Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Friday, May 8, 2009

RECIPE: Bolognese alla Regina, a.k.a. The Queen's Bolognese

Real Bolognese comes from the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the city of Bologna, but in Reggio Emilia, also located in Emilia-Romagna, we make a pretty wicked Bolognese ourselves. I'm not claiming my recipe is THE recipe of Reggio-Emilia, but it's the recipe I've been making for years—a bit lighter than the traditional, but way more flavorful and rich than most of what you find in the States. It's Bolognese alla Regina, which is me, and funnily enough, Regina means 'queen' in Italian. So that makes my Bolognese, "The Queen's Bolognese." And if I do say so myself, it's fit for even a real queen.

Olive Oil (for the pan)
8-16 oz (1-2 cups) Chicken Stock (home-made is best, by far)
2 oz Pancetta, very finely diced
2 large yellow onions, very finely diced
1 small carrot, peeled and grated (box grater or food processor)
1 lb lean ground beef
1 lb ground pork (you can use all beef or all pork, just use 2 lb)
Double-concentrated Tomato Paste (preferably imported Italian)
1-2 Rinds of real Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese
4-8 oz (1/2-1 cup) Whole Milk, room temperature
Coarse Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Unsalted Butter, cold

In a heavy stock pot, bring the 16 oz of chicken stock just to a boil. Pour half of the stock into a small pot (your reserve), and leave both on the burners, set to low. While you're waiting for the stock to boil, do your mise en place (French for: dice all the ingredients so they're ready to go).

In a large, heavy sauté pan, on med-high heat, add just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the Pancetta and cook until the fat has been rendered and the Pancetta is browned. Remove the Pancetta from the pan with a slotted spoon and add it to the chicken stock in the large stock pot. You want the fat from the Pancetta to stay in the pan for the next steps.

Add the chopped onions to the pan and sauté over high, med-high heat. Sprinkle a bit of salt on the onions as this will help them to release water. Sauté, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until the onions are soft, translucent and golden brown. It's important to brown the onions, but to keep the bottom of your pan from blackening. You want to build a flavorful fond in the pan, so avoid burning anything.

When the onions are done, remove them from the pan and put them in the stock pot with the cooked Pancetta.

Maintaining med-high to high heat, add fresh olive oil to the pan if needed, then add the grated carrot to the pan. Lightly salt the carrots (again to release the water as well as for flavor), and sauté, stirring, until the carrots are soft and golden brown. Remove carrots and add them to the onions and Pancetta.

Add more olive oil, as needed, then sauté the ground pork in the same pan over medium heat, lightly salting the pork. Don't crowd your pan with meat though, sauté it in small batches if your pan isn't a big one. If you crowd any pan with any kind of meat, it won't brown properly because too much water will be released at once. Cook the pork until it is browned, and make sure you don't end up with large chunks of meat, you want the meat to break down into small, uniform bits.

When the pork is browned, add it to the stock pot. Add oil to the sauté pan as needed, and repeat this process for the ground beef, again being careful not to burn the bottom of the pan.

When the beef is done and into your stock pot, add 2 tablespoons (roughly) of tomato paste straight into your hot sauté pan and cook it on medium heat for about a minute. Then add enough chicken stock from your reserve to the sauté pan to cover the bottom, turn the heat up to high, and using a heat-proof spatula (I prefer a wood spatula), scrape all of the fond off the bottom of the pan until it's incorporated with the tomato paste and stock. Pour this liquid into your stock pot.

Add about 4oz of whole milk to the stock pot and stir to incorporate. Then add the rinds of Reggiano-Parmiggiano cheese. If necessary, add more chicken stock to the Bolognese so it's more soupy than saucy.

At this point, your Bolognese will simmer away on low heat for as many hours as you like, but for a minimum of two hours to really reduce the liquids and concentrate the flavors. During simmering, the carrots, onions and Pancetta should slowly melt away and become one with the sauce. As needed, continue to add warm chicken stock and room-temperature whole milk. There's no need to constantly stir the pot, so most of this simmering time is not active. Just stir it occasionally and keep your eye on the heat level (the sauce should maintain a low simmer, not a boil, so it reduces very slowly).

When I make my Bolognese, I usually start it after work and simmer it all night (of course, using some of it for my dinner that night too). I often leave the pot on the stove overnight, covered but not heated, and continue simmering it even longer the following morning. There's no need to refrigerate it for this one night, it won't go bad! Thing is, with a Bolognese, the longer it simmers the richer the flavor, but I don't always have time to accomplish this in one night, hence why I leave it out overnight and continue simmering and adding stock / milk for a couple extra hours the next day.

When the Bolognese has simmered for the desired amount of time, taste it to check for salt. I don't add salt during simmering because as the liquid evaporates and the flavors concentrate, the salt used to sauté the vegetables and meats gets concentrated and you can easily end up with too salty a Bolognese. For this reason I add my salt, to taste, at the end of the simmering process so I get the perfect amount. Same goes for the fresh ground black pepper.

At this point, you may be wondering where the butter comes into the picture. Well, the butter comes in at the point when you're going to use the sauce with your pasta. My Bolognese has about 14 grams (1 tbsp) of butter per person, stirred straight into the sauce just before serving.

Bolognese keeps well in the refrigerator (in an air-tight container) for up to a week, and it can freeze for up to 2 months (in a heavy-duty, freezer-safe container). Defrost it in your fridge overnight. Reheat it just to a boil before allowing it to simmer.

Besides just using Bolognese as a sauce (perfect for Pappardelle), you can also use The Queen's Bolognese for Lasagna, or on toasted Ciabatta with Mozzarella melted on top in a broiler, one of my quickie lunch favorites. One thing is for sure, whatever you use Bolognese for, it's always nice to have some in the freezer or fridge for a more than satisfying meal in minutes.

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