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Saveur Mag's Bolognese Article

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This month's issue has an article on Bolognese sauce. I knew there were a lot of versions but some of these surprised me. Adding cream? Milk? Nutmeg? What's your definition of a classic Bolognese?

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  1. While a lot of American equate "Bolognese" with tomatoey meat sauce, it's always been my understanding that tomato does not figure prominently (perhaps a bit of paste to bind the sauce) and that milk or cream are used prominently to add richness. I also add wine. Regarding nutmeg, a local Italian chef explained to me that it should be "perceived, but not tasted."

    1 Reply
    1. re: jbentley4

      >>>"Bolognese" with tomatoey meat sauce, it's always been my understanding that tomato does not figure prominently (perhaps a bit of paste to bind the sauce) and that milk or cream<<<

      This is my understanding as well.

      This passage is from the San Francisco Chronicle:

      "Though the word 'bolognese' also has become a generic term for meat sauce, it has a much stricter definition within Italy, where the quintessential ragu, or ragu alla bolognese, comes from Bologna and its surrounding region, Emilia-Romagna. But even there, recipes vary greatly. Most do not have much in the way of tomatoes -- usually only a little tomato paste or puree -- and include milk or cream.

      "Regional differences often come down to the availability of agricultural products. Northern Italy has more access to meat, while the less prosperous south relies more on vegetables. This partly explains why a Neapolitan ragu contains more tomatoes and less meat than a bolognese..."

      http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

    2. I can only go by the best I've tasted so far, at a little restaurant on the edge of Cave City, KY, of all places. It was obviously cooked very long and carefully, because it was a complex and constantly-unfolding thing, each bite yielding new layers of richness and flavor. It was of the creamy, more fluid variety, as opposed to the drier style seen on that shot of the plate of tagliatelle, and the chef, for reasons probably both financial (this place was constantly struggling to stay open*, and being in a dry county didn't help) and of catering to his market, used the sauce as a base for about half of his other ones, including an amazingly good lobster version. It was a pale pink in color, so I guess he used just that dab of tomato paste, and only just rich enough to make the diner want to take his time instead of slurping it down.

      * When we were in Cave City last year the restaurant had become primarily a catering establishment, open by appointment only.

      1. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina in Bologna has a specific recipe for authentic "Bolognese" meat sauce. In theory, it is not Bolognese sauce without the specific ingredients. Hence, it's either Bolognese sauce or meat sauce because there is only one real Bolognese recipe.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Den

          I use the Bolognese recipe in "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan. It's as good or better than any Bolognese I've had outside of italy.

          BTW, the quick Bolognese recipe in last month's Cook's Illustrated was uncharacteristically disappointing.

          1. re: allisonw

            am currently making Hazan's bolognese. I have made it several times and it is always delicious - highly recommended if you have the time. have to go and stir - for the 80th time :)

            1. re: allisonw

              I have used the CI recipe for Bolognese from the Italian Classics cookbook often. I'm not sure it claims to be authentic, but it tastes good to me. Don't have the recipe in front of me, but I believe it calls for ground beef, pork, white wine, carrots, celery, onion, milk and some canned tomatoes. It clooks low and slow for over 4 hours. I guess, it would more tomato-y than posters are looking for. But it is recipe that definitely relies on the meatiness over tomato flavor.

              I have leftover bolognese to make lasagne with great results. Fresh pasta sheets layered with bolognese and a bechamel sauce and cheese. YUM!

            2. re: Den

              The Saveur article addresses this in a very straightforward and, I think, persuasive way: it presents several very different recipes from three different cooks, plus the Accademia's, and concludes that there is no ONE "real" Bolognese sauce, since each variation has more or less equally impeccable credentials and/or antecedents.

              I think it has been more than amply demonstrated that trying to establish the ONE TRUE anything in any constantly evolving culture is an exercise doomed to failure. This is especially true of food. The Bolognese have had tomatoes for about half of their history, so it's quite possible that the tomato figured in the earliest versions of their sauce...but then they've also historically been a cream-and-butter town, to the exclusion of olive oil. And yet there are now families whose most ancient recipes for this sauce contain olive oil, and no dairy. And if you want to tell some fierce matriarch that her treasured recipe is an upstart Gianni-come-lately, go ahead - I'll watch from 'way back here, thanks.

            3. As far as I know, milk (or cream) and nutmeg has always been a component in a bolognese sauce. SouthernItalian, what's your definition?

              8 Replies
              1. re: Miss Needle

                I don't have a definition. I always make sauce/gravy the same way. Pretty typical Italian-American red sauce with meatballs and sausage. I've never tried any of these recipes but plan to this weekend. They seem like they might be a bit rich for our tastes though. I know I will not be adding nutmeg as it is something I don't care for in savory sauces. I think I will try "Anna Nanni's" version on page 57. It calls for (among other things) olive oil and butter - no nutmug, cloves (?), or coriander!! Plus red wine, tomatoes and tomato paste. It looks really good.

                1. re: southernitalian

                  Made "Anna Nanni's" earlier this week. Lovely! Definitely takes time, but worth it.

                  I also plan to try the nutmeg one. The new style recipe did not appeal...

                  1. re: southernitalian

                    Sounds like your gravy is like your name. My ex's family was from Sicily and his mom would make really great gravy with meatballs, sausage and braciole simmered all day for special occasions. Bolognese sauce originates from Bologna (N. Italy) where cream tends to be more commonplace than in the South. I remember reading somewhere that the milk tenderizes the meat. I'm not really sure where the nutmeg comes from or what the rationale for it is. Cloves and coriander? Sounds interesting -- perhaps influenced by Greek cuisine?

                    I also prefer my Italian food on the lighter side as well.

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      I appreciate all of your responses and chose to respond to Miss Needle because it most specifically addresses my curiosity. My family was from such a poor Neopolitan village that it was officially closed down and its residents forced to move "because of squalor", as the government said. I suspect that the reason they never added nutmeg or coriander or cloves to sauce/gravy was because they couldn't afford it or never had access to it (don't boo-hoo me, we made out very nicely over here). It sounds "off" to me and I don't think I would ever add those ingredients which, if I had to guess, are more of an Arab/Ottoman influence (which also would have influenced Greek cuisine)I have just recently become intensely intested in learning classic Italian recpies and am fascinated by the regional differences. I am by no means professionally trained but received the typical Brooklyn/NJ loving nona Italian education. I still prefer the food my grandparents put on the table over some of the more heavy cream/butter (remember that incredible Sporanos episide where Tony and Carmella, while spearated, thru a birthday bash for Carm's dad and her mother brought the "Doctor" and was embarrassed by Tony's gavon tendencies? Her mother was intent on impressing the guests and one of the woman told them that she hated northern Italian cooking because all of the butter "skeeved" her!!!). I am trying to introduce my extended family to different Italian cuisines as we are trravelling there quite a bit these days and are all surprised at the variety. Would love to continue hearing other opinions as I am borderline obsessed. Caio.

                      1. re: southernitalian

                        "I'm not really sure where the nutmeg comes from or what the rationale for it is. Cloves and coriander? Sounds interesting -- perhaps influenced by Greek cuisine?" Could be, or possibly a sign of the sauce's antiquity: what we see as odd or even inappropriate use of sweet spices in savory dishes was a prominent feature of upper-class medieval cooking, not just to cover the all-too-prevalent funk of elderly meat but also to demonstrate the wealth of the household.

                        1. re: southernitalian

                          southernitalian, I have a wonderful cookbook called "Naples at Table" by Arthur Schwartz which has tons of traditional recipes from the Campania area. My SIL is from Salerno and thus we have spent a lot of time in the area, including a several month sabbatical where we were looked at askance as the strange Americans who left their jobs to live in Salerno. Very puzzling for the locals! But a great way to learn about regional differences in Italian cuisine is to watch Molto Mario reruns on TFN (he really does a good job at emphasizing regional variations in cuisine) and I would also suggest reading Faith Heller Willinger's book "Eating in Italy" which covers most of the regions from Umbria north, but unfortunately not the south, IIRC (my copy is on loan right now). But Naples at Table has recipes for just about every dish we ate at a restaurant while living in Campania and I often flip through it just like one would a photo album.

                          As for the Bolognese issue, I use Marcella Hazan's recipe from "Essentials" (another great survey of classic Italian cooking) but use less vegetables than what she calls for, and I dice them very fine to match the size of the meat pieces so that it's more homogenous. Her recipe calls for carrot, onion, celery, butter, olive oil, meat (I use 1/3 pork, 1/3 veal and 1/3 beef), milk and white wine as well as nutmeg. From a taste standpoint I think nutmeg is a natural partner with sauces that have dairy in them, like bechamel, and therefore makes a good showing in Bolognese. But I suspect the historical reason is that it was, in addition to tasting good, a "fancy" spice. Look at Venetian cooking and the unusual spices there, which were prevalent due to the spice trade, and you'll see what I mean.

                      2. re: southernitalian

                        The ingredients from the authentic Bolognese recipe are below:

                        300 grams minced beef meat, use a part near the belly.
                        150 grams pancetta (non smoked, the sweetest type you can find)
                        50 grams yellow carrot
                        50 grams celery
                        30 grams onion
                        5 tablespoons (use a real tablespoon, not measuring spoons) tomato sauce or 20 grams concentrated tomato purée (triplo concentrato)
                        1/2 glass (use a wine glass) dry white wine
                        1 glass of whole milk
                        a little meat stock
                        salt and black pepper

                      3. re: Miss Needle

                        I agree with Miss Needle...who is razor sharp about most things! I thought that those (milk or cream and nutmeg) were the ingredients that typified Bologna style meat sauce from others..

                      4. Ground meat, beef, pork, veal. Simmered with dry white wine, and tomato sauce, pancetta,, and light cream or milk and nutmeg just before serving.

                        1. FYI, if anyone liked the Saveur article, you should read the chapter on ragus in Lynn Rosetto Kaspar's _The Splendid Table_ (the cookbook, not the radio show). She gives about seven pages of introduction and nine recipes for ragu (one of which is included in the Saveur article, I think): the Cardinal's Ragu (an 18th century recipe), Baroque Ragu, Classic Ragu Bolognese, a Lighter Contemporary Ragu Bolognese (with pancetta instead of salt pork), Country-style Ragu, Game Ragu, Veal Ragu with Tomato, Ragu with Giblets, and Meat Ragu with Marsala.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Nettie

                            Thanks for the suggestion! It looks like a really good book I ordered both it (Splendid Table: Emilia-Romagna) and the one called "The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens". It includes among other sections, one on tomato sauces that I'm looking forward to reading.

                            I no longer expect to find the definitive recipe, and am so interested to read about variations and try the ones that appeal to me. From the Saveue article, Mario interviews and reinforced again in Bill Buford's Heat, the explanation that recipes were handed down in the family, often not written down, then modified over time, sometimes based upon available ingredients due to immigration or whatever just makes sense to me as to why there are no definitive bolognese, sugo or ragu recipes. "Definitive" or "authentic" shifts from family to family, and within extended families.

                            1. re: souvenir

                              Yes, I have _The Italian Country Table_, too. I generally like _The Splendid Table_ better because it's more regionally specific, but I do like that chapter from the ICT on tomato sauces, enough to remember this from the intro:

                              "I must begin this chapter with a confession: There is nothing, absolutely nothing that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I want to reach out with all my love to my husband, a dish of pasta and tomatoes is almost always in my hands. When I am worn out and the world isn't such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta. When time is short but dear friends must be fed with joy and not pressure, I make pasta with tomato sauce." (OK, I didn't remember the exact wording, which I had to look up, but I remembered the general sentiment that there is something deeply satisfying about pasta with tomato sauce.)

                              FYI, I just remembered that there was an article about ragus in the New York Times food section in February: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/mag...
                              It has restaurant recipes for a beef-based ragu, and a lamb, and a pork ragu, in case anyone needs still MORE recipes for ragu!

                              1. re: Nettie

                                That's a great article, too, thanks! I Anne Burrell's bit about browning the vegetables after pureeing them to release liquid ... is very interesting.

                                1. re: Nettie

                                  I made the lamb ragu for dinner last weekend, served with homemade gnocchi. The ragu was very "lamb-y" the day I made it, but when reheated the next day for serving, it really came together and mellowed nicely. An excellent recipe and makes enough for at least 2 pounds of pasta, if not more. I gave some as a gift and froze some.

                                  1. re: farmersdaughter

                                    I definitely want to try that one!

                            2. I have eaten several times at Mario's Babbo and had his wonderful Papperdelle bolognese . The recipe is in his Babbo cook book. It is such a classic version. It is very much like the Bolognese that I have had in the Tuscany Region as well as Emilia-Romagna region. This verison has milk white wine and just a little tomato paste to give it some thickness.

                              1. From what I know, cream/milk and nutmeg are present in a traditional Bolognese sauce, with some tomato paste for binding/flavor. It is not a particularly wet sauce, such as the one my grandmother makes, which is tomato-based.
                                Classic Bolognese begins with a mirepoix, which is browned and then combined with various layers of ingredients, added and incorporated one by one, including meats, dairy, and flavorings (such as nutmeg and/or bay leaf). Then it simmers for hours, coming together to form a thick, meaty condiment with very little liquid.
                                A red meat sauce (probably southern in origin) would begin much the way a tomato sauce does: with garlic and olive oil, then meat, and then a significant amount of tomato, and spices such as oregano and/or basil. No matter how long it is allowed to simmer, the end result is still a "saucier" sauce. This is the sauce I grew up with when the menu was "meat sauce", but not the sauce I make when I want true Bolognese.