting, put the lid on the pot, and let the sauce simmer for as long as you can, stirring it occasionally.  Seven hours would be wonderful, 5 hours is pretty good, but any less than 3 and you're really missing out.  The longer you cook the sauce, the richer and more flavorful it will get.

At some point in the cooking process, the fat will separate from the sauce and float at the top, so just give the sauce a good stir every so often to reincorporate the fat.  At the end of the cooking time, taste for seasoning and add more salt, if needed.  Then serve tossed with pasta or use in a classic lasagne (this recipe makes enough for a 9x13-inch pan).

Our thoughts and notes:

Weiss is very adamant in the intro to this recipe that you do it EXACTLY as she says, don't add extra spices or vegetables or ANYTHING. That kind of goes against our tweaking nature, but we did our best to follow those instructions. 

We used a sweet shiraz, as it happened to be open from a recent party, and we wanted to finish it. Despite only being 1/2 cup, the wine is a prominent flavor in the end product, and this sweeter wine (not even SO sweet as far as sweet wines go) made the sauce a bit too sweet. I think if I made it again I would choose a cabernet or merlot. 

We couldn't find San Marzano tomatoes, so we just used a random brand of whole canned tomatoes. Apparently San Marzano tomatoes are "the most famous plum tomatoes to come out of Italy," so maybe this drastically altered the outcome. And since we'll be making lots of tomato-based sauces in this Italian quest, one of our goals is to read more about tomatoes and canned tomato brands and utilize better ones. 

It really and truly needs to simmer for a long time. We tasted it after it had simmered in the crock pot for two hours, and it was just "meh." Ok, but nothing special. But after seven hours it was indeed far more rich and flavorful. I'm sure you could let it simmer on the stove top too, we just were going out for the afternoon and preferred to leave on a crock pot rather than the stove.

We felt this was pretty "meat heavy" (even as meat lovers!), and want to look for a ragu that has a closer meat to tomato ratio. Well, maybe ragu is inherently heavily-meaty? These are things we should learn about. 

This sauce was also one of those "better on day two" recipes, so make sure to have some leftover!

An added bonus for this post- special awesome garlic bread! My favorite way to make garlic bread is to mince fresh garlic and mix it into softened (salted) butter with some oregano and a little bit of thyme. Spread this on your bread and bake until golden brown. Mmm Mmm good!

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