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Variations on Bolognese ragù theme: Pancetta

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Another extension deliberately moving outward from the Hazan "ragù alla Bolognese" recipe. (Which is the best-known US recipe true to Bologna-region traditions. Starting with Marcella Hazan's 1973 "Classic Italian Cook Book," that recipe evidently popularized this type of sauce in the US.) Version below respects Bologna principles (per l'Accademia Italiana della Cucina), but departs from Hazan by adding pancetta. I've found that (like the sweet-spice and meat-broth variant posted earlier, but by different means) pancetta's added meaty flavor and umami supported higher vegetable content without losing the balance or intensity of the original. Recipe sketch follows notes here.

This is the best variation, so far, of many I've tried on the basic Hazan beef / tomato / wine / mirepoix / nutmeg plan. IMO it surpasses the Hazan recipe.

Related notes recently posted:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/969554
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/969659

About pancetta: I've used this Italian rolled unsmoked bacon (or domestically-made approximants) for years in Italian and general European recipes requiring a cured pork product. Typical use: fry chopped pancetta to render out the fat; remove the meat bits, use the fat to brown onions for a stew, or to finish parboiled Brussels sprouts or whatever; recombine the meat bits into the dish. In European dining experience, I've often seen cooks use such flavorful fats to finish vegetables, where US restaurant kitchens used butter (or even something cheaper and unspeakable).

I also found that cutting up solid pancetta as needed gave fuller flavor than the pre-diced bits or thin slices sold packaged in supermarkets by firms like Columbus. For casual cooking, I buy thick slices of the rolled product (Licini Bros. in New Jersey distributes one nationally), around half a pound or a pound, and freeze what isn't used immediately.

Be careful in salting recipes that include cured meat products, of course. Pancetta carries its own salt, which won't fully express into a simmered dish for some time, so any further salt is best added after most of the cooking.

Recipe sketch:

Rendered about half a pound diced solid pancetta slowly in a skillet until meat was well browned. Drained off most of the fat, removed the meat bits to absorbent paper to drain. Used a little of the fat to sweat and lightly cook scant 1.5 lb. mirepoix vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, all finely chopped); transferred them to a deep pot. Used a little more fat to lightly brown 1.5 lb. ground beef, breaking it up with a spatula. Added one bottle dry white wine (sauvignon blanc w/o too much oak) -- I actually divided it between the vegetables in the pot, and beef in the skillet, to allow cooking them down simultaneously -- the cooking down of wines is common in some Italian cuisines, but time-consuming. Cooked down both until liquid almost gone, then combined skillet contents into the vegetables, adding about a quart of unsalted chopped tomatoes (Italian, Pomi brand), 1 tsp fresh-ground nutmeg, pinch of ground cloves, and the reserved cooked pancetta. Simmered this very gently three-plus hours, adding a bit of salt near the end. Very Good Stuff!

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  1. Very nice post. To enhance your sauce a little further, try grinding your Pancetta with your other meats for consistency...and less time rendering.

    3 Replies
    1. re: fourunder

      That's an interesting suggestion, fourunder. You've used it, I take it?

      One reason I stuck to the habit of rendering pancetta separately is that it produces more fat than this recipe would otherwise need (half a pound of pancetta releases upwards of a quarter-pound of pork fat, like a stick of butter) and I save the extra for other savory uses. Another sauce variation ("sugo finto," from Italy) that I described in the first post cooks raw pancetta into a vegetable/tomato sauce, and the result was conspicuously, almost too, rich.

      1. re: eatzalot

        Yes I have...and the suggestion actually came from the fat guy in orange clogs. I don't like the man, but his recipe for Bolognese is pretty good.

        While I think the idea of rendering the fat for future cooking is a great and noble idea...sometime you need to pick and choose your battles. I don't mind the fat created by cooked meats in my sauce, e.g. Sunday Gravy....I just skim the fat to a stainless steel bowl that will get the cooked pasta before adding the sauce itself to coat. The fat flavor enhances the sauce or pasta dish....and saves me the Olive Oil drizzle at the end.

        It's a practical approach for me....unless I would have a specific need for rendered Pancetta fat, which I can't say I have ever had. I slow roast Pork regularly, so there's always some rendered fat that would be suffice for my needs. Like others, I save Bacon fat as well...just like the other types...beef, duck and etc. Mostly I use the rendered fat to brown meats or steaks. I rarely eat potatoes anymore, but when i do, I'll kill two birds in one swoop...home fries and Basted Eggs.

        1. re: fourunder

          "I slow roast Pork regularly, so there's always some rendered fat that would be suffice for my needs. Like others, I save Bacon fat as well...just like the other types...beef, duck and etc"

          Very sensible IMHO.

          I remember 50 years ago in the US, it was still routine to save rendered fats. (Older cookbooks show that for centuries, that was actually the main source of cooking fats in many places, until modern seed-oil extraction got going, late 1800s.) A sea change in popular habits occurred around 1970 when various voices, especially the US cooking-fat industry but abetted by some misguided "public-interest" advocates, sold the public on oversimple nutritional messages stressing unsaturated fat at any cost. That led to the notorious US food-fat labeling laws before and after 1990: first, promoting the "P/S" ratio (until high polyunsaturate intake was linked to cancer, gallstones, etc.); then, focusing just on saturated fats, letting the edible-fats industry hide trans-bond fatty acids (which essentially occur only in artificially processed fats) under "monounsaturates" and "polyunsaturates." (Other countries did not allow that, restricting the desirable-looking mono and poly label categories to naturally occurring cis-bond species.) One lipids expert called the US labeling laws "truly scandalous" in 1999; researchers had questioned "the biological safety of trans- fatty acids" since 1958.

          Which isn't to advocate getting most of one's calories from bacon fat. I knew of someone who consumed a pound of bacon, and its flavorful fat, daily. Until he died of a heart attack. At 35.