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« What Not to Do With Meyer Lemons | Main | Squashed Resolve »
Monday
Feb022009

The Great Spaghetti Compromise

'Our' Ragù Bolognese


I wish I had a more picturesque story to go along with this recipe. I considered for a moment making up one about about a rustic trattoria in northern Italy, a wrinkled old grandmother in the kitchen, a lot of hand gestures and an almost-illegible recipe scribbled on an empty flour sack. But then I thought better of it. No, it's better you know the truth, that where this dish really has its origins is in stubbornness, intolerance, and marital discord, with a little bit of curry thrown in for good measure. But don't worry, it has a happy ending regardless.

Okay, I'll cut to the chase: spaghetti bolognese almost destroyed my marriage. Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but it's true that the iconic pasta sauce from Bologna ranks as one of the most persistent and unresolvable sources of conflict we've faced in more than a decade together.

It's kind of silly, since I didn't even grow up with spaghetti bolognese. In fact, when I was a kid, pasta was a one-trick pony. Nobody had ever heard of 'bolognese'; what we ate with spaghetti was 'spaghetti sauce', and the ritual surrounding it was quite simple: boil spaghetti, open jar, heat and serve, preferably alongside a can of Kraft parmesan. I simply took it for granted that the reason for being of any plate of spaghetti was to be a carrier substance for cheese. It wasn't until I was much older, and actually made it to Italy, that I tasted a version of the famed ragù bolognese, and fell in love at first forkful. I loved how utterly unlike those bland sauces in a jar it was, how much more like meat than tomato it tasted, and how for the first time in my life I didn't feel the need to drown the plate in parmesan.

Manuel, on the other hand, actually grew up with bolognese, and when we met it was one of the things he cooked most frequently. In Germany, though, like in most of the rest of Europe, 'bolognese' it's a catchall term for a tomato-based sauce with ground meat, and most versions bear only a passing resemblance to the Italian original. Manuel's version, which he based on one his mother used to make, contains the better part of a bottle of red wine, copious amounts of canned tomato puree, whatever dried herbs he had on and no small amount of sugar - as well as (whenever he thought I wasn't looking) a few shakes of curry powder. He would start by kneading the onion, garlic and herbs into some pork, which he would then fry the living daylights out of before adding in the liquid, and the whole thing from start to finish took well under an hour. It certainly wasn't bad (that is, as long as he restrained his curry impulses), but it always left me yearning for the big, meaty flavors of the real thing.

The problems started when I bought a copy of Lynn Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table, a superb book on the food of Emilia-Romagna, and one by one started working through her chapter on ragùs. Each and every one was a hearty, robust affair that simmered on the stove for hours and fed us for days. They featured more types of meat than I thought was physically possible to fit into a bite of spaghetti: beef, pork, veal, pancetta, prosciutto, even poultry gizzards, and naturally everything was bound by meat broth. As a rule they featured white wine instead of red, little or no garlic, no herbs save for a bay leaf or two, and very little tomato - a tablespoon or two at most. In other words, they offered meat without much distraction, but they were also just what I'd been craving.

Manuel, on the other hand, hated them. They were too beefy, too dry, not sweet enough, not acidic enough, and the meat was too bland. It was psychological, I think; if he hadn't grown up eating something that masqueraded under the same name he probably would have loved them, but he couldn't get over the fact that this unfamiliar stuff was what his favorite comfort food was 'supposed' to be. And soon enough, it became a tug of war every time we decided to have pasta: let me make my bolognese, no no, you made yours last time, I want mine this time. And the more we insisted, the more polarized we got until we were both almost unwilling to eat the other's recipe. I'm ashamed to admit it even started getting nasty - one day we didn't speak to each other for an entire evening after getting in a shouting match over the relative merits of red wine versus white.

A middle way was needed, we both realized, before spaghetti (of all things!) became the undoing of our union. Instead of the incessant bickering over whose version was better, we decided to construct a recipe that would make us both happy. And so we started compromising. He agreed to drop the dried herbs, accept white wine and live with considerably less tomato than he was used to. I agreed to throw in some garlic, sweeten the sauce a smidge and, after much convincing, spice the meat at least an hour before I intended to start cooking (which I assumed would be totally wasted effort since the meat was about to simmer in a highly-flavored sauce for several hours). We also agreed to keep the traditional carrot, celery and meat broth, add pancetta for depth, and since we were beating a new path already, we threw caution to the wind and added a bit of fresh rosemary.

I don't know what either one of us expected to result from that compromise - a sauce we could both tolerate, maybe - but what came out of that pot after a couple of hours on the stove left us both stunned. It was incredible. The flavor was every bit as deep and robust as the traditional ragùs, full of brown, meaty succulence, but it was also brighter and more balanced with its touch of acidity and sweetness. And Manuel's insistence on pre-spicing the meat was a stroke of genius, I have to say, since the garlic and rosemary remained embedded within each tender nugget, and exploded with flavor under our teeth. We ate that spaghetti like it was the last thing we ever would, and when the dust had settled it was clear that not only had we managed to inhale an entire batch between the two of us, but this was one sauce that would feature on our table again and again.

So, there you have it. No grandmothers or trattorias, but a compromise, a rescued marriage and a wickedly tasty pasta sauce to boot. 'Our' ragù may not pass muster in Bologna, or bring back cherished childhood memories, but that doesn't really matter - the important thing is that we both look forward to it, and even more tellingly, I haven't caught him even once eyeing the jar of curry powder.


'Our' Ragù Bolognese


Ragùs are very funny things - who would've thought they were so intensely personal? Then again, with their complex ingredient lists and long, drawn-out preparations there is a lot of room for each individual cook to leave their mark. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is the last word in ragùs for me, but it is one of the best I've ever had. Of course its appeal partly relies on top-notch ingredients: good pancetta, high-quality meat etc., but there are also a few techniques involved that help it develop its flavor, and which could easily be employed in any recipe. One is salting and flavoring the meat separately, at least an hour before cooking, which is surprisingly discernible in the finished dish. The second is browning both the vegetables and meat well before adding the liquid, which contributes a wonderful depth to the finished sauce. Finally, the cooking must not be rushed; the sauce should slowly reduce over the lowest heat possible for two to three hours to give all the flavors the chance to properly meld. You can also make it a day ahead and reheat it just before serving, in which case it'll taste even better.
Serves: 4-6

For the meat:
1.5 lbs (700g) pork, or half pork and half beef (preferably organic, free-range)
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz (120g) pancetta, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 fat carrot, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 cup (125ml) whole milk
1 cup (250ml) dry white wine
3 cups (750ml) chicken stock, preferably low-sodium (if your stock is very salty dilute it with a little water before measuring)
1/3 cup (80ml) tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon sugar

1 lb. fresh or dried spaghetti, tagliatelle, or the pasta of your choice, for serving

At least an hour and up to a day before starting to cook, knead together the ground meat, crushed garlic, chopped rosemary, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate.

In a large heavy pot over medium heat, heat the oil and add the pancetta, onions, carrot and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are golden and have started to caramelize, about 25-30 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and add the meat, breaking it up thoroughly with a fork and stirring constantly until medium brown in color, about 10 minutes. Add the milk, stirring until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the wine, stock, tomato paste and bay leaf, stir well and bring to a boil.

Partially cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and allow to cook at a gentle simmer for 2-3 hours. At the end of its cooking time the ragu should be juicy and thick, but not liquidy; if after two hours it still looks too wet, uncover and raise the heat slightly. Stir in the sugar, and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Keep warm.

Just before serving, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of its cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot and toss with the ragù, adding a little reserved cooking water if necessary to help the sauce evenly coat the noodles. Serve immediately, with freshly-grated parmesan cheese on the side.

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Reader Comments (60)

That's a way more awesome story than some wrinkled old grandmother-thing, and the recipe looks delectable. I have really only messed about with Bittman's version (I am also a bolognese neophyte), so I will definitely have to try yours. Thanks!

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKitt

Oh I love your non-fictional story! It teaches one to compromise and be a trifle more flexible when dealing with marital issues. My hat is off to both of you - for the sauce and happy ending!

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranya

This recipe goes straight to my cookbook! I always enjoy reading your stories, Melissa. I have to admit, I am more of a silent (but faithful) reader than a commentator, yet I wanted to drop a line to tell you that your site is absolutely one of my favorites. Your ragù story reminds me of similar food issues I had (well... still have occasionally :) with my Spanish boyfriend.
Oh, and the photo of the ragù is so mouthwatering!!

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMaya

Wow! I'm glad that we're not the only couple that fights over spaghetti. But your recounting of it is so real, much better than the wrinkled grandma. This is something we all relate to. In fact, I maintain that bolognese must have meat, while my fiance prefers it with little or no meat (blasphemous I know). Our compromise is to mix in anchovies and mushrooms to boost a meaty flavor without actually having any beef or pork. We all have a happy ending =)

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterM.E.

The story itself has me wondering if I have what I need for this. If not, I have to go out and get the ingredients. Great post.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLucy

I wait for your posts. I love that when they arrive they are as big and robust and delicious
as this recipe - I read them all twice..
I live with daily food negotiations and debates, but that is what happens when a london
girl shares a kitchen with a proud Sicilian in Rome I suppose. Yesterday we revisited an old favorite - debates over the tomato sauce and how al dente the pasta should be - we have been here before.
Thankyou for this recipe.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrachel

Goodness, I am (still) fighting off a bug of some sort, and I have to say that a warming bowlful of this would surely put me on the road to recovery. It looks delicious - and maybe I can convince my husband to stop by the market for the ingredients this evening. What a lovely story to go along with a great recipe.

I have been coveting lotus bowls lately, and I should have known that you would have some perfect ones in your enviable collection. So pretty. May I ask where they are from?

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertara

I love this story and have never made a ragu bolognese. Do I dare try it?

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatt

beautiful story, i am glad you found such a delicious compromise in the end! i always find the bolognese I grew up with and what you get here far too meaty... so i have resorted to making a veggie version and i have never, ever, heard even the most stubborn carnivores complain about the lack of ground meat!
the picture is gorgeous, as usual... and this would be the perfect food for today when it's chucking down the snow like there's no tomorrow!

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

How curious....sounds like one I'll have to try. I've always made the old standby with ground beef, celery, canned tomaties, tomato paste, oregano, rosemary, thyme and that's pretty much it...certainly never put any sugar in it (ugh), though would put wine in it if I had any standing about!

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCat

Oh man, what a lovely picture and story. I grew up eating this stuff, and still do regulally. Come to think of it, my next blog post is on an Oxtail Ragu, but with a photograph no where near as good as yours!

Love the recipe, love the styling, and of course love the story. Wonderful stuff.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatt wright

Loved the story! And the ragu sounds fantastic, too. We always brown onions for meat sauces in Croatia. It gives them a wonderful depth of flavour, and it thickens the sauce.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermaninas

Also, yes, a pinch of sugar does wonders for tomatoes.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermaninas

This ragu recipe sounds fantastic Melissa. I was brought up in the school of sauce from a jar as well. I remember my amazement at discovering that a true ragu cooked for hours rather than the 15 mins I was used to for whipping up pasta.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGourmet Chick

This was a great post. I'm so glad your marriage is on the mend :), and I'll think of you the next time I listen to Lynn. And the recipe looks great by the way.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMy First Kitchen

My husband almost broke up with me (when we were dating) because I was experimenting after a long weekend with tyler florence on food tv who suggested I put cinnamon in the ragu. Never again - I still hear about the world's worse sauce I ever made.

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentergastroanthropologist

Anyone who can resist making this dish after seeing that photo deserves a medal.
Yummmmm!

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercherie

I love that were a not the only couple fighting bitterly over "small" things. I'm glad you found common ragù ground! I must try it soon, it sounds delicious!

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHoneybee

Wonderful story--I think this is my favourite of all your entries (and I love so very many of them) because it has everything: romance, conflict, suspense, reconcilation, and a satisfying end, not to mention a recipe for ragu, a food I could eat every day if it were not as bad for me... Thanks!

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatilda

You are every bit the spledid writer as chef; wonderful story - wonderful recipe. There is a story in the 'Thousand and One Nights' of a husband who lost his thumbs over a cumin ragu. Tell Manuel we men are indeed blessed who have wives that prefer to find common ground with us. (smiling)

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercorey

I'm a vegetarian, so I would probably never actually make this, but it was written so well that I kind of wish that I could make it. I want to know the flavor that sparked such a good article. This was way more entertaining than a made up old Italian grandma story could have been. :-)

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNora

Your stories are always an interesting read. With amazing pictures and recipes to boot, this is one awesome site on food!

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranushruti

What a great story, I'm so glad you managed to find a compromise. I've not heard of kneading the herbs into the mince beforehand but I shall certainly be giving this method a try, especially the white wine.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterToffeeapple

Hi! You helped me out with my camera questions... I too suffered from the sauce in a can and a tube of green parmesan powder. Living in Italy was a shock to my system. I bookmarked your pasta to try out on my partner. He loves a plate of meat and would have been on your side in the debate!!

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Renee

Hey girl! How are you? I haven't been by in a while. Thinkin' about coming to Seattle sometime in April...so much to see...so much to eat!

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjaden, steamykitchen

Looks lovely, personally not a big fan of parmesan but I would flavour it up with a hint of fresh basil! Good luck with your future bolognese endeavours!

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTakeaway

Great story! I'm glad the bolognese instead made you guys stronger. It's a great sauce, especially with the weather we've all been having lately.

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

Great story, I love how the forks are entwined in the picture. Nice touch!

February 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteraverybird

Funny the things we compromise in our marriages.
This dish is making my mouth water!

February 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

What a great story! I'm so glad you found a compromise. :) I know exactly the sauce you describe from The Splendid Table. When I made it, I was also surprised by how little tomato -- and how many meats -- are included. Your compromise sounds lovely! BTW, I just discovered your site and LOVE it. I'll be back!

February 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Wow! Your blog is amazing. I love your photos and commentary. Hopefully my blog will be as cool as yours - there's something to aspire to.

February 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSara Gray

GREAT story, thoroughly enjoyed it, and your Marital Ragu sounds delicious.

February 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKate

We just made this Ragù for dinner tonight. It was absolutely delicious. Everybody had seconds. Thanks for the great recipe.

February 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

mmm a compromise that keeps everyone happy. I think I will give this a go

February 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAudrey

LOL! Now THAT was a good story. I'm glad it ended well. ;-) Thanks for recipe.

Paz

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaz

All the recipes I make are usually a mix of both of my home cultures: Scandinavian and American. I've been feeling like Italian food and rich flavors lately, especially simple and delicious pastas. This recipe got me inspired to make this asap. The photographs and the blog are gorgeous. I always keep checking back for inspiration. Thanks for sharing!

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertiina

A great tale and recipe to boot!

February 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTake away

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped?????????

that quantity of rosemary would overwhelm all the subtlety in the Ragu. it would become Ragu Rosmarino!

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarc

I had bolognese this last weekend too - and I love it. The traditional English version might not be authentic Italian but who cares...

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott at Real Epicurean

Even when the picture did not come up, the recipe was enough to make me want to try this. But then I saw the picture and the deep color is mouthwatering. My untried opinion on the rosemary is by using fresh for that long of cooking it will mellow well. Only one question, would this work in a 250-300 oven for three hours, like Sunday mornings?

February 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElise

Terrific story - I could see the same thing happening here. We wouldn't fight over money, or kids, or the dog, but the best approach to chocolate sorbet! Meeting in the middle always creates beautiful results. Can't wait to try the sauce.
Phoo-D

February 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPhoo-D

Great story! I am dying to try the recipe!

February 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbea at La tartine gourmande

Melissa,

You have such an amazing way with words, it's almost ridiculous the romanticism that floods through your passages and settles in that little nostalgic part of my heart that carries all of the lovely, fruitful memories that are triggered by the sites, smells, and sometimes accessories of such brilliant foods as you describe here on your site.

Consider yourself subscribed to...it's going to be hard to shake me now that you've won my critical little heart.

February 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmphritrite

Hi everyone, thank you! Your kind words have been warming my heart every day. And I can't tell you how glad I am to know that we're not the only couple to fight about food of all things. Luckily it's one of the easier topics to compromise on. :)

Tara - I know what you mean about lotus bowls, I've been coveting them too! I actually, ahem, 'borrowed' this one from my parents, and unfortunately I have no idea where they got it. A local store sells some made by the BIA Cordon Bleu, but they lack the delicacy this one has. I'm keeping my eyes peeled, though, and in case I spot a source for them online I'll let you know - and I hope you'll do the same!

Jaden - How cool! Let me know when you'll be in town!

Matt - I'm so glad you liked it! Thanks for reporting back.

Marc - I don't find that it does, but by all means reduce the amount or leave it out entirely if you prefer.

Elise - Oh, absolutely, I can't see any reason why a long, slow bake couldn't replace the stove-top simmer. I don't know if it will take the same amount of time in the oven, though, so you might want to budget slightly more until you know for sure how long it'll take.

February 24, 2009 | Registered Commentermelissa

I too have been cooking through different bolognese recipes: Bittman, Dean & DeLuca, online, and this one so far surpasses the others--it is celestially good--I couldn't believe that I had actually made it...

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterathabasca

Oh, and something happens to all that rosemary when it sits with the meat and salt and pepper--it morphs into something smooth and haunting. I thought it would be like a pine forest too--but it's not.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterathabasca

I tried this last night. I confess, like many of your other readers, I was first drawn into this recipe by the photo, then by your story.

For those of you who haven't tried this yet, DO! It's amazing.

It was easy to make, tasted like a dream, and most of all, added to the domestic harmony of my home.

What more can you ask for?

Thanks Melissa.

February 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKasumi

I made this tonight and it was wonderful, but I did have one problem. After letting the sauce cook for a few hours, I ended up with a half inch of oil floating over the entire surface! There was so much that I had to skim some, as I was afraid the texture would be too oily. Should I have left it all in, and had faith that the pasta would have absorbed it? Or do you skim as well? There was still plenty of oil left when I added the noodles.

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterhungrygerman

I'm currently simmering this and am experiencing the same oil issue as hungrygerman. Also, your picture makes the sauce look very deep red. Mine on the other hand is very light and maybe just a little orange from the lack of the extra tomatoes and sauce. Is it supposed to be this light? I'm so used to making sauce with lots of tomato and red wine. It tastes great so far by the way! :)

March 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

Hungrygerman and Nicole - Okay, here's the scoop: it is definitely a rich sauce, as many Northern Italian ragus are. I've never found the oiliness to be very discernible once the sauce has been tossed with pasta, but if you're looking for ways to 'lighten' it, you might try a leaner grade of meat, or drain off some of the fat after frying the meat and vegetables together. Just please don't drain it all - it contributes a lot of flavor! p.s. And yes, as for the color, it is more on the orangey-red side of things.

March 10, 2009 | Registered Commentermelissa

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