Thursday, March 14, 2013

Spaghetti Bolognese: the most abused dish in the world

Bolognese sauce is one of those dishes that seem simple enough, yet can be elusive and difficult to perfect. I have never really nailed this sauce to my own satisfaction. I refuse to use jarred or canned sauces, and given the season, will use fresh tomatoes instead of passata or tinned tomatoes. However, no matter how hard I try, I can never seem to capture what my mind's eye (or I suppose my mind's tongue) imagines that perfect Bolognese sauce should or could taste like. I have never been to Bologne, so I'm really working from cookbooks and the occasional Mario Batalli video on Youtube. The following is my account of the closest I can get to this ethereal harmony of pasta, meat and aromatics.

My mother-in-law often cooks for my kids, and she makes what we in Canada simply like to call 'Spaghetti'. Which is a catch-all for dry store-bought spaghetti that has been boiled and served with some kind of meat-based red sauce. That's a broad spectrum of possibility. I grew up with the very Anglo-Canadian approach to this dish (called Spag Bol in the mother country) as boiled spaghetti topped with a steaming ladleful of grey mince in a pre-spiced, garlicky red sauce, likely out of a jar with the occasional too-large chunk of undercooked onion. My kids appear to be partial to this 'nude-pasta-topped-with-a-huge-pile-of-sauce' approach. I have to admit this take on spaghetti is what I grew up eating at least twice a week. It does have a certain comfort to it and I may even crave it occasionally. However, as much as it may remind me of my childhood, it just doesn't strike me as a good dish. In Italy, I know for a fact that pasta is only lightly coated with its condiment and the pasta and sauce are tossed in a pan over heat so that the starchy pasta water can emulsify with the sauce. This aids in adhesion between ragu and noodle. As Mario Batali has said, abbondanza (abundance) is a myth, true Italian cooking is about bilancia (balance). Thus, the sauce and pasta should be in perfect harmony; certainly not something you see in the Anglo and North American approach to this dish. Interestingly, when Heston Blumenthal was tasked with making the perfect spag bol, he ended up with something that looked much more like the Anglo version than the Italian version (he even adds ketchup and Worcestershire!) I guess you just can't address the childhood food memories of an Englishman without at least making it a little trashy.

When you go to Italy, meat sauces tend to be called ragus, however, the classic minced meat sauce with vegetables, wine and sometimes tomatoes (a controversial issue, more on that in a moment), would be called a ragu Bolognese and is the specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region. Why this dish has become the ever popular 'spaghetti' to North Americans is likely the ease and thrift of the recipe. Minced meat is easy to cook (at first glance). Unlike large chunks or stew meat that require a long cooking time before reaching a level of mastication-friendly tenderness, minced meat can basically be warmed through and consumed immediately. Open a jar of pre-made tomato sauce and you have a very quick, inexpensive and filling dinner; a Godsend to the moms of the 1970's. Nevertheless, what we call spaghetti here is very different to what Italians think of the dish.

I'm not going to annotate a recipe here, because this is the kind of dish that I think requires the 'adjustment' approach to cooking. Keep tasting and adjusting. Volume of ingredients and timings are just not going to come in to it.

First and foremost, in Bologna, they often make this dish with tagliatelle and not spaghetti. I personally prefer tagliatelle for this approach to the recipe. The other misconception is that this is a 'quick and easy' recipe. It is actually a terribly difficult dish to get right. Ground meat is a lot harder to cook then one might think. Those tiny meat grinds can turn into tough flavourless micro meatballs if not handled with a deft hand. The tomato sauce, without sufficient cooking time will not thicken and sweeten, but instead will see the raw freshness disappear and bitterness and blandness remain if the tomatoes are only partially cooked. We in this country typically use lean ground beef. I find that lean ground beef is almost entirely flavourless. Get some fat in there, and mix up the meat a bit. Try adding a combination of veal and pork to the sauce. Some of the most traditional recipes also start with rendering off some cubes of pancetta to add richness and lend that porky je ne sais quoi to the sauce.  

When cooking the meat, you're looking for brown colour and thus, rich flavour. To get this, all the water has to be cooked off and the meat needs to brown in its own fat. You may have to do this in batches. You cannot add raw meat to a hot sauce, nor can you only partially cook the meat before you start adding liquid (grey mince is not acceptable). The meat must be cooked on its own accord and cooked until brown. That takes time. This is not a quick sauce. Once ground meat has been browned it is dry and firm, it needs to absorb some kind of liquid and tenderize slowly over the course of at least two hours if not more. Some of the traditional sauces call for milk (or at least a portion of milk in combination with other liquids). I'm not partial to that personally, but I see the logic. I also believe this kind of sauce requires wine; it lends acidity and sweetness. If alcohol is off your list, than I would go as far to say that plain water, if seasoned correctly and finished with a bit of vinegar would work.  Oregano and bay leaves are the obvious herbs in my mind, and plenty (and I mean plenty) of salt and pepper are required. Tomato is actually a controversial ingredient. Some cooks in Bologna would never dream of adding any tomato, only meat, vegetables and wine. While others will settle for a little tomato paste, cooked out with the mirapoix of onions, celery and carrots. I am partial to the sweetness and acid of the tomatoes and go whole hog with them. That's my personal preference - perhaps an indicator of my Anglo-Canadian background. I won't apologize for the tomatoes. As long as the sauce is given time, love and  proper balance, tomatoes can be a welcome addition to the party. I sauté button mushrooms separately until they have given up most of their water and then add them in at the end.

As for pasta, in my case, I dusted off my pasta machine and banged up a few servings of scratch tagliatelle made with Canadian wheat flour and eggs. Our flours, though strong, seem to make a slightly softer pasta than the famous Italian Double Zero flour. Nevertheless, I quite enjoy rolling pasta, so that's what I did. If you don't have a pasta machine (or the time), De Cecco makes excellent dried pasta which is likely even better than my novice fresh pasta making. One other point about pasta: a pinch of salt in the boiling water isn't enough. You need to tilt your salt bowl over and literally pour a handful's worth in there. A very large pot of water requires a lot of salt to make it taste of the Mediterranean. Once al dente, introduce the pasta to the sauce: drop it in while still dripping with the starchy cooking water. Let them warm up together in the pan over a low heat.  The thick ragu will emulsify with the salty starchy water and beautifully coat your glossy ribbons of pasta. Serve hot without delay. Toss on some flat leaf parsley and grating of good proper Parmigiano Reggiano at the table.

As much work as this dish was for me to pull together, I still think the recipe needs development. It tasted good, but the mouth feel of the sauce still isn't there. Perhaps longer cooking time is required.  I'll keep trying it, but there is the distinct possibility that what I am seeking does not actually exist. Similarly, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall once wrote of his travels to North Africa. He was hoping to finally experience a real lamb tagine - a dish he had been banging about in his kitchen for years but never got it to his exacting satisfaction. His hope was that he would find the answer by eating the real deal. He was wrong. Though good, the authentic tagines of North Africa still did not tickle the right part of his brain - it simply wasn't what he was looking for. He concluded that the perfect tagine, as his mind's eye imagined it, simply didn't exist.

Perhaps if I ever visit Bologna, the same fate awaits existential thought.

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