Pasta Bolognese recipe

Estimated read time 8 min read

During the current lockdown in Paris, you can still get most things at the supermarket. True, there’s less of a selection as some items are more popular than others; butter, of course, is popular, and so is flour. Fortunately I always have a good stock of both on hand, lockdown or not, but I did neglect to replenish my chocolate supply. But the pasta and rice aisles have suffered the most damage, and the selection of what’s available has been sparse.

Since I’m limiting my time going out, and food shopping, the other day I went to the frozen food store, Picard. Everyone in France loves Picard, although I’m usually happy to dice an onion and don’t need to buy frozen pre-diced onions, nor do I need to buy ice cream. (Theirs is rather good, but I’ve usually got several batches of my own in the freezer.) But I was craving pizza and they have a frozen one with arugula and speck that’s pas mal, as they say in French, which actually means “not bad.” However frozen pizza seems to be as popular as rice and pasta, so I had to get another kind that wasn’t so great (pas terrible.) But I did pick up a bag of those onions and some ground beef because I’ve also been craving Pasta Bolognese, and they were there, and so was I. So I caved.

I’m not going to get into the controversy of what is, and what isn’t, Bolognese because we have more pressing things to think about at the moment. But it gave me the chance to try the famous recipe from Marcella Hazan, who wrote several highly-regarding cookbooks on Italian cooking. (Although a few readers from Italy had something to say about it when they saw me adding butter to the sauce when I made this à la Marcella, on social media. If I’m not mistaken, butter is churned milk, which is an ingredient in the classic. But let’s give them a lot of leeway at the moment.)

Being Italian, Marcella certainly had strong opinions, too. She railed against the overuse of garlic that she felt unbalanced a dish, and used more butter than any Italian cook would. Her famous tomato sauce has only four ingredients, and one of them is 5 ounces/140g of butter. I haven’t made that but I’ve heard it’s a life-changing tomato sauce. (And frankly, life-changing sounds good right about now.) Marcella was fond of butter and also used it in her Bolognese.

I do remember one time when I was in Italy, staying in a friend’s apartment, and went to the local grocer to get a few items. One was a packet of butter, and when I was checking out the fellow behind the counter made sure to hold it up to tell me, “This is for breakfast!” I guess he wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to cook or bake with it.

Also making Bolognese gave me a chance to use some of San Marzano tomatoes I bought at Terroirs d’Avenir, where I went to get some produce a week or so ago. (Is anyone else having trouble keeping track of says, and time, these days?) For some reason, they had #10 cans (5 pounds, 10 ounces/2550g) of the deeply-flavored, famous canned tomatoes, and was happy to see them sold in bulk. Most people do their shopping every few days in Paris, and only the hardy would go through that many tomatoes. If I could turn some of those tomatoes into chocolate, I’d be even happier.

It also gave me the chance to finally use this interesting 3-section Gien dish I got at a flea market years ago.

This Bolognese sauce may be a little unconventional but if you knew Marcella, she was not someone you wanted to pick a fight with. I met her twice. Once when she came to dinner at a restaurant I worked at. At the time, the coat rack for guests was near the pastry area and when I saw the enormous mink coat she wore into the restaurant being hung up on the coat rack, well, I don’t think I need to tell you know what I had to do: Try it on! Which I did, and for a moment, I felt like Marcella. (The cigarette smoke that clung to the coat also helped me get into the mood.) Another time I was at a dinner and seated to her left. The waiter came by and told her that one course was going to have Parmesan cheese on it, and specifically said in her direction that Parmesan cheese wasn’t the stuff in the green can, and he was going to explain it to her.

After his explanation and he left the table, she turned to look at me, with her signature glass of Jack Daniel’s in one hand, and said, “What the f*ck is he talking about?”

I didn’t want to ‘f’ with Marcella’s recipe but made a few changes. I kept the butter in, but toggled the quantities of other ingredients, as well as the cooking time since three (or four) hours was a long, long time, and mine tasted great after one hour but was even better after a second hour. If you have one of those slow-cookers or Instant pressure cookers, you could likely adapt this Bolognese to one of those. I don’t know what Marcella would have to say about that, so if you do, that can just be our little secret.

Pasta Bolognese

There are a few Marcella Hazan Pasta Bolognese recipes out there. I tweaked a few of them to come up with this recipe, which is inspired and adapted by her. Note that this sauce will take a while to prepare. It’s mostly downtime. At first, you’re just sauteeing ingredients, stirring until they’re combined, then adding wine and milk, simmering and stirring until those have been absorbed. Once the tomatoes have been added, that’s when you let the sauce cook at the lowest heat possible, stirring every once in a while, until it’s ready. Within an hour, it comes together into a nice paste, but if you cook it another hour, nursing it with water as you go, you’ll get a sauce with a richer flavor. One of Hazan’s recipes says to cook sauce Bolognese for up to 4 hours! In the “untraditional” category, some people like to grate from Parmesan cheese over finished bowls of pasta.

Course Main Course

Keyword mushrooms

Servings 4 servings

  • 3 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted, plus 1 tablespoon for finishing the pasta
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (60g) diced onions
  • 1/2 cup (65g) diced celery
  • 1/2 cup (65g) diced carrots, (peeled)
  • 12 ounces (340g) ground beef, (I recommend using one that’s at least 15% fat)
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
  • freshly-ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup (180ml) whole milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup (250ml) dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cups (350ml) canned plum tomatoes, crushed, with their juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 pound (450g) pasta
  • Melt the butter with the olive oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the celery and carrots and cook, stirring a few times, until they start to wilt, 3 to 4 minutes.

  • Add the ground beef, salt, and some freshly ground pepper. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the beef is no longer raw on the outside. Pour in the milk, and cook at a steady simmer, stirring occasionally, until the milk is absorbed. Add a dusting of nutmeg and the wine, and continue to cook until the wine is mostly absorbed. (These steps can take a bit longer than you think, maybe 10 to 15 minutes of so, but this isn’t a sauce to be rushed.)

  • Add the tomatoes in their juice and the tomato paste. Let come close to a boil then lower the heat to as low as possible until the sauce is just barely bubbling. Cook the sauce uncovered for 1 hour, stirring every once in a while, until most of the liquid is absorbed but the mixture is still wet, rich and thick. (There’s a picture of it in the spoon, in the post.) You can use the sauce now, or if you want to give it some extra attention, you can cook it for another hour, adding up to 1/2 cup (125ml) of water, little by little as it continues to cook, and stirring occasionally, to make the sauce even more unctuous.

  • Taste and add salt, if desired.

  • To serve, cook the pasta in lightly salted water as directed on the package. (Before draining, reserve a little of the pasta cooking water.) Drain the pasta and toss the hot pasta in the Bolognese sauce with 1 tablespoon of butter. If the sauce needs a bit of thinning out, add a parsimonious splash of the reserved pasta water.

Storage: The Bolognese sauce will keep for up to four days in the refrigerator. It can be rewarmed on the stovetop with a little bit of water, until ready to use. It can also be frozen for up to three months.

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