Back in May 2015 I had just left my corporate job at Sky UK. Rather pleased with myself I had engineered a month’s freedom before starting my next gig and so at the bemusement of many of my friends and family I set off to travel around Northern Italy…all on my own. Now this is not a piece extolling the virtues of solo travel or even documenting that trip. This is a piece to share with you how I learnt to make a proper Bolognese, whilst I was in Bologna.
Bolognese is a tricky subject when it comes to cooking, as many people believe it to be a pasta sauce which you can almost make up on your own. Talk to anyone and they will all have a different way to make it involving Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, ketchup, chocolate, people put all kinds of things in there. There is also the little point that the overly tomatoey sauce we are served with anaemic spaghetti in just about every Italian restaurant in London, is about as far away from proper Bolognese as London is from Rome.
So keep reading on as now it get’s interesting. Here is the recipe I learnt in Bologna, in the apartment of Big Carlo, not in a touristy cooking school with dozens of cooking stations and crisp white aprons, I was literally in an old Italian dude’s apartment with his wife and one other person having the lesson. If this is not the closest thing to “just like Mama used to make” then I don’t know what is.
- 1 whole carrot
- 1 stick of celery
- 1 whole red onion
- 1 tin of peeled plum tomatoes (chopped tomatoes won’t do)
- 400g of lean beef mince
- 150g pancetta (a good sprinkling of smoked paprika can be a good alternative)
- I glass of red wine
- I glass of milk
- Salt and pepper
- Chop the carrot, celery and onion and keep separately on your counter, I like to put them in small bowls. Then take out a blender, empty the plum tomatoes into it and blend until a smooth liquid. Set this aside for later.
- Heat a large deep pan to a medium heat with a tablespoon of oil in the bottom. Now add the carrot and cook for 2 minutes until it starts to soften. Next add the celery and cook for a further 2 minutes until it softens, finally add the onion and cook for a further 2 minutes until soft. (Mushrooms can be added at this stage if you so wish, but are not part of the classic recipe and therefore not listed above, these need to be cooked until starting to soften also)
- Take your pancetta and add this into the pan and cook for 5 minutes until the pancetta has cooked through. If you don’t have pancetta then add a healthy amount of smoked paprika as an alternative.
- Add the mince to the pan and cook until it is all browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper for taste.
- Add the glass of red wine to the mixture, stir and then gently simmer until all of the red wine liquid has evaporated.
- Add the blended plum tomato liquid and stir the mixture together. Make sure you get all of the tomato out of the blender, a shake around with some cold water will help with this. Now leave this on a gentle simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Watch it closely as you don’t want to evaporate all of that tomatoey goodness.
- Add the glass of milk and gently simmer for a further 20 minutes.
- Choose how you want to serve it, personally I prefer to turn this into a pasta bake combining cooked penne with the sauce and then layering in a dish between layers of cheese. After this I put it in the oven at 200c (392f) for 18 minutes, and then finally under the hottest grill setting for 2 minutes to get the top crispy.