Memories of Spaghetti Bolognese

Dolmio has been in the news recently (well it was when I started writing this many months ago) after making a public declaration that due to high sugar and salt content, their pasta sauces should be eaten only occasionally. My first experience of spaghetti Bolognese was with these ready made jars of pasta sauce and this news triggers memories of cooking as a teenager and how I discovered you could ditch the jars and cook spaghetti Bolognese from scratch.

The first spaghetti Bolognese I remember eating was made from a jar (the Ragú brand, rather than Dolmio). My memory is hazy, but I remember these cooking sauces being in the supermarkets and my Mum giving them a go probably after seeing them advertised on British telly when we moved back to the UK after living in Europe.

The appeal of the sauce jars is pretty easy to see, a staple weekly dinner at home was minced beef and potatoes so the sauce jars transform that easily into a Bolognese sauce. Of course Mum still sautéed an onion and added a few mushrooms and grated in a carrot to bulk it out, but the transformation to my young tastebuds was sensational.

As a family we were amazed, gone was humdrum mince beef in Oxo and in it’s place was this exotic Italian dish, sweet tomatoes, a hint of Italian herbs, so alien to our palettes, it was like nothing we’d ever tasted. Spaghetti is also immensely fun to eat, us kids enjoyed the mess and fussiness of twisting the spaghetti onto our forks. Dad had deployed the smelly socks fake parmesan, which of course no one wanted and instead of joining in the fun of swirling the spaghetti, he chopped his up into tiny bits boldly declaring ‘this is how they eat it in Italy”. I think he was just hungry.  A family favourite was born, every time we saw the ground beef being taken out of the freezer we’d beg Mum to make it into spaghetti Bolognese. But as the sauce jars were an added expense, I’m certain it was a once or twice a month treat.

A few years later when I was a teenager and starting to get curious about cooking and helping Mum out in the kitchen, I’d spend evenings looking through the family cookbooks. One was one of those encyclopaedic cookbooks that had recipes for everything in it. I remember looking at the section on pasta sauces, idly pondering – if I could make Bolognese from scratch we could have it all the time instead of boring old minced beef and spuds. The first recipe in the pasta sauce chapter was Bolognese Sauce – which had strange things in like chicken livers and wine, but below it was a recipe simply entitled Italian Meat Sauce. It had me baffled because it wasn’t much different to how we made the minced beef, only the addition of a tin of tomatoes, more tomato purée and some dried oregano and a pinch of something called cayenne pepper (I’d never heard of either them). Was that it I asked myself? Was that all there was in those magical jars of Bolognese, a tin of tomatoes and some herbs, surely there must be more to it than that? That said herbs were unheard of in our kitchen.

Perhaps naively, I was convinced that only thing stopping us having spaghetti Bolognese all the time was cost. The jars of sauce were a few quid, not loads, but that was an extra expense over standard minced beef and spuds which just needed an onion and a few Oxo cubes. By my reckoning if this recipe worked it would shave the cost of Bolognese down to pretty much the same cost as boring old minced beef. I wanted to cook it.

IMG_8279I showed Mum the recipe and outlined my plan, and amazingly she agreed to it and said she would add oregano and cayenne pepper to the shopping list, I was officially excited. As my Mum was working part-time in the afternoons I had recently been flexing my muscles in the kitchen preparing some of the family meals when I got home from school, it’s through this that I’d really got into cooking. Mum had still bought the jars of pasta sauce (I think the scepticism ran to everyone in the family) so I hatched a plan to make the homemade Bolognese in secret without telling anyone. I figured if it wasn’t very good I’d just bung one of the jars in to cover it up and no one would know. It was a doddle to make, because it was just like making the minced beef, which I’d done before. Soon enough the sauce was simmering away on the stove and I remember tentatively tasting it and thinking wow, this tastes like the Bolognese sauce we loved, maybe even better. I was awestruck, I’d done it, I’d cooked Bolognese sauce from scratch. I awaited the return of Mum and Dad to serve up and complete my subterfuge.

I let everyone get stuck in before boldly declaring that they’d all been eating the homemade Bolognese. I’d made it from scratch with no jars. There was some disbelief at first, so I told Mum and Dad to look in the bin, and count the jars of Ragú in the cupboard. At the time I was pleased to have created a delicious family meal and perhaps enjoying a little bit being the centre of attention. Thinking back, this was a turning point for my cooking, I realised that I could find recipes and create nice meals from basic ingredients. I began to spend my spare time leafing through the family cookbooks dreaming about what I could possibly cook. What other meals did we make from jarred sauces? Chilli-con-carne, sweet and sour pork, I would try and make them all from scratch.

IMG_8280So far I’ve written this from memory and aware that it can play tricks on you, I decided to track down a copy of the cookbook on eBay. The book, The Good Housekeeping – Step by Step Cookbook turned out to be even more bible-like than I remember. A whopping 511 pages, mostly black & white, printed on cheap off-white paper. With an entire chapter devoted to jellied salads tells you this book is from a bygone era of home cooking.

I turned to the pasta sauce section and sure enough there it was, Italian Meat sauce recipe, underneath the more complex Bolognese sauce. I was right about the hazy memory I’d completely forgotten about the four teaspoons of sugar and the entire tin of tomato pureé. I’d planned to make the recipe in the book as in my memory this was the simple Italian meat sauce recipe that would show that you don’t need to use commercial jars of sauce, but with all that extra sugar it was self-defeating so this wasn’t the right. So without further ado, this is my simple Italian meat sauce recipe.

Simple Italian Meat Sauce Recipe

I’ve cooked many, many ragu sauces over the years, trying out many different recipes from very complex ones to super simple ones and generally tweaking and changing stuff, and not really following any sort of recipe. There was my throw it all in phase, where all sorts would just get thrown in. Over time I’ve come to prefer the simpler ones. I remember watching Gennaro Contaldo making a ragu on a tv show and it was around about the time of Heston’s Perfect Bolognese (which is insanely complex) and it just made me think what is all this stuff we throw in. Gennaro had pretty much braised some ground beef in tomatoes and wine with a sprig of rosemary – job done – keep it simple stupid. It makes me ponder if recipes with long lists of ingredients that aren’t strictly necessary can be off-putting and result in people reaching for the jars of sauce.

Now I have two recipes I fall back on, this which uses ground beef and/or sausage meat and another one that is more Neapolitan style that I will blog about another time.

Ingredients

  • Extra virgin olive oil.
  • 500g of ground beef, pork or sausage meat.
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped.
  • 1 carrot, chopped.
  • 1 stick of celery, chopped.
  • Finely chopped garlic cloves (as many or as few as you like).
  • Generous pinch of dried oregano.
  • Crumbled up bay leaf.
  • 2 tbsp tomato pureé, mixed with a little water.
  • 1 small glass of white wine.
  • Tin of plum tomatoes, crushed.
  • Salt and pepper.

Method

I have two tips that I think transform a ragú sauce and I urge you to try them.

IMG_8357The first tip is actually the last part of the cooking, but I tell you this first as you need to let your ragú cook, you need to allow at the very least a couple of hours, ideally three, for the finished sauce to simmer away on a low heat. Don’t skip this, don’t think it’ll be fine in 30 minutes, it’ll be thin, lacking body and flavour. If you don’t have the time then cook something else, cook a carbonara or puttanesca, something that is ready in minutes rather than a few hours.

The second tip I learned more recently and comes at the start of the cooking so let’s start here. When frying the meat off, let it cook, really let it cook, don’t let it just colour and then add the tomatoes and stuff, you really want to let the meat fry slowly until it’s covered in lots of lovely brown bits. This will only happen once you cook off all the liquid in the meat and it really starts to fry.

IMG_8775Don’t try and fry too much meat at once as it’ll crowd the pan and steam away never getting any colour. If necessary do it in batches. I start over a high heat and once you start hearing a popping noise you know the liquid has evaporated and it’s frying. Reduce the heat and add more oil if the pan is looking dry, don’t worry about the health police, olive oil is good for you. Let it sauté away for 30-40 minutes at least, until the meat has a nice caramelisation all over.

While the meat is frying, you can get on with chopping the onion, carrot, celery and garlic, so no time is really lost. Add each component to the pan after you’ve chopped it, starting with the onion and ending with the garlic. Add your dried herbs and bay leaf now, be sparing as this method really intensifies flavours, I usually add a generous pinch of dried oregano. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Once the meat has good colour and the vegetables are softened, it’s time to add the liquids and get the sauce on the simmer. Turn up the heat and add the white wine and let it cook off, then add the tomato puree and let everything reduce for a few minutes. Finally add your crushed tomatoes and if needed some extra water to cover the meat. Bring up to a bubble and then reduce to a low heat and cook covered on a low simmer for two hours, stir occasionally to check it isn’t sticking or cooking dry. Check the seasoning and your sauce is ready.

Serve tossed in tagliatelle and plenty of Parmigiano cheese. You can use spaghetti if you like (I know I have in the photos, but it’s all I had at the time), but I find the sauce sticks better to tagliatelle or fetuccine. The even wider Pappardelle I prefer to use for a ragú made with whole pieces of meat.

As is so often the case, these sauces taste better the next day, so if you can, refrigerate overnight. The sauce also makes an excellent filling for a lasagna. I often freeze some in portion size packs for quick mid-week suppers.

IMG_8894