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Mar 21, 2014 12:10 PM

Variations on Bolognese ragù theme: Sweet spices

More on a variation that proved good and useful, from my initial post .

Summary: Increasing and diversifying the spices allows a flavorful Bolognese-sauce variant with much higher veg-to-meat ratio. Recipe sketch at the end.

I've tried cooking many variations on the Bolognese-sauce idea that leaned more on vegetables. Promising-looking recipes turned out disappointingly bland. They also did not make the Hazans' use of both wine and nutmeg.

Nutmeg's flavor-enhancing role is familiar in European recipes, not just Bolognese sauce. France and Germany too have good comfort-food pasta traditions where nutmeg appears. The actual spur for what follows was a published 1895 pasta recipe ("receipt") from a Mrs Furey of Brooklyn, NY. (In 1895, pasta was more novel in the US, its uses were less standardized.)

Mrs Furey made a Madeira-flavored brown sauce including onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and layered it on pasta, alternating with cheese. A fine venerable idea: pasta with cheese and Madeira gravies is in standard cookbooks from France, and I've done it occasionally for years. But Mrs Furey also flavored her sauce generously with ground mace (the hull surrounding the nutmeg seed, with nutmeg-like flavor but up to 4 times as concentrated).

I tried a ragù variation using extra wine (white and red both), LOTS of mirepoix vegetables, mushrooms, meat stock (no milk), generous mace, some nutmeg (freshly ground, though the others were bottled ground spices), and ground cloves.

This vegetable- and seasoning-intensive ragù variation tasted very hearty, a bit more intense than the Hazan recipe. And efficient of meat: 1lb ground beef made 8 generous portions; by generous, I mean each suitable for up to a half-pound (dry weight) pasta, with some cheese. Half a pound of pasta is about what a normal human (i.e. non-teenage) good appetite can handle, if pasta and ragù make up most of the meal. So this recipe was enough for eight big pasta servings , each using 2 ounces beef. (Giuliano Hazan, in contrast, specifies 6 oz. ground beef to 1/2 lb dry pasta in his family's recipe, ISBN 0751300527 p. 62). I may try a "meatless" variant later, maybe still including broth.

Recipe sketch:

Bear in mind I improvised as this progressed, by taste. I don't know if it's necessary to combine both red and white wines, for instance.

1 lb ground beef, 1 large white onion, 4 good ribs celery (the vegetables chopped fine), cooked vigorously with 1 bottle (750ml) dry white wine (used a sauvignon blanc w/very little oak) in large non-reactive skillet, until most of the liquid was gone. Added 1 quart unsalted beef stock and cooked down partly, until syrupy. (This cooking down of liquids took time, about 1.5 hours so far.) Added Pomi unsalted chopped Italian tomatoes (750g aseptic-pack or "brick"), good 1/2 tsp ground mace, good 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg, a pinch of ground cloves, a little salt, and 1/2 bottle red wine (pinot noir). Simmered gently, uncovered, continuing to reduce the liquid. After 1 hour of this, added 1/2 lb sliced mushrooms. Simmered another hour, adjusted salt. Total cooking time about 3.5 hours. Yielded 8 good portions as detailed above.

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  1. In our house, any animal protein that isn't eaten at first sitting gets chopped up and re-emerges as ragu: veal and lamb roast, duck parts, certainly roast pork, barbequed beef, it all goes into the ragu pot. (I never use simple ground beef or other ground meat for ragu.)

    We had one quite interesting experience. I had made a pork roast that had a cinnamon rub. It was, put simply, awful. But throw it out? Never. Wiped the surface, chopped it up and made a classic ragu (onion, carrot, celery, wine, milk, nutmeg, tomatoes, stock). It was amazing! Just a hint of the cinnamon was left, enough to be puzzling and intriguing. Who knew...

    2 Replies
    1. re: mangeur

      Wow, that sounds awesome. Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg are all great when used with discretion. Some may say they sully Bolognese, but to me, it is a wonderful sully.

      1. re: mangeur

        Great story, mangeur -- thanks!

        In Europe, cinnamon seems conspicuous in Greek cooking. One cookbook from there (discussed in another thread) braised a chicken with cinnamon along with vegetable bits, then cooked noodles in the juices -- a pleasant and unique flavor -- intriguing, as you say. A Greek immigrant I know who likes to cook can't resist using both cinnamon and lamb in a variation of Bolognese ragù.

      2. I always put a dash of cinnamon in my fairly classic Bolognese ragu sauce. It adds a really amazing depth of flavor.

        1. A bit of Savora mustard does wonders.

          2 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            Now that is totally new to me. Care to elaborate?

            1. re: eatzalot

              I think something about the unique blend of spices in the Savora mustard really heightens and brings out the flavors of the tomatoes.

              It also adds a new dimension to all the umami profiles in ragu.

          2. eatzalot, that's one hell of a post. Thank you.....

            1 Reply
            1. I first encountered a fresh grate of nutmeg over a rabbit ragu several years ago, and never forgot the "wow" moment.

              1 Reply
              1. re: monavano

                The thing about nutmeg, in my experience, is that the pre-ground version (if reasonably fresh) DOES have most of the flavor -- the body, so to speak, and some of the soul.

                That differs from some dried bottled herbs (basil, parsley), which seem to've lost it all. My cooking-fanatic parents grated nutmeg fresh; as a college student and young adult I often used the ground product as a shortcut; but today, whole nutmegs are so easily available (some big supermarkets like Whole Foods even sell them in bulk, by weight), and they keep the full glory of the flavor much better than the bottled stuff, so I always grate them fresh.