Every person who has or ever has had a “functioning” uterus understands that there comes a point in your life when it becomes very clear that you are nothing but a soaked sponge held in the vice grip of cruel fate. You are merely a tragic bag of hormone-laced seawater being systematically wrung out like the sweaty gym towel of some uncaring god. You are both metaphorically being squeezed in the iron grip of and also punched in the gonads by that stupid giant steel fist statue they have in Detroit.
Cheer up, they tell you. It’s not so bad, they say. After all, what could possibly compare to the beautiful, mystical, earthy dignity of having your viscera vigorously pumped like a straining accordion in the meaty hands of a busker who thinks people tip by volume. It only happens every month!
But you did not come here to read about the cosmic injustice that is menstruation. This is, ostensibly, a food blog. “Gross”, you may be thinking to yourself. “Yuck. This is, as recipe preambles go, decidedly unappetizing.” And you would not be wrong.
But, as my insides are performing an orderly evacuation via their nearest emergency exit, I am here to extol to you the virtue of patience and to remind you that this blog is free. During the course of my current agonies, only two things adequately soothe: watching people die crunchily on various supernatural television soap operas, and meat sauce.
I would like to extend my humble thanks to the people of Bologna for making a sauce that is both my favorite thing to eat, and also extremely gross to make. Luckily for all of us, it is also so very easy that it can be done almost entirely from the couch.
Bolognese is not, fundamentally, a tomato sauce. Bolognese is a meat sauce. Bolognese is about taking extremely boring ingredients (traditionally there are no spices other than salt, not even GARLIC) and soaking them in various liquids until they somehow become a beautifully savory gravy that I, personally, would eat off of an old shoe. But spaghetti is preferable, obviously.
People on cooking shows talk a lot about “building flavor” and “flavor components” and stuff. We all know that there are some soups and stews that taste better the day after you make them, but this is the only sauce I know of that goes from “lukewarm dog food” to “irresistible” in the space of an afternoon. The key is boiling first milk and then wine into the meat and vegetables, creating both a lactic tang and a fruity roundness that’s instantly, iconically recognizable as Bolognese with a capital B.
The reason all of our made-up homemade meaty tomato sauces never taste as good as the restaurant version is because it would never occur to a sane person to boil two pounds of meat in milk until it’s dry, and then do the same thing all over again with wine. Firstly, it’s bizarre, and secondly it takes what feels like several years.
Most people, including me, are fine with just heating things up until they’re kinda melded together. Max, like, 40 minutes. I don’t know which ancient cook first decided three hours was an appropriate time investment for old beef, but we all owe that person a debt of gratitude. Don’t think of this as three hours of active cooking. Think of it as two movies, with intermittent stirring at 20-minute intervals, or, in imperial measurements, six 30-Rocks. For the low, low price of your entire afternoon, you too can experience Unparalleled Meaty Richness right in your own home.
I don’t know what else to tell you. This is The Sauce. It’s the beautiful, meditative transmogrification of basic ingredients and time into something truly wonderful. This is what you keep in your freezer as a love letter to your future self and loved ones. This is a sauce that made my sister immediately get up and do a little dance of joy as soon as she tasted it. And it’s so intensely umami-flavored that the four cups this recipe makes will last you ages. Only the pang of its absence could induce me to spend another afternoon making it, but believe that it’s a fierce pang.
Adapted from Marcella Hazan via NYTimes cooking. You’re the best, Marcella. I doubled this recipe, which I think is part of why it takes so damn long for all the liquid to boil off. Whatever, YOLO, if you’re going to make this high-maintenance bitch you might as well make a ton of her.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon for tossing the pasta (hey, Katie, is this, like an apocalyptic amount of butter? Uhhhhh don’t worry about it.)
- 1 cup chopped onion (1 large) (measuring chopped vegetables by volume is for dweebs. Who does this. Are you just supposed to throw the extra 1/3 of a celery stalk away? Of course not! That’s demented.)
- 1 1/3 cup chopped celery (about 4 stalks)
- 1 1/3 cup chopped carrot (like 4 small carrots, maybe 3 bigger ones)
- 2 pounds ground beef chuck (or you can use 1 part pork to 2 parts beef, says Marcella. I say use whatever. I’ve used half pork half beef, and all beef. I bet you could do ground turkey if you wanted.)
- Salt (“salt”. Helpful. Thanks so much.)
- Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill (“storebought is fine”)
- 2 cups whole milk
- Whole nutmeg (or 1/4 scant tsp of ground, if you don’t happen to live in the Room of Requirement)
- 2 cups dry white wine (I usually use 1 cup of dry sherry, which I keep on hand as a white wine substitute because I never remember to drink the rest of the cooking wine before it goes bad. Others may not have this problem.)
- 3 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice (For Pete’s sake. 2 cans of whatever tomatoes you have, but not the weird pre-spiced ones. If you have whole canned tomatoes, use scissors to snip them up in the can instead of chopping.)
- 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pounds pasta (just…lots. I love spaghetti, but I know short pasta holds meaty sauces better, or whatever. This also goes really good on polenta, or baked potatoes, or whatever starch you like.)
- Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese at the table (okay Marcella)
- Katie additions:
- Why… would you not have garlic. I know it doesn’t traditionally belong, but being from Chicago, home of deep dish, there’s a limit to my inborn respect for the laws of Italian cuisine.
- 5 whole smashed cloves in with the onions – don’t bother chopping them, they’ll go to pieces on their own as the sauce cooks down.
- Put the oil, butter and chopped onion in the pot and turn the heat on to medium. Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent.
- Add the chopped celery and carrot. (I genuinely don’t know why you have to do the onion first. Feel free to call in with guesses.) Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring vegetables to coat them well.
- Add ground meat, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. (I don’t know what “a large pinch” is supposed to mean here. I just do a little pinch of salt whenever I add an ingredient – but LITTLE. You can’t take salt out, only put it in.)
- Crumble the meat with a fork, stir well and cook until the beef has lost its raw, red color.
- Add milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. (Hilarious. This is just a sloppy, sloppy boy. It will never dry, but it will boil weirdly and the milk will curdle. Genuinely this step has taken me a full hour, between the liquid coming off the vegetables, the meat, and the milk. Don’t get discouraged, it’ll get there eventually, and then you’ll get it wet all over again two steps from now.)
- Add nutmeg, and stir.
- Add the wine, let it simmer until it has evaporated, (again, jokes from Marcella. The wine doesn’t take quite as long as the milk, but it does take forever. Maybe 40 minutes.)
- Add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface.
- Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must be left and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt. (Real talk: I have no idea what she means by the fat separating from the sauce. I think she just wants the texture to be quite dry, which I agree with because it should mix with the pasta water to loosen up a bit when you toss everything together to serve. What you should watch out for is the sauce sticking to the bottom of the pan, which it will do. The top is where all the liquid escapes to in order to evaporate, which means that the top can look liquidy while the bottom is fully carbon-bonding itself to your stockpot. What I’m saying is, don’t get complacent. Set a timer for 20-minute intervals and get up and stir it, no matter what. If it burns AFTER you’ve spent two and a half hours on it already and ruins your delicate Jenga tower of flavor I don’t want to have to testify at the inquest for the guy you inadvertently murdered when you threw a pot of steaming meat lava out your kitchen window onto the street.)
- Toss with cooked drained pasta, adding the tablespoon of butter, and serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side. (Eat until you pass out. I find about a cup of sauce tossed with enough pasta for two people and a half cup of pasta water thins it out into the kind of comforting yumminess you want, rather than a full-on meat punch. But you do you.)