Pasta Bolognese

Pasta BologneseFive afternoons a week, I walk to an apartment building on the western edge of Brooklyn Heights and make dinner for a family of four. When I took this job last April, I didn’t know what to expect. The family has fourteen year-old twin boys and while they have pretty adventurous palates, they are still children. I knew I wasn’t going to be making anything terribly avant garde for them, but I certainly didn’t want to cook boring food–anything but that.

Luckily the boys let me kind of do my thing, occasionally asking for something specific, but otherwise just letting me make what I want. In the last ten months, they’ve become particularly fond of my spicy turkey tacos, chicken nuggets, and the Asian-style chicken wings from Foodie with Family (make those for the Super Bowl!). Their favorite dinner though, is my Pasta Bolognese. The twins ask for it nearly every week. If I have the time and/or am feeling particularly kind that day, I oblige.

Pasta BologneseYou see, Pasta Bolognese is no small undertaking. It takes a minimum of three hours start-to-finish, and there are many steps. But the resulting sauce is so delicious–meaty, rich, and comforting–that it’s worth the effort. If it weren’t, I’d skip the whole process and just brown some meat and toss it with a jar of marinara.

Y’all, if you’ve never made Bolognese from scratch, you might be missing out. Sure, there are a lot of steps to the recipe, but all of them are really easy. And seriously, homemade sauce beats the pants off anything you can buy in a store.

Pasta BologneseMy Bolognese is not quite traditional, but it’s damn good. The sauce starts with browning a pound each of ground beef and sweet Italian sausage. You don’t just want it cooked through. This is the base flavor for the sauce–get the meat brown.

Next up, more browning. Like my Lamb Ragù, browning everything is really important here. Take ten ounces of mushrooms and pulverize them in the food processor before browning them. Mushrooms are not traditional in Bolognese, but I love using them here for two reasons:

  1. Their meaty umami flavor means that we can use them in place of some of the traditional ground beef. Even if you have an anti-mushroom contingent in your family, they’ll still like this sauce. The twins would flip their lids if they knew my “secret” ingredient, but they are blissfully unaware and have been eating their least favorite vegetable for nearly a year. This brings me to my next point…
  2. The mushrooms add a little nutrition to a very rich dish. Where many Bolognese recipes are almost too heavy to enjoy, this one is a bit lighter than normal. Rest assured, all the flavor is there. I’ve just given you a reason to have seconds. You’re welcome.

Watch the mushrooms carefully during the browning process. They are in teeny tiny pieces and burn without warning. I’ve burned them twice in the last six months, and there is very little worse than having to stop mid-recipe to clean the pot and go buy more ingredients. Trust me.

Pasta BologneseOnce your mushrooms are done, brown a mixture of carrots, celery, onion, and garlic. Add the mushrooms and sausage back to the pot before stirring in a veritable ton of tomato paste. Let that start to caramelize before adding bay leaves, thyme, red pepper flakes, balsamic vinegar, beef stock, and water. Bring it all to a boil before simmering for about two hours.

At this point, you can rest a bit. The major work is done, and all that’s left to do is stir the sauce occasionally and add some water. Do the dishes, watch some bad TV, drink some coffee–do whatever you want, as long as you can go check on the sauce every now and again. Once the Bolognese is thick and beautiful, toss half of it with a pound of cooked spaghetti and top it with some Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

Pasta BologneseOh, y’all. Look at that. It’s the stuff my dreams are made of. This Pasta Bolognese is seriously delicious, and just as good for any day as it is for a dinner party. This rich, meaty meal is a great recipe to make on the weekend–nobody will have an issue eating the leftover sauce! In fact, the flavor just gets better as it sits. Love that.Pasta Bolognese

Pasta Bolognese
makes 8 servings

Bolognese:
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound ground beef
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
10 ounces white button mushrooms
4 medium carrots, cleaned
4 stalks celery
1 large white onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 12-ounce can tomato paste
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
pinch of crushed red pepper flake (optional)
4 cups low sodium beef stock
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
6 cups water, divided

For Assembly:
water, for pasta
salt, for pasta
1 pound dried spaghetti
Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add ground beef and sausage and break it up with a wooden spoon. Brown meat, continuing to break it up as necessary, for 15-20 minutes, until deeply browned. Transfer meat to a large bowl, reserving fat in the pot. Reduce heat to medium.

Wipe mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel. Place them in a food processor and pulse 15 times, or until pulverized. If there are less than 2 tablespoons of fat in the pot, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add mushrooms to pot and cook, stirring frequently, until brown (about 15 minutes). Remove mushrooms to the bowl with the meat.

Add carrots, celery, onion, and garlic to the bowl of the food processor and process until pulverized (but not soupy). Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pot and bring the heat back up to medium-high. Add vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until browned (about 20 minutes). 

Add meat and mushrooms back to the pot. Stir in tomato paste. Cook mixture, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste starts to darken. Add bay leaves, thyme, optional red pepper flake. Pour in beef stock, balsamic vinegar, and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil before reducing heat to medium-low. Allow sauce to simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When liquid reduces by half, add 4 cups water and continue to simmer until time is up. Remove sauce from heat. Remove bay leaves and dispose of them. Taste the sauce and adjust the salt to your liking.

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Before draining it, reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Return drained pasta back to its cooking pot. Add about half the Bolognese, tossing everything together with tongs. Add pasta cooking water in small increments until the sauce coats the pasta to your liking.

Serve Pasta Bolognese in shallow bowls. Top with grated Parmagiano Reggiano and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Sauce will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days. It may also be frozen for up to two months.

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