I dream about pasta on a regular basis. No joke! It’s seriously the food my dreams are made of, and I could easily eat it every day. I restrain myself from doing so, but I do try and work it into my family's dinner plans at least once a week.
I had some extra time on my hands over the weekend, and was in the mood to make an impressive pasta dish for my family. There are thousands of pasta recipes I could have chosen, but I was inspired by a menu I recently created for a virtual private event. The group that booked with us wants to learn how to make Pasta Bolognese, and since it’s one of my all-time favorites, that’s what I set out to make.
Sauce Bolognese, the slow-cooked, unctuous meat and tomato ragù from Bologna, Italy is commonly used to make lasagna alla Bolognese, and it’s also often served with fresh cut, hand-made pasta such as tagliatelle or pappardelle. You can serve this sauce on anything and it would be delicious… that’s just how satisfying it is. The aromas wafting up from the pot of sauce are magical, and immediately transport you to an Italian grandma’s home.
The sauce isn’t difficult to make, but it does need a long time simmering in order to mellow and balance the flavors. Before we get into the juicy details, I want to mention that everyone has their own version of Bolognese sauce, and this is just one of many interpretations.
The first step in making the sauce is choosing the correct cookware. Because this sauce simmers for 2 to 3 hours, make sure you’re using a large, deep, heavy pot with a thick base to prevent any scorching on the bottom. I like to use a Le Creuset French oven for this recipe. You can also use your slow-cooker.
The opening act in this undisputed-king-of-all sauces recipe is finely diced mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery). These three vegetables are the base for many soups, stocks, sauces and braises, and Bolognese puts them to good use. Slowly cooking the vegetables in a mix of olive oil and butter until they are softened bring a sweetness to the sauce that helps balance the acidity of the tomatoes.
Once the mirepoix has been cooked, add your ground beef. Fat is your friend here. Use an 80/20 blend ground beef, preferably ground chuck. The fat in the beef adds to the richness and silkiness of the sauce, so don’t shy away from the fatty goodness. You only need to cook the beef until it’s no longer pink; it doesn’t need to be browned. And, please do not drain off any excess fat.
Now it’s time to add the milk. Dairy in meat sauce? It’s an ingredient you’re probably not accustomed to adding to your meat-based pasta sauces, but it’s a key step in the recipe. We add milk to create a level of richness in the sauce, and it mellows the acidity from the tomatoes. After adding the milk, you want to cook it down until it almost all evaporates.
The wine comes next, and while it’s traditional to use white wine in this sauce, my husband drank all of it the night before… it’s the holiday season after all! So, I used red wine instead. Just like the milk, reduce the wine until it has evaporated.
The last ingredient, for now, that gets added to the pot are the tomatoes. I like to use whole tomatoes in their juice for the extra moisture, but you want to cut up the tomatoes before adding them to the pot. You can chop them up with a knife, smash them in a resealable bag, or like I did, place an immersion blender in my can of tomatoes and chop them up that way.
I had some parmesan cheese rinds I wanted to use up, so I added them to the ragú… they really add a depth of savory goodness when allowed to simmer in a long-cooked sauce. I wrapped the rinds up in cheesecloth, and then secured my bundle with twine to make it easier to remove. I also had a few slices of prosciutto around, so I chopped them up and stirred them into the sauce.
I brought the sauce up to a boil, and then reduced the heat to a low simmer. I cooked the sauce for about 2 hours, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan once in a while to avoid scorching, until it was beautifully thick and rich. All that was left was to season it with salt and pepper, and finish with some fresh basil.
Because I was on a pasta-lovers quest, I made homemade pasta while my sauce simmered. The traditional pasta to serve with sauce Bolognese is tagliatelle, long, hand-cut noodles that measure 1/4 to 1/3-inch wide. My noodles were somewhere between tagliatelle and pappardelle, which are a bit wider. I was more focused on enjoying myself than measuring my noodles. You could also use 1 pound of any dried noodles you like, so if making fresh isn’t in the cards, no worries!
I drained the cooked noodles (no rinsing!), tossed them with the sauce and cracked open a bottle of red wine. I was in pasta nirvana! Everything about our feast felt special. I think it had to do with all of the love I poured into the meal.
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Yield: 4-6 servings
Active time: 30 minutes
Start to finish: 2 hours, 30 minutes
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, medium dice
2 stalks celery, medium dice
1 medium-size carrot, peeled and cut into medium dice
1 pound ground chuck
1 cup whole milk
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes in their juice, chopped or smashed in a resealable bag
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound dried pasta
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade
Parmesan cheese, grated
1. Heat a heavy pot over medium heat and add the butter and olive oil. Gently sauté the onion, celery and carrot until lightly softened, 5 to 6 minutes.
2. Add the ground beef, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook the beef until no longer pink.
3. Add the milk and nutmeg, and simmer until the milk has evaporated.
4. Stir in the wine, and simmer until evaporated. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and simmer on very low heat for about 2 hours, to blend the flavors.
5. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
6. When the sauce is almost done, bring the salted water up to a rolling boil, and cook your pasta until al dente. Drain well, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, and toss right into the pot with the sauce. If the sauce is too tight, add a splash of the pasta cooking water.
7. Garnish with freshly grated parmesan and basil.
If you have always wanted to make fresh pasta, but need some professional tips along the way, join us for our Virtual Pasta Workshop on February 27th from 3-5pm. We’ll show you just how approachable making fresh pasta from scratch can be!