Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Bolognese Sauce, or Why Mothers' Recipes are Timeless Classics

Since I moved out of my mother's house, I got the occasional craving for her amazing bolognese sauce with some spaghetti. When that would happen, I would face the long bus ride back to the 'burbs, sneer at everything, but go back home with a full belly and a big smile. But it was inevitable that sooner or later, I'd decide to grow up, make my own damn bolognese sauce and save myself the bus ride. In an act of rebellion, I figured I'd make a recipe that wasn't my mother's.

That was mistake numero uno.

Mistake numero dos was assuming that since I'd found a few really great recipes in Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution", they would all be equally awesome and that his bolognese would be delicious. My mamma and my nonna never put any veggies in their sauce, but I figured "what the Hell", and went through the trouble of chopping some carrots and celery into tiny pieces and throwing them in there. He also added bacon to his sauce, but then he adds bacon to almost everything...

Despite the great variety of ingredients in the pot, the result was watery and bland. My boyfriend was also far from impressed, so I tried a few additions and subtractions, but I was forced to the following dreadful conclusion: my mother's sauce tasted a million times better. All those veggies simply don't have their place in a honest meat-sauce: save them for the salad you serve as an entrée! And bacon, well that was just Jamie being British. No Italian in his right mind puts bacon in a sauce where it's taste will get drowned with that of the beef and spices.

Of course, trying to replicate a parent's recipe is a wild goose chase, unless you inherit the pot and stove along with the recipe. You first need to accept that it will never taste exactly the same. Then you have to modify it slightly until it's delicious, albeit differently so from your mom's. This is what I came up with after many experiments with various spices: the balance of savory, oregano and basil with a hint of chili heat just works so well... and it tastes almost exactly like the stuff my mom still feeds me from time to time.

I was lucky enough to inherit my grandmother's Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart Dutchoven. It's bright orange, beautiful, in perfect condition and has been used by the women in my family for 3 generations. Good as new. My nonna made everything in that Dutchoven and I love it to bits. My bolognese doesn't taste exactly like hers, but making it in Betty-the-orange-Dutchoven gives it a nostalgic touch that adds to the taste (or maybe I suffer form psychosomatic delusions). This sauce can be served on pasta (4 to 6 helpings), used in a lasagna or to fill cannelloni. It keeps in the fridge for 4 days, and in the freezer for about a month (if stored in a good air-tight plastic container, of course).

2 medium yellow onions
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried savory
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 pound lean ground beef (or a mix of ground beef and pork)
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14 ounce) can tomato paste
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 small bunch of fresh basil
4 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Red wine vinegar (optional)

Peel and finely chop the onion. Preheat a large casserole-type pan (or amazing Dutchoven) on medium heat. Add a couple of glugs of olive oil, the onions, the garlic and the spices. Cook the onions until soft and slightly golden. Stir in the ground meat and cook for a few minutes, until the meat crumbles. Add the diced tomatoes and the tomato paste. Fill the tomato paste can with water and carefully add about 1/2 cup of water to the mix. Stir in a good pinch of salt and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. Mix well, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 45 minutes, with the lid on, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and simmer for another 15 minutes. Pick the basil leaves and put them aside. Remove from the heat and add a swig of red wine vinegar and half the Parmesan (if using either). Tear the bigger basil leaves and stir them in. Mix well, taste, adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve sprinkled with the rest of the Parmesan and garnish with the smaller basil leaves.

As a general rule, when I buy canned tomatoes, I get the Eden Organic brand, as they don't add any salt to their goodies. But their diced tomatoes do not have enough big chunks, which were a staple of the traditional sauce served by mom. So for this recipe only, I ignore my rule and get a big can of Les Compliments brand diced tomatoes (lowest sodium content I could find with the appropriately sized pieces of tomatoes). Feel free to use whole canned tomatoes instead of diced, but make sure you break them up well with a wooden spoon. If you can, use the tomatoes canned with a bit of basil or garlic to add a bit of extra seasoning.

If you feel bold, try the variation alla Max: instead of water, add 1 cup of red wine with your tomatoes and tomato paste, and omit the red wine vinegar at the end! It adds a richness to the taste that makes my boyfriend go crazy!

If you are a spice freak, you can definitely use a tablespoon of chili flakes instead of a teaspoon, or 1/2 a fresh red chile, finely chopped; but I would advise against adding anymore than that. The star of the show in this sauce is ground beef. It should be the main flavor you enjoy with this sauce, so be careful not to drown it in chile. Just sayin'. My aunt used to add a few drops of Tabasco to her plate, and if my grandmother or mother would catch her in the act, she'd get a sharp wooden spoon whack on the head. Don't make me do it to you!

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