Bolognese di Casa Mia
Bolognese sauce is one of those classic Italian dishes. Italians like Lidia Bastonovich, Marcella Hazan, Mario Batali, Giorgio Locatelli, and David Rocco, all share their own recipes, probably a version of what came out of their own mothers kitchens. We all have our versions tweaked over the years to suit our own tastes and satisfy our souls. There’s no denying that the creation of a good, full-bodied bolognese takes time, because it does. It’s a real labour of love.
If you were to ask your Italian nonna or your next door neighbour for their recipe you would have as many secret recipes in your arsenal as there are Italians. Each is a bit different depending on the authors personal taste, but, one thing they all have in common to create the Holy Grail of sauces are sofrito (the trinity of finely diced carrots, celery and onions), perhaps wine, and very little tomato. A sauce heavy on tomato is a false rendition as a true Bolognese is a meaty well-executed marriage of flavours and like an Italian lasagna has many layers that make the whole.
While the dish has been a staple for millions of diners around the world for decades, I have read that Italians claim the original recipe has become so corrupted it is in urgent need of a culinary intervention. There is even a recipe that conforms to a recipe set down in 1982 by the chamber of commerce in Bologna, the home of bolognese sauce, as seen here on A Canadian Foodie. In my humble opinion there is no right way or wrong way as long as you stay true to the essence of a true Bolognese. Tweak tradition and add your own thumb print I always say.
In Lidia Bastianich's cookbook, Lidia's Family Table, she explains bolognese is a traditional Sunday staple in Italy. There are two distinct versions, one with milk, referred to as 'antica', and one without, called 'tradizionale'. I was intrigued by the antica preparation, where the milk solids help break down the meat, allowing it to have a smoother, creamier texture. The flavour and texture it adds to this sauce are so rich and complex that it is worth every minute of preparation and cooking time for a well-developed and satisfying sauce. My version today is a combination of recipes and of course my own intuition in the "antico" style and inspired by my trip to La Fabricca della pasta di Gragnano.
The kitchen cupboards of this "wannabe" Italian are always overflowing with pasta of every shape and description. I swear that as I wander the aisles of our local Italian grocers I am hypnotized, "What is one more?" One of the latest additions to their pasta family are from Gragnano which is famous for it's pastas in Italy. These pasta companies have produced pasta for generations in time-honoured tradition so a chance to visit their factory in Gragnano this past fall was a dream come true for someone so star struck. There were once over 300 pasta factories in the area which has now been reduced to approximately 12 at last count, a mere shadow of the past. The city of Gragnano has always been well known for its production of prestigious pasta, sparkling wine and its delicious "Monk Provolone."
Alongside large manufacturers like De Cicco and Barilla there are smaller artisanal and organic companies like La Fabricca della Pasta di Gragnano owned by the Moccia family(Mr Ciro and
After a half hour winding up through the enchanting scenery of the Valley of the Mills where the forests and cultivated terraces were blanketed by an ethereal early morning mist and hot pink cyclamens dotted the landscape we found ourselves in the industrial town of Gragnano east of Naples where the pasta factories were lined up like soldiers along Via Roma, also called Corso Sancio, the ancient boulevard. These grey sentinels made of tufo stones in the liberty style have been the home of artisan pasta makers who have been producing high quality pasta for as long as 500 years.
To be born and grow up in Gragnano located on the eastern side of the Bay of Naples under the shadow of a volcano means to be surrounded by history, culture, family traditions and the exalting taste and scent of durum semolina. The fertile valley of Vesuvius, with its volcanic soil, was ideal for growing durum wheat. On the banks of a river this region is abundant with natural springs that provide power to the mills for grinding durum wheat into semolina flour allowing the area to produce large quantities of pasta. The city of Gragnano boasts that its pasta has been renowned for its quality for centuries. This is mainly due to the local pure spring water, durum wheat, and traditional production methods( including extrusion of the pasta dough through bronze dies). When all of these conditions align outstanding pasta is made. Pasta makers in Gragnano once draped great strands of spaghetti from rods along the city's wide main street lying perpendicular to the Sorrento Coast to take advantage of the constant sea breezes, so the pasta could dry slowly and naturally in the warm sunshine.
To make the pasta the dough is extruded through the die (trafila in Italian) to obtain the desired size and shape. Dies are made of teflon or bronze. Standard pasta that is teflon drawn is quite smooth and yellow. High quality pasta from this factory is bronze drawn (trafilata al bronzo) and has a lovely powdery surface. The bronze extruder makes the surface of the pasta more porous so that sauce clings to the uneven surface. Pasta di Gragnano is chewier, nuttier and more roughly textured than most supermarket brands which is necessary to catch and hold pasta sauce after cooking. I like the bite of dried pasta cooked al dente, something you cannot achieve with fresh, homemade pasta.
Another important difference lies in the drying time. In the artisan method the pasta is dried in slow ovens for days and in the case of very large pasta shapes like caccavella (below) up to a week or more. This ensures the pasta is more toothsome and gives it a lovely chew. Dried pasta has long been a staple of Southern Italy, but, it is a fairly new addition to the northern Italian diet. Northern regions like Tuscany, Lombardy and the Veneto have always relied on bread, polenta and rice for their starches, with fresh egg pasta made on Sundays and holidays. As Southern Italians moved north to find jobs in factories with the Industrial Revolution and after WWII they brought their favourite food staple of dried semolina based pasta with them and it began to be sold to the homes of northern Italians as well.
In a very special prearranged tour we donned hair nets and lab coats, and were able to experience the various stages of the production of artisanal pasta, observing firsthand how even today, it is produced in accordance with the tastes and knowledge of the past. We were lucky enough to taste the local ice cold spring water that is a key ingredient in the pasta production. After the tour we moved into their special showroom where we enjoyed a steaming earthenware vessel of caccavella with bolognese sauce prepared by chef
Italians are known for taking ‘simple’ dishes and basic ingredients to the height of perfection. a sparkling red wine from the town of the same name with notes of red berry fruits and a slight fizz.
Although it does not play a key role, and is not a usual ingredient in a classic bolognese, I couldn't help adding some Porcini mushrooms which Italians affectionately call "the piglet." The meat-like texture of Porcini, with its earthy and somewhat nutty flavour is unequaled among mushrooms and lends itself to countless dishes. Italy is probably the world's biggest market for porcini. Every grown-up full-blooded Italian eats porcini at least three times a week from August to December when the forest floor offers a delightful feast for the eyes and the nose.
Dried porcini are featured in this dish which have a concentrated flavour and mushroom aroma that is excellent in risotto, soups, and amazing sauces like this one. Their addition is "a celebration of the tastebuds." To prepare dried Porcini steep them in enough boiling water to cover until they are reconstituted. After draining the Porcini mince them, but, keep the steeping liquid. This liquid adds even more concentrated Porcini flavour to the recipe, just make sure you strain it first. When buying dried Porcini look them over carefully. A strong mushroom aroma should greet you once open the package, if the mushrooms have no fragrance, then they have no flavour either.
Some things in life are worth waiting for, and a good sauce is one of them (at least for me anyway). And no surprise then, this is one of those sauces worth its weight in gold! It’s an amazingly rich, beautiful, robust sauce. Create your own in 2013.
Boil some water in a kettle. Place porcini mushrooms in a bowl and pour enough water to cover and allow to soak for 20 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water with a spoon and roughly chop. Strain the mushroom liquid through a strainer so as not to add the sediment to your sauce. Place the mushroom water aside for use in the recipe.
In a food processor, process bacon or pancetta and garlic into a smooth paste. Heat olive oil over medium heat and add this paste. Break apart and allow to cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until fat is rendered and paste begins to brown slightly. Add the porcinis, onion, celery, and carrots; stirring to combine. Toss in the thyme, oregano, and bay leaves. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables are very tender but not browned.
Push the vegetable sofrito over to one side. Raise the heat a bit and add the ground pork and beef in small batches; brown until the meat is no longer pink, breaking up the clumps with a wooden spoon and adding more meat as each batch browns. Add the milk and simmer until the liquid is evaporated, about 10 minutes. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and wine mixed with the porcini mushroom liquid to be equal to 2 cups; season with salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat and cover. Slowly simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring now and then, until the sauce is very thick. Taste again for salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves.
When you are ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm (as they say in Italian "al dente.") Drain the pasta well and toss with the Bolognese sauce. Shower with basil and pass grated cheese around the table.
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