I used to make pasta with meat sauce all the time. It was part of our rotation of family meals for many many years…a quick dinner consisting of chopped onion, browned beef, and a jar of tomato sauce. It was a family favorite and so I never thought to mess with success. But a couple of weeks ago while visiting my dad we went to a wonderful Italian restaurant where I had a classic pasta Bolognese. After one bite it was like the clouds parted and rays of enlightenment streamed down upon me, or rather it was like being hit over the head with a cast iron pan as I realized how rich and complex a meat sauce could be, and what we’d been missing all these years.
There are a few key elements that will transform any simple meat sauce into a fabulous Bolognese. The slow browning of the minced vegetables develops the first level of deep flavor. A combination of beef and pork adds a second level. The hot pepper creates a spicy note, the wine and the fresh herbs contribute complexity, and the cream adds a final but essential dreamy richness. It really doesn’t take much longer than a basic meat sauce, but it’s so much more rewarding.
- 1 onion, minced
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut in small dice
- 1 small hot Italian pepper, minced (if you don't have one you can use red pepper flakes)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- good olive oil
- 1 lb ground Angus beef (85%)
- 1/2 lb ground pork
- 26 ounces crushed or pureed Italian tomatoes (I like San Marzano tomatoes)
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste (from a tube that you should always have in your fridge)
- 1/2 cup red wine or cognac
- 1 cup water
- 2 bay leaves
- a bunch of fresh thyme, leaves removed (at least 3 Tbsp)
- salt and fresh pepper to taste
- a splash of heavy cream
- fresh Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1 box whole grain spaghetti
- Cover the bottom of a heavy pot with olive oil and saute the onion, carrots, pepper and garlic for 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. This is an important step towards developing the special flavors of the sauce, so don't skip it. Add more oil if the vegetables start to stick.
- Add in the ground meats and cook until they are browned. While it is browning, break up the meat well, so there are no large chunks. Then add in the wine, tomatoes and water along with the bay leaves and the fresh thyme leaves. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Season with salt and pepper.
- Cover and simmer for about 2 hours on a low heat. Add the splash of cream at the end, remove the bay leaves, and check the seasoning.
- Cook the whole grain pasta to an al dente stage and drain. Add in a little of the sauce to separate the pasta strands, and then heap into big pasta bowls and top with lots of sauce. Garnish with some fresh cheese.
- If you have the time, by all means cook this sauce, covered, for up to 3 hours on a low heat.
- This sauce gets better with age, so it makes wonderful leftovers.