I’d imagine most people who grew up in the UK ate a lot of spaghetti bolognese. A lot. Probably not just the UK either. I expect most of the western world was raised on it. I’m not old enough to remember a time before dried pasta was commonplace in British homes and Italian cuisine was utterly mainstream (god knows what everyone ate. A lot of potatoes, right?), but for my entire childhood, pasta at home, as a quick weeknight supper and the odd special-occasion pizza out at Marine Ices and, a little later, Pizza Express, were like a background hum of normality. As British as chicken tikka.
But then, along comes the wave of food television, followed by the internet, and we’re informed that sorry, you’ve been doing this wrong all along; that, duh, spaghetti is not the correct pasta-shape for a ragu, which incidentally we shouldn’t be calling ‘Bolognese’ cause words mean things, you know, and what the hell are we doing putting so much sauce on the pasta, cause it’s just supposed to lightly dress it, you idiot!
People have a hard time taking this sort of assault on what they felt were the certainties of life, and I suppose that isn’t a surprise. Twitter rages with debates about cultural appropriation in food, with Jamie Oliver over here borrowing a word without also borrowing its meaning, and Dave Chang over here saying that food needs space to evolve without being policed, and Shaun Beagley over here, expressing a love for a cuisine whilst simultaneously showing enormous disrespect for the people who invented it, and hundreds of other people jostling in the middle, expressing opinions, defending heritages and stubbornly denying one another. (If you’re a twitter user, I’d recommend following Mimi Aye, a Burmese food expert and Japanophile who cuts through these issues fearlessly and clearly in a way few others have the knowledge or the determinations to do.)
All that said, as home cooks, we needn’t worry about much more than keeping ourselves and our families happy and well fed. I shall avoid using the B Word here and instead call the sauce a Ragu, which it undoubtedly is, and I do highly recommend using a ribbon pasta like tagliatelle or pappardelle, or a tubular pasta like penne or rigatoni, simply cause they hang on to more sauce.
The other common criticism that I hold with is the idea that this is a quick dinner. I remember once watching Tim Lovejoy of Sunday Brunch, a man who despite over a decade of experience in food television seems, almost impressively, to have learned not a single thing about the subject, asking a chef whether he ever throws anything quick together at home, like spaghetti bolognese, and a look of 50/50 contempt and pity passing over the man’s face. If you need to rush this, I’d suggest not bothering. It’s a good one to do on a day off, or over the weekend, and in large quantities. Fortunately, it freezes extremely well, ready for when you do need a quick dinner.
For around 20-25 portions of ragu, you will need:
- 1kg beef brisket, chuck or any other stewing cut, or 1kg beef mince
- 1kg pork shoulder, meaty rib, or belly, or 1kg pork mince
- 2 onions, finely diced
- A carrot, finely diced
- A rib of celery, finely diced
- A head of garlic, finely chopped
- A bushy sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
- A bottle of red wine (nothing fancy, and Italian if you have it, which I did not)
- 2 400g tins/packs of tomatoes
- A squirt of tomato puree
If you’re mincing your own meat, do that first. I’ve found I’ve got better results doing so, but not everybody has the wherewithal, so do what you want.
Take your biggest, heaviest pan and put it over a high heat. Add enough cooking oil to cover the bottom, and fry your mince in small batches (cover no more than about a third of the bottom of the pan) leaving to brown on one side, then scraping hard off the bottom with a wooden spoon and browning all over, before removing to a bowl and repeating. This is by far the most time consuming part of this whole recipe, but you’ll be rewarded with flavour in the final product in a way that an overloaded, over-wet browning process simply won’t.
Turn the heat right down, as low as it’ll go, add more oil if the pan is dry, then tip in the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and rosemary, give them a good stir and clap on a lid. Leave these, basically speaking, for as long as you have time up to about 45 minutes or an hour. Check on the soffrito every 10 minutes or so, giving it a stir and controlling the heat so that it takes on as little colour as possible but rather dissolves into a sticky, translucent goo. This flavour will provide the backbone for your ragu, so really give it as much time as you can.
Add the meat back to the pan, pour in the wine and turn the heat up, giving it a good boil for a minute or two.
Pour in the tomatoes and the puree, return to the boil and then either:
Put on a well-fitting lid, slide the whole pan into a 125°C oven and leave for 8 hours or overnight. After this period, return to the hob, remove the lid (what’s inside will taste pretty unappealing at this stage, but don’t be deterred!) and simmer gently for an hour or so, til you have a thick, almost dry sauce, in which a wooden spoon can stand up unsupported. Season with salt and pepper as you go, remembering that you’re technically cooking for 25, so you’ll need more than you probably expect.
Simmer on a low heat on the hob with a lid on for about four hours, checking stirring, and adjusting the heat every 30 minutes or so. After this period, take off the lid, and reduce at a low simmer for a further hour or two, or until a spoon can stand up in the sauce unaided. Season with salt and pepper as you go, trying to find the balance between the acidity of the tomatoes and wine and the salt. You’ll need quite a lot, so begin boldly and continue cautiously.
Spoon over cooked ribbon or tube pasta (or spaghetti if it really means that much to you), tossing til there’s enough sauce to cover each piece, but not so much that it pools in the bottom of the pan.
Serve in bowls garnished with freshly shaved parmesan cheese and a light drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil you have.
Assuming you don’t have 25 people over for dinner, freeze the remainder of the sauce in portions.