Somewhat Fast Pre-Holiday Bolognese

For years I subscribed to the Marcella Hazan philosophy of cooking bolognese sauce: cook it slow and low until everything breaks down into an unctuous, meaty, barely-tomato-y, orange-with-fat ragu. She suggests something like 3 or 4 hours. Indeed, things do meld in a magical way over a timespan like that. Meat breaks down into a most lovely, yielding, pasta-coating substance. Things get sweet. The tang of the white wine and the barely-there tomato somehow stands out in its subtelty. It’s pretty great.

But what parent has 4 hours? Not me. We’d actually turned this peasant dish into a special occasion preparation, once a year, Christmas eve tradition. We’d start cooking it well before the kids went to sleep then eat it before doing the finishing touches on gift wrapping and toy assembly. And once a year is simply not enough bolognese for this family (we do a love 5 minute tomato sauce. More on that in a later post).

I recently read about a sauteed variation on bolognese in which the sauce is basically fried in enough fat to get everything caramelized and melded at the high end of the temperature range. The opposite of slow and low, but with, supposedly, excellent results. There wasn’t a recipe, so I gave it a shot. It worked. I’ve done it twice. You’d never know it didn’t take 4 hours. Here’s the recipe I devised.

One pound ground beef, not too lean
one white onion, finely chopped
two celery stalks, finely chopped
one big carrot, finely chopped
quarter cup pancetta or prosciutto, finely chopped (you can use bacon, but that adds a smokey note that can be a bit overpowering; still darned good)
2 cups canned peeled whole tomatoes, crushed with your hand
1/4 cup white wine
5 tablespoons olive oil

-Heat two tablespoons olive oil in a large sautee pan over high heat and brown the ground beef, breaking it up with a spoon. When cooked, remove from the pan and set aside in a bowl. Wipe the pan dry.

-Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat in the same pan and sautee the onion, celery, carrot, and pancetta. Add salt and pepper. Sautee until the vegetables soften then caramelize: you want to intensify them in sweetness and depth of flavor. Stir it occassionally. Don’t scorch it, just take it to this side of brown.

-add the wine and cook it off

-stir in the tomatoes

-drop the heat to medium or whatever level it takes to keep it at a steady fry/simmer for the better part of half an hour. You gotta keep an eye on this, because you don’t want it to burn or dry out. Add a few tablespoons water if it starts to dry out. Ideally, the sauce should be rich and a bit on the dry side in the end (this is not about soaking the noodles, it’s about just coating them with a rich, meaty sauce that clings to the noodle).

Both times I cooked it, I hit it with a tablespoon of olive oil at the end to make it even richer (the Hazan version calls for a mix of ground pork and beef, which is a richer, sweeter dish; I just didn’t have ground pork around when I made this version).

My entire family (except for my tan-food loving son, who prefers his noodles plain) loves this, and it’s so rich that a pound of pasta (we’ve had it with linguine, tagliatelle, and just plain spaghetti) feeds us all with a decent lunch for two leftover.

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2 Responses to Somewhat Fast Pre-Holiday Bolognese

  1. Francesca says:

    Fantastic recipe! I made it last night and both my son and husband devoured it. My daughter won’t touch noodles with tomato sauces so that’s her loss – more for the boys!

  2. Hugh says:

    I’m glad your family (or at least the majority) liked it. If you guys dig tomato-based pasta sauces, you must try the amatriciana sauce that Batali/Babbo does (check out the guanciale post and the link to Mario’s recipe). We had some tonight and it is woozily, mind-bendingly satisfying. It does benefit from 3/4 of a pound of cured pork, so is in no way a lean proposition, but is freakishly satisfying. It is a bit spicy, too, but that’s easy to scale back as needed.

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