Cold winter days just cry out for meals that fill up your entire home with savory aromas and that fill up your belly with something warm and nourishing. One of the most satisfying things to make when I know I’m going to be housebound on days like that is a big pot of Ragu Bolognese.
The recipe I generally follow is Marcella Hazan‘s ragu from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and I think it’s just about foolproof. What always strikes me about the recipe is that it is actually quite simple in terms of what goes into the ragu – the quality of your ingredients and the length of time you let the sauce simmer make all the difference.
Marcella’s recipe calls for softening onion, carrot and celery in a mixture of butter and oil, but since we always have lard on hand (the good stuff, leaf lard rendered down at home from pasture-raised pigs), I often use that. Add the onion to the pan with a good pinch of kosher salt and let that cook for a couple of minutes, then add the carrot and celery, a little more salt, and let those go for a few minutes more. One thing I do that is NOT in Marcella’s recipe, but which I think adds more depth of flavor, is that I add about a tablespoon-or-so sized dollop of tomato paste (from a tube – one of the best inventions ever) to the pan and let it caramelize for a few moments before stirring it through with the softened veggies.
Add the meat (I use two parts ground beef to one part ground pork) and season with salt and a few grindings of pepper. Once the meat browns, add whole milk and a grating of nutmeg and simmer until the milk evaporates away, and then add a cup of white wine and allow that to evaporate as well. Keeping an eye on the sauce while you are waiting for the milk and then the wine to cook off is probably the hardest part of the process – it takes some time, and you do have to watch the pot closely and stir often so you don’t scorch the bottom – but I think it really builds good layers of flavor into the sauce.
Canned tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) with their juices go in next – you can smoosh them with your fingers to break them up or stick a knife in the can to chop them before adding. Give everything a good stir and leave the pot to cook away uncovered over the lowest heat possible for at least 3 hours, checking on it and stirring from time to time, and adding a little bit of water if the sauce gets too dry.
I don’t recall the proportions for Marcella’s original recipe off hand, but I do remember it yields about 2 cups of sauce. When I make this I generally do a big batch so I can portion it out and freeze what I don’t use right away – it freezes beautifully.
These are the proportions I generally use:
2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1 cup each red onion, carrot and celery, diced
About 1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, broken up or roughly chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Water as needed
This makes a BIG pot of sauce – enough to properly sauce a classic lasagna Bolognese, share with your friends, and still have a few cups left over to freeze for later. It’s totally worth the time and effort.