Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Ragu Bolognese

A comment made by a friend on Facebook, something along the lines of "bechamel has no place in a lasagna" encouraged me to do a quick Google search for lasagna recipes. It seemed to me that lasagna Bolognese did indeed have a place for bechamel, but I wanted to make sure before I said something. During my search, I stumbled upon J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's recipe for Bolognese sauce on Serious Eats; he had me at "fish sauce," which he added to boost the umami factor. Always on the look-out for the perfect recipe for this particular sauce, I had to make it. Now.

I've seen so many recipes called "Bolognese" that were essentially tomato sauce with ground beef. That's just a garden-variety meat sauce. Proper Bolognese is primarily meat with a bit of tomato and cream to bind it together. The best bolognese sauce I've ever eaten was, believe it or not, served at a small café in Paris, a couple blocks off the Champs-Élysées. From my recollection, it was full of tender meat and unlike any other tomato-based pasta sauce I have ever eaten. By today, more than 25 years have passed and I should no longer rely on my taste memory, however I stubbornly contend that I'll recognize it when I taste it again.

Sauce before long-simmering. Looks kinda barfy, doesn't it?
As with most traditional dishes prepared by many different people over long periods of time, there's no one, ultimate, recipe for ragu Bolognese. I've seen variations with lemon peel, nutmeg, and pancetta; with the milk added early on to the browned meat and cooked until au sec, and with it added later; and tomato-heavy versions. Lopez-Alt's rendition had relatively little tomato, a ton of dairy, and no lemon, nutmeg, or bacon. But still, it called out to me to make it.

Sauce three hours later. Still a bit barfy.
The store in which we shopped for ingredients didn't carry ground lamb or veal, so I used a mixture of half ground beef and half ground pork. I also added 4 or 5 ounces of pancetta, for flavor. And apart from not skimming the sauce--which Lopez-Alt says should be emulsified back into the sauce during its final simmer--I followed the recipe exactly.

Dinner is served.
Traditionally, ragu Bolognese (when not used in lasagna) should be served over a wide flat noodle like tagliatelle. While I personally favor that type of pasta, it's not easy to find at the Safeway, so I chose farfalle, which are predominately flat, but also have a bit of texture to hold on to the chunky sauce.

The sauce smelled great and looked about perfect. Unfortunately, it didn't taste like very much at all, despite the tons of sage, vegetables, and a late addition of basil. It could have used several more cloves of garlic, and possibly some tomato paste for body and sweetness.

Several days later, we supped on the Bolognese again, expecting that after that much time in the fridge the sauce would have improved in time. But no. It was still basically a big pile of very soft meat in a flavorless gravy. Some might argue that skimming off the fat might be the problem, since fat carries flavor. However, I skim fat off of everything - short ribs, chili, beef stew, other tomato sauces - without adversely affecting the taste. And this stuff put out well over a cup of unappealing, floating fat - no way would a boiling after adding still more fat in the form of heavy cream have made it disappear into the sauce. Even if it did, I can imagine the mouthfeel would be unpleasantly unctuous.

There's still more than a full quart of sauce left. Most of it went into the freezer for later experimentation. About a cup of it will become hot dog sauce with the addition of ketchup, mustard, and chili powder (it's the perfect texture to top a dog). And I'm still on the hunt for the perfect Bolognese recipe.