I made bolognese yesterday. I think for a lot of people this is an easy-peasy thirty-minute mince-and-tomato midweek supper. For a lot of other people – people like me – it is the source of debate and passion.
My mother’s bolognese recipe comes from a St Michael (that’s M&S in the old days) freezer cookbook, and uses tins of tomato puree liberally dressed with mushrooms. I’m not keen on mushrooms in bolognese and we’ve had a number of family rows about it. Why wreck a perfectly good dinner with fungi which, when cooked for an hour or so, resemble black slugs?
And then came along Matt, who threw out the spag bol rulebook by using – get this – CHUNKS OF BEEF rather than mince in his stew. This blew my mind. Not only were they chunks of beef, they were chunks of beef that he had hand-chopped to get the consistency that he wanted. I think it was this attention to detail that made me think he may be the chap for me, that plus the row of Elizabeth David cookbooks that I spied on his bookshelf on my first visit to his flat. Matt doesn’t understand spaghetti and so his bol is always served with a pasta tube of some sort. I think the Italians would approve of this.
Because what we’re really making is ragu, and that means shreds rather than lumps. It needs properly beefy meat which is properly browned. It demands a rich thick tomato sauce, deepened with red wine, that is well cooked. It needs salted pork of some description, for flavour and fat. It needs time, patience and a cooking period that expands into two days. It needs to be made in massive quantities and then frozen for a quick and brilliant supper when you need comfort but can’t be bothered to cook. And so this is how I do my bolognese. Not saying it’s definitive, but it’s how I like it.
750g-1kg beef. Braising steak, shin, oxtail all would work. Buy the pieces whole and then prep at home.
250g or so lardons, lightly smoked
3 small or 2 large onions, finely diced
1 celery stick, finely diced
3 or 4 fat garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
Red wine – about 250ml. I usually use an Italian red, yesterday it was one from the Parmigiano region.
Pasatta – around 300ml. Ideally homemade but I sometimes use a carton.
1 tin plum tomatoes
1 low salt beef stock cube
Non-stick frying pan
Massive stock pot or casserole dish
1. This is very important: finely dice all the beef into pieces about the size of a fingernail, then dry the pieces on kitchen paper. As Julia Child instructs, wet meat won’t brown. Keep any bits of connective tissue in, as they will melt into the bolognese and make it unctuous. I tend to leave fat on too, for flavour, and skim any excess off later when cooled.
2. In stages, brown all the beef in a dry non-stick frying pan until richly brown all over, ideally with toasty bits. This will take ages, about 30 minutes, and will be noisy, smoky and make a total mess of the cooker. It’s worth it. Any overcrowding of the pan will create boiled beef, which is not what we’re after. When done, pop the pieces straight into your biggest casserole dish or stock pot that is conveniently waiting on the stove next to your frying pan.
3. Do the same thing with the bacon – brown all over – and when done stick the lot, including any fat and juices, straight in the stock pot.
4. Clean the cooker as it will now resemble an oil slick.
5. Now for the gentle stage. We’re basically going to make a rich tomato sauce. Put the frying pan back on a low heat, add a few glugs of oil, then pop in the onion and celery. Let it melt really slowly into the oil, until soft and transparent. This can take about 15 minutes. I usually add the merest pinch of sea salt here to help it along – not too much as the bacon and stock cube will have their own salt.
6. Recipes for bolognese always cite prepared beef stock. If I have homemade in the freezer I’ll use that but usually it’s a cube. No need to make it into stock; just crumble directly into the onions and let it cook out for a minute or two.
7. Turn the heat up and slosh in the wine. Let it bubble and as it does, scrape up any good beefy oniony residues that are stuck to the pan.
8. Add in your pasatta and the tin of tomatoes. Pop in the bay leaf. Let it all come together and bubble for a few minutes until resembling tomato sauce. Have a taste and then season as needed with salt and pepper, remembering that it will cook for several hours and become concentrated.
9. Carefully lift the frying pan and slop the lot over your waiting beef and bacon. Then move the stock pot back onto the heat and bring to a simmer. Does it need more liquid? If so add it now, boiling water from the kettle, and swill out that tomato tin whilst you’re at it. The liquid needs to be cover the meat.
10. Pop the lid on and move it to the smallest burner on the stove. Cook for hours. A shin of beef will normally need three hours to come to proper melting tenderness. Keep an eye on it and make sure nothing is sticking and burning, but really it can be left to putter away by itself.
11. When it’s looking done, turn heat off and leave overnight to cool.
12. The next day, have a prod of the bolognese. Is the meat falling apart into shreds? Help it along with a big spoon – shreds will stick to your pasta more satisfyingly than chunks. Does it need reducing? If so, let it simmer with the lid off for half an hour or so. It should be rich, thick and totally amazing looking. Is it too fatty? Skim off any residue with a metal spoon. Is it seasoned well? Add more salt and pepper if it needs it.
13. We now have a huge vat of awesome bolognese. I usually eat some and freeze some. Transfer to freezer bags and remember to label, else you’ll do what Matt used to in his bachelor days and confuse bolognese with tagine and serve it with couscous. Dinner is always at hand.