I travelled to Italy a few years ago. I had an opportunity to sing Violetta in La Traviata, a dream role if there ever was one. I stayed and sang in a quiet charming town called Fidenza; it is a town of about 24,000 people in the province of Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region is Bologna, from which Ragu alla Bolognese gets its name (Ragu in the style of Bologna).
I lived there for 8 weeks, and in those 8 weeks I had some of the most incredible food of my life. For dinner once before an evening performance, my cast mates and I went to a little restaurant for food. The chef, literally a little old Italian grandma, told us she was preparing for dinner but had nothing for us yet except pizza and wine, but she was making some fresh pasta for a lasagna alla Bolognese. We asked if she minded if we sat at one of her tables outside to wait. We ordered wine and chatted. I think in about an hour she brought out the lasagna. I had one bite and almost cried. The noodles were unlike anything I had ever tasted; buttery almost in texture and taste, the meat sauce was so rich and full of layers of flavor, and the creamy cheesy béchamel sauce smothering the whole thing was like a dream.
Since that life-changing experience, I have learned how to make fresh pasta and how to make a béchamel sauce from cooking classes and online recipes. The ragu, however, took a lot of tinkering to get it to be as close as possible to that little Italian lady’s version. Lots of recipes call for veal in the ragu, but veal is expensive, possibly cruel, and I don’t find it very flavorful. In doing a lot of reading, I learned that a large reason veal is used is due to its high content of gelatin, which thickens the ragu and gives it a silky texture. The solution? Skip the veal and add unflavored gelatin.
The other four items that I added via tinkering were bacon, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce and fennel seeds. The fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce add layers of flavor- that so-called umami savory taste. The fennel seeds complement the pork meat very nicely and I use them in such a small amount it is really a background flavor. I do not use a lot of bacon, but I really like the very subtle smokiness and saltiness that the 2 strips I use provide. I am sure none of these ingredients are traditional, but they bring me as close as I can get to that memory of that delicious lasagna.
Ragu alla Bolognese is very traditionally served with Tagliatelle pasta or Pappardelle. This thick sauce needs thick noodles to stand up to it. This recipe makes 2 quarts of the rage; serve some with your Tagliatelle and save the rest to make into a lasagna. Believe me, this meat sauce is well-worth the long wait!
Ingredients for the sauce:
1 tablespoon gelatin
2 cups of homemade or store-bought (low-sodium) chicken stock
3 tablespoons of butter
2 strips of bacon, diced
2 large carrots, diced
3 celery ribs, diced
1 large white onion, diced
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1.5 lbs of ground pork
1.5 lbs of ground beef
6 ounces of tomato paste
2 cups of white wine
1/2 cup tomato passata
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
freshly cracked black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
In a large bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the chicken stock. Set aside. In a large dutch oven with high sides, add the diced bacon and butter. Cook on medium high heat until the foam from the butter subsides and the bacon has begun to crisp. Add the celery, carrot, and onion (the soffritto) to the dutch oven and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the minced garlic, fennel seeds, freshly cracked black pepper, a pinch of salt and dried oregano, and cook another 30 to 60 seconds, until fragrant.
Add the beef and pork, breaking it up as you cook it. Cook it until no longer pink, and some of the meat has begun to get well browned and crisped, about 15 minutes. Add the tomato paste, and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, allowing the sugars of the tomato paste to caramelize on the bottom of the pan. Add the wine to deglaze the fond from the pan, and cook until the alcohol is reduced, about five minutes. Add the tomato passata, the bay leaves, the nutmeg, the fish sauce, the Worcestershire sauce and the stock with the gelatin and mix together well. Bring to a simmer and reduce the heat.
Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened and almost no liquid remains, about 2 hours. Stir in the heavy cream and season with salt.
For the Tagliatelle:
2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the counter
8 egg yolks
On a clean work surface, place your flour in a mound. Make a large well in the center of the mound. Add your eggs and egg yolks. With a fork, beat them thoroughly. Then, slowly add the flour into the beaten eggs until a wet sticky dough has been formed.
Knead your dough until it feels smooth and elastic. Add more flour if the dough is too wet, or small dribbles of water if the dough is too dry. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and rest it on the counter for 30 minutes.
Divide your dough into quarters. Rewrap the dough that you are not using while you work with the quarter portion. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pasta dough with a rolling pin to a thickness of about 1/2 or 1/3 inch thick.
With your pasta roller set to its widest setting, pass the dough though. Fold into thirds, and pass it through twice more, folding it into thirds each time. Narrow the roller setting by 1 and repeat the process. Continue reducing the thickness of the roller setting until you reach your desired thickness.
Cut the pasta sheets into strips with a pizza roller and dust with flour to prevent sticking. For Pappardelle, cut into very wide strips.
To cook: Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add your pasta and cook for about 2 minutes, until al dente. Toss with your ragu, garnish with parsley and parmesan cheese, and enjoy with a buttered roll and a green salad- don’t forget the wine!