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We should perhaps recognize that a little Italian sauce called a ragu was doing its thing long before the processing crews at Unilever got a hold of it.
As a brand, Ragu was ragu’ing it back in the 1930s; however, the real ragu (the Italian for French ragout; both terms come from verbs that mean “to stimulate the appetite”) is a centuries’ old northern Italian sauce. And Bolognese is a ragu that hails from Italy’s Bologna region. It is thick and meaty and usually includes milk or perhaps cream.
The sauce has gone through all kinds of crazy political goofiness, such as being registered, like wine, with a pasta-recipe designation to “protect” its originality.
The Bologna Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has patented what they will tell you is the definitive recipe. There have been battles and head-butting over whether or not it should only be made with egg-based “ribbon-shaped” tagliatelle pasta. (Incidentally, to qualify as a tagliatelle, it must be precisely an 8mm ribbon.)
There are also “controls” on things like veal cutlets from Milan, pesto from Genoa, pizza from Naples, and tiramisu: but ardent and extremist food-protectionists maintain that ragu Bolognese is the single-most corrupted recipe and most abused dish in the Italian culinary pantheon. How such a thing is determined is beyond me, however.
It’s all nonsense, too. Recipes are fluid and flexible and can be modified, for the most part; that’s half the fun of cooking. But the basic flavour base of ragu Bolognese starts with carrot, onion, celery and some sort of beef and pork. Tomatoes were a relatively late addition to the recipe because tomatoes were a New World fruit and didn’t come on the scene until much later in culinary history. Ragu Bolognese is emphatically not a heavily tomatoey sauce but rather a meat sauce.
Did my Nonna, even in all her glorious and robust-until-the-end 103 years, ever make Bolognese? No, she was from Raculmuto, Sicily, and didn’t cook like the northerners. She made a pretty darn good tomato-based pasta”sugu” sauce because beef and pork was not something that she cooked with often.
So, here’s a ragu Bolognese that I use and for which I must give credit to Kitchener-native and Stratford Chefs School graduate Mark Brown. It is very simple … and simply delicious.
My adaptation of Chef Mark Brown’s Ragu Bolognese
1 tablespoon butter
2 clove garlic
450g ground beef
450g ground pork
500 mL milk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons tomato paste
800g canned tomatoes
375 mL red vino
2 cups beef stock
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons basil
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 325-degrees F.
Fine chop 200g pancetta, 1 onion, 2 celery stalks, 1 carrot, 2 cloves garlic. Glug into a sauté pan some good olive oil and a bit of butter and cook pancetta until crisp. Add the chopped veg and cook until soft. Add ground/minced beef (or a combo of beef, veal, pork as you gives you pleasure) and cook until nicely brown. Add 500mL milk and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg and simmer until evaporated. Pop in the tomato paste and stir it about. Add the red wine and canned tomatoes, the beef stock, bay leaves, and chopped basil. Season with salt and pepper as needed.
Bung the covered dish in the oven and bake for 2 hours.