'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Friday, 16 November 2012

Bolognese sauce

My eating habits aren't exactly great now, but I had really terrible eating habits when I was at secondary school in my teenage years in Hong Kong. After a much dreaded breakfast at 6am which usually consisted of oatmeal cooked with water and egg, I would eat three packets of crisps (the smallest size) from the tuck shop at school as my lunch. It goes without saying that the hot food served at the canteen was absolutely dreadful, so for my undeveloped taste buds crisps were infinitely preferable. As unhealthy as they were, three packets of crisps could hardly fill up a teenager's stomach for an extended period of time, so by the time I reached home at 4pm I would get hungry again. Time to eat a 'real' lunch. There were two routes I could go down - either heading to McDonald's or asking mum to cook spaghetti bolognese.

Now, I'm not entirely sure how my mum exactly prepared the 'spag bol' back then, but I can assure you that I would devour it in no time. I'm pretty sure that she just used a pre-made sauce and mixed it with minced pork and lots and lots of chilli. It goes without saying that it's by no means an authentic rendition of spaghetti bolognese, but it was one of my favourite things to eat back then - which was interesting since I didn't eat tomatoes in general (and still don't). I don't like things that are sour and tomatoes are just way too intense for me. Personally I find tomato-based sauces are slightly more edible than whole tomatoes - even though I do force myself to eat the odd slices of tomatoes in a burger every now and then for their healthy benefits.

The first time when I tried to cook an authentic bolognese sauce from scratch myself in my undergrad years, I was appalled by how complicated and lengthy it was/had to be. I had no idea that you're meant to brown the beef in small batches before braising it with the other ingredients - and by braising you're looking at almost two hours, if not more. Even now, I only make bolognese sauce every once in a while since it's really a major undertaking - but then I tend to make a huge quantity so that I can live on it for days. Once you've tasted the real stuff though, you'll find the commercial stuff so incredibly shallow. I would rather not eat spaghetti bolognese than use a premade sauce!

Contrary to popular belief, bolognese sauce is not a tomato-based sauce (thank God!). It originates from Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy which many consider to be the gastronomical heartland of Italy. Many of the finest produce we associate with Italian cooking hail from this region: Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, balsamico di Modena, not to mention all the handmade pasta like tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagna, etc. And then there is the ragù alla bolognese, known to the rest of the world as bolognese sauce. As its name suggests, it originates from Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. Interestingly, in that region bolognese is most often served with tagliatelle, not spaghetti. Maybe the meat sauce clings on to the flatter surfaces of tagliatelle better?

I digress: last summer, I made a day trip from Milan to Bologna, hoping that it would be one of the gastronomical highlights of my life. Well, I went on a Sunday when I was so jet lagged and I hadn't slept a minute the night before. It was 40 degrees Celsius that day, and almost all the shops and restaurants were closed. It was a terrible feeling strolling through the streets of Bologna under the scorching sun with a knackered body in search of a decent restaurant that was open...  I swear it was one of the worst days of my life. I had booked the express train to return to Milan for 11pm, hoping that I would make the most out of the day. By 3pm, however, I couldn't stand the heat and exhaustion and dragged myself back to the railway station to make a swifter return to Milan. As it turned out, all the express trains were packed and I had to pay an extra €20 or so to hop on a local train with hardly any air-conditioning. After 4 hours of torturous journey, I finally returned to Milan, dehydrated, shattered and starving. I had a burger from McDonald's for dinner. So much for my search for authentic Bolognese food.

I prefer meat to pasta, as you can see
Either way, there're countless versions of bolognese sauce thanks to its great popularity all over the world. 'Spag bol' is of course a British boarding house staple involving limpid spaghetti with a stingy amount of pallid 'sauce' on top - hardly an inspiring affair. Felicity Cloake has written an interesting article in the Guardian comparing different recipes of bolognese sauce and addresses certain important points involved in making the sauce. Here are some of my primary concerns when making a good ragù alla bolognese:

1. Meat: many recipes call for a mixture of minced beef and pork - as much as 1:1. This is a good way to go if you don't like your bolognese sauce too beefy. I usually just go for all beef - though I try to stay away from those that are too fatty. Minced beef from supermarkets can contain as much as 22% fat. You'll have a hard time draining all those rendered fat and if you're like me, you'll be cursing heaven and hell for spending a fifth of the money on something that you didn't want in the first place. Some people use chicken liver too, but I don't like offal...

2. Tomatoes: okay, bolognese sauce is not a tomato-based sauce, but you still need the stuff. For a good balance of flavour, you want both tinned plum tomatoes and tomato paste/passata.

3. Browning: it's crucial that you fry your minced beef in small batches on both sides before braising so that you create lots of browning flavours - you'll be rewarded with a much deeper-flavoured sauce, however arduous this process is.

4. Cured pork: this is crucial in a good bolognese sauce, without it the sauce tastes fat. You can use cured ham or bacon, though pancetta is probably best.

5. Wine: interestingly, most good recipes call for white, not red wine. I have tried cooking with both and I do prefer the cleaner, brighter taste of white. The sauce is rich enough as it is and using red wine seems to make it too cloudy.

6. Vegetables: these are kind of optional, but they impart a sweetness and freshness that counterbalance the richness of all that meat. Finely chopped carrots and celery are the most common additions.

7. Dairy: it may surprise you that authentic ragù alla bolognese recipes often contain milk. I feel that the milk evens out some of the acidity of all those tomatoes, and gives the sauce more smoothness in both taste and texture. Some chefs also add a little butter or cream at the very end as 'moisturisers'. I like the former more than the latter.

8. Length of cooking time: for a bolognese sauce rather than a soup, you really need to simmer the sauce for at least a good two hours, preferably three. The ingredients need all that time to meld together to become a unified sauce.


Ragù alla bolognese

The way I go about making this sauce is loosely based on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsthall's recipe. You'll need two pans: one large frying pan for browning the ingredients, and another big stock pot for braising. I have to confess that when no-one else is peeking, I would *sometimes* add Chinese ingredients like dried scallops and shrimps to boost the umami profile, and use shallots instead of onions. All this fiddling of course makes the sauce taste thoroughly non-Italian, and I feel terribly apologetic serving it to non-Chinese friends... The below is how I would go about cooking a 'real' Italianate ragù alla bolognese.

2 kg minced beef
250g bacon, cured ham or pancetta
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
1 tin of plum tomatoes (about 450g)
1 small tin of tomato paste/passata (about 170g)
1/2 bottle white wine
250ml whole milk
Dried herbs (bay leaves, basil, thyme, oregano, etc.) - optional
Dried chillies - optional
Nutmeg - optional
Salt, black pepper, sugar

1. Heat a large frying pan over a high heat, and crumble your minced beef in to the pan and pan-fry until genuinely brown. (No need to add oil here, the beef has enough fat!) Imagine you're making a burger here - do it in small batches so that you don't overcrowd the pan. Flip to the others side when you feel that there is sufficient browning. When you are confident that the other side is browned too, transfer the beef to the large stock pot that you will use for braising the sauce. Pour the rendered beef fat to a large bowl - you'd be grateful for it when you have to roast potatoes. Repeat this painful process of browning and draining until you're done with all the beef.

2. Turn the heat down to medium, and fry the bacon/cured ham/pancetta until the fat runs. Lift off the fried bacon pieces and add them to the braising pan with the beef. Drain most of the bacon fat to the bowl that you use for the rendered beef fat.

3. Now turn the heat to medium-low, and sweat the onions and garlic until the onion is almost translucent. Add the carrot and celery and cook for a few more minutes. Tip everything into the stock pot.

I didn't have celery on hand this time...

4. Turn the heat back to high, and deglaze the frying pan with the wine and let reduce slightly. Pour the wine to the braising pan too.

Let it bubble merrily

5. Now add the two kinds of tomatoes to the pan along with the milk and just enough water to cover the meat if necessary. Grate a little nutmeg if you wish and add your herbs if using. Even though it's not orthodox, I add a few dried chillies, crumbled up, at this point to give the sauce a bit of a kick. Stir well with a spatula to mix everything well.

6. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, for at least 2 hours, preferably three, stirring occasionally, until really thick and rich and not watery at all. Season with salt and plenty of black pepper. Freshly chopped basil is a welcome addition at the very end I think, so is a good knob of butter. 1 or 2 teaspoons of sugar also helps round off the flavour of tomatoes, too.

1 hour in: still watery

After 2 hours: most of the fat has risen to the top.

Three hours: everything melds together to form a sauce.

Serve with linguine, tagliatelle, spaghetti, or even use as filling for lasagna.

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