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The Chef in Charlotte – Bolognese

I am lucky to have family nearby––if I'm ever feeling lonesome in Charlotte or need a change of pace, it's an easy 90 minute drive up to my Auntie Cindy and Uncle Tom's relaxing lake house up in the forests of the Appalachian foothills. To thank them for their hospitality, I always promise a wonderful gourmet dinner, and on my most recent visit, since it had been a while since I made a fabulous Italian meal, I decided to try my hand at pasta with Bolognese sauce.

The lake house is gorgeous and serene any time of year!

Most of us have a distinctly "Americanized" conception of what a Bolognese sauce should be, since in many American Italian restaurants, a "Bolognese" dish often just means pasta in a tomato sauce with ground meat added. "Authentic" Bolognese sauces, associated with the city of Bologna in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, are instead slow-cooked ragùs made of various types of meat, pork fat, a veggie mélange called soffritto or mirepoix, white wine, milk or cream, and a small amount of tomatoes. Bon Appétit has a well-regarded authentic recipe which is a great jumping-off point.

Cindy enjoying a chilly January pontoon ride!

For your prep, dice the mirepoix veggies in a 2:1:1 ratio of onions to carrots to celery. The Bon Appétit recipe says to use a food processor, but to my mind this creates a sort of gnarly slurry of veggies that don't cook as nicely. I recommend a very fine by-knife mince. You'll also need to cut some pieces of bacon, sausage, lard, pancetta, or guanciale for the pork fat component. My Uncle Tom avoids bacon, so I left out the pork fat and used butter instead. Worked fine, but definitely use the pork fat if you can! You'll also need to assemble:

  • pasta

  • ground beef and/or other meat

  • chicken stock

  • milk, half and half, or cream

  • dry white wine

  • tomato paste (withOUT added sugar!)

  • parmesan cheese (use real Parmigiano Reggiano)

  • nutmeg

  • bay leaf

  • chili flakes or powder

  • cooking oil

  • fish sauce (yes, fish sauce!)

  • sea salt.

Bolognese usually starts with ground beef, but other types of meat can easily be included. One of the common products included is chicken liver for an extra richness––the sky is the limit! Try ground pork, turkey, lamb, duck, veal, any leftover cuts, or even bone marrow. The ground meat should be split up into roughly two-inch "clumps" and cooked in a pan with hot oil over medium heat until the outside is brown and the inside still pink. Try not to overcook. The recipe says not to further break the meat up, but I missed that instruction and sautéed it the way I'd normally sear ground beef, just until the rest of the pink was disappearing, and it was fine. The meat can then be set aside and the pot wiped out for the next step.

Heat the pork in the pan and let the fat render. Once much of the fat has been released, add the mirepoix veggies and cook low and slow until they are quite tender and are starting to brown and bit and stick to the pan. To my surprise, garlic is not a traditional addition to an authentic Bolognese, but you can certainly include it in the veggie mélange if you like. At that point, the meat should be added back into the pan along with the white wine. Break up the meat with a wooden spoon by pressing down on the clumps while the wine reduces. By the time the wine has almost completely reduced and the bottom of the pan is mostly dry, the meat should be essentially pulverized into little bits. The next step is to add the tomato paste, nutmeg, chili (if you'd like a little heat) and bay leaf, stirring to combine and cooking a few minutes until the paste darkens.

I also recommend you add some fish sauce at this stage! Yes, my friends, southeast Asian-style fish sauce is a magnificent secret ingredient to add umami and complexity to a dish of any international stripe. Chefs these days are adding fish sauce to pasta sauces, egg dishes, and even cheese dip. I recommend keeping an excellent fish sauce in your fridge without added sugar or MSG––Red Boat is probably the highest quality sauce widely available in the US at some grocery stores and most Asian markets, and is Whole30 approved! Even though it's not in the recipe, a few teaspoons of fish sauce add a lot at this stage, and you can always add more later!

It's now time to slow-braise the contents of the pan to tenderize the meat and reduce the liquid into a gloriously flavorful, thick sauce. Set the flame on the lowest or close-to-lowest setting, depending on how quickly the sauce reduces on your burner. Add the stock and milk/cream and stir until well-combined. Let it simmer, uncovered, for something in the vicinity of two to three hours, stirring from time to time, until the sauce has taken on a soupy, ragù-like quality and the meat is quite tender. The sauce should be warm but should only rarely bubble, or it will cook too quickly. Taste as you go and feel free to add things here and there to adjust. It's easy to over-reduce pasta sauces––if this happens, add some additional chicken stock.

Toward the end of the reduction process, cook the pasta in very salty water according to the package directions until al dente. I recommend a pasta to which the sauce will cling, like bowties, rigatoni, elbows, or shells, but a long, wide noodle like tagliatelle is a very traditional pasta with Bolognese. Make sure when you strain the pasta, you retain about a half cup of pasta water. Add this and about a cup of parmesan to the reduced sauce once the pasta is finished, and stir to combine before adding the cooked pasta.

Let the pasta simmer in the sauce for another couple of minutes, stirring from the bottom of the pan to coat the pasta with the sauce and combine. It's ready to go once the sauce sticks to the pasta and the noodles are just starting to give way to the teeth. Remember to taste your sauce and season or adjust to taste––more fish sauce can be a good idea at this stage if it needs seasoning and depth. If the sauce is too sticky and over-reducing, add splashes of broth or pasta water. Discard the bay leaf and serve the completed pasta with parmesan for garnish.

I included a side Caesar salad made with kale (a "Kale Caesar!") with my classic Caesar dressing (made also with fish sauce!) for our veggie side, which was delicious!

A stellar Bolognese recipe, indeed! Cindy and Tom were most impressed with the results. I look forward to taking this baseline recipe and experimenting with different meats and other additions in the future. It's certainly an easy recipe with little prep, and though the cooking time is long, most of it is nearly entirely hands-off while the sauce reduces.

Wine to cook by:

Tom opened up a fantastic bottle of 2017 Patricia Green single-vineyard pinot noir from the Dundee Hills in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. A fantastic wine that paired brilliantly with the meaty sauce, but should you have used a good white wine in the sauce, maybe try pairing that with the dish, or even serving the white and a red alongside to sample two different pairings!

After a blockbuster dinner in Utah this coming weekend, the Maestro will be focusing a little more on food in Charlotte and surrounding locales, as well as recipes! Stay tuned for more reviews, recipes, and deep food-related thoughts.

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