In northern Italy, Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region, is situated in a valley between the Po River and the Apennine Mountains. Here lies a university town so rich in culture and overflowing with produce that is often called the culinary heart of Italy. The city is also credited as the place of origin for the classic Ragù alla Bolognese.
And just in time for your Saturday market run.
As is often discussed, recipes in Italy are the stuff of epic debate. Just as there are varied opinions as to what makes an authentic bolognese, there have been myriad assertions as to which bolognese reigns supreme. Whether it be the type of pasta, the spice quantity or a protein variant, persistent regionalism, disparate dialects, and frankly, significant natural boundaries kept Italians from wholly integrating, and agreeing on a bolognese recipe, for some time. Most contend that they still do.
A culinary preparation would travel here or there with a young person, perhaps in search of work or on assignment. An herb or spice would make its way south via a trade ship, and vice versa. Even with this flow, many towns and villages held their own bolognese methods dear. And though an agreement has coalesced over time, this slow integration created a diverse interpretation, and one that remains ripe for exploration.
Enter the Bologna chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, which in 1982 attempted to put to rest the debate on precisely what defines a real Ragù alla Bolognese.
Niether I nor Italian chefs are renowned for acute precision, so here follows a preparation that I’ve completed, enjoyably, that takes its cues from the Accademia recipe.
PANCETTA: Begin by placing 5 ounces of finely chopped pancetta into a heavy-bottomed, medium pot, over low to medium heat. Allow about 10 minutes for the fat to render.
MIREPOIX: While that’s happening, finely chop 2 ribs of celery, 2 mid-sized carrots, and one small yellow onion. Combine the celery, carrots, and onions to make mirepoix, and add to the pancetta, stirring often, until lightly browned. This should take about 15 minutes.
BEEF: Crumble about 1lb. of ground skirt steak or simply good ground beef into the pot, stirring occasionally. Let the beef begin to brown lightly and sizzle, which should take about 5 minutes.
WINE: Slowly add about a cup of dry white wine, and let it cook until it’s nearly evaporated.
TOMATO: Take 2 tbsp. of tomato paste and 2 tbsp. of water and mix well in a separate bowl. Stir the mixture into the pot.
THE SLOW FOOD PART: After completing the above, turn the heat down to low and let the sauce simmer. After it has settled, begin adding milk, bit by bit, for the next 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Each time you add milk, stir gently and let it soak in before the next addition. You will see the sauce thicken as this happens. It’s best to have a good magazine, newspaper, or book handy for this part of the process.
PASTA: When you’ve used up your milk, and you’re satisfied with the thickness of your ragù, put your tagliatelle, papardelle, or pasta of choice on to boil in salted water.
VINO: At this point, it would be appropriate to open a dry red wine, perhaps from Emilia-Romagna if you can find it, and let it breath.
CREAM: Sample the ragù and add salt, black pepper, or a hint of crushed red pepper to taste. Finish by gently stirring in about 2 tbsp. of heavy cream.
Take a bite of pasta, then cleanse your palate with vino.
Repeat as needed.
For this endeavor you will require:
5 oz. Pancetta
1 bunch, celery, finely chopped
1 bunch, carrots, finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 lb. good ground beef
1 small can, tomato paste (or make it at home!)
1 cup dry white wine
1-1/2 cups whole milk
2 tbsp. heavy cream
Good sea salt
Freshly ground black peeper
Pasta of your choosing
1 bottle vino rosso d’Italia