Pasta Bolognese was one of my dad’s specialties growing up. His style of cooking is definitely less follow-the-recipe and more sure-let’s-add-that-too. He doesn’t often pay attention to what’s going into the pot or how much of it he used, just adding bits of things and tasting until he decides he likes it (or in some unfortunate recipes, realizing that adding is making it worse so attempting to minimize the damage).
A lot of his dishes that I remember from living at home were some combination of meat and spices, served with some form of bread or pasta to sop up whatever gravy was in the dish. Because of this style, not a lot of his dishes were replicable since he didn’t know what he’d done. Pasta Bolognese was one of the few that made enough appearances in a similar enough form that we came to accept it as a recurring meal.
I’ll admit right here that for a large portion of my life I was convinced that Bologese was spelled as “bolonnaise” since the pronunciation of it in my house was closer to “mayonnaise” than anything else. I also thought it was a name my dad just made up for the dish (not an uncommon thing for him) and I was probably in high school before I realized that other people knew about this dish too.
I’ve since made a lot of Bolognese – first because it was easy and relatively cheap and then because I became slightly obsessed with perfecting my version of Bolognese. There are literally hundreds of versions – different types of meat, dairy or wine (or neither), a lot of tomatoes or only a little – but this one is mine. It’s a great cold weekend food – the long cooking makes the house warm and cozy while the sauce gently simmers.
This is not a quick dish – the sauce takes several hours to come together. But it’s time that you don’t have to do anything other than check it every 20 minutes or so to check it’s not burning. It’s a warm and comforting meal addition that can be quickly spooned over pasta or folded into baked dishes like lasagna or manicotti. It’s a far cry from the “bolonnaise” of my childhood but eating it still feels like home.
Adapted from Mario Batali
2 tbs olive oil
2 large or 3 medium carrots, peeled and grated*
1 ½ white onions, peeled a grated
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 lbs ground meat – I like to use a mix of pork and beef
1 tsp plus 1 tbs kosher salt
1-14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, well drained
¼ cup dry vermouth or dry red wine
Heat a large, wide bottomed pan over medium heat and add the olive oil, carrots, onions, and 1 tsp salt to the pan. Cook gently, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft and translucent but not yet starting to color. Add the crushed garlic to the pan and stir to incorporate it.
Reduce heat to medium-low and crumble the meat with your hands as you add it to the pan. Spread it so that as much as possible is touching the bottom of the pan and sprinkled with the remaining 1 tbs of salt. Stir occasionally but let the meat cook continually for about 2-3 hours. Stir the meat every 20 minutes or so to prevent it from burning to the bottom and also to break up any large pieces of meat.
Over this period of time the meat will cook, then start to brown and the water in it will almost completely evaporate. Around the 1 hour mark the sound of cooking should be very different – the sizzling noise will have almost disappeared since there will be little water to sizzle against the fat in the meat. At this point, use a potato masher to break up any large pieces of meat so that the final product will be made up of smaller grains of sauce. The end result here should be somewhat crumbly and loose.
Once the meat has simmered for about 2 hours and is uniformly brown all over, add the tomatoes and vermouth. Increase the heat to medium and cook for another 30 minutes, pressing the tomatoes into the sauce so that they lose their shape and blend into the rest of the sauce. This will help bind the sauce together although it will not be particularly pourable.** Taste and add salt if necessary. The finished sauce will keep for up to a week.
*I grate my vegetables for this dish because I like them to effectively melt into the finished product. If you want them to have more presence in the dish, dice them finely instead.
**If you prefer a more ragu-like sauce, add an additional 14 ounce can of crushed tomatoes or tomato puree with the can of diced tomatoes.