Flavour Enhanced Ragu Bolognese
If there is one dish from Italy that has become a mainstay in home kitchens all over the world thanks to Italian immigration it is ragu bolognese; better known outside Bologna as spaghetti Bolognese. Although Italians, Northerners in particular, would use tagliatelle and not spaghetti, I’m guessing the combination of spaghetti and a meat sauce arose out of our lack of pasta diversity back in the 1950’s. I have always loved the classic approach to this dish and use Marcella Hazan’s recipe from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking but over time I have added my own touch, specifically mixing in the chopped fresh tomatoes towards the end of cooking to retain a bright, fresh tomato flavour and using pork ribs as the meat (see my pork rib ragu). While the basis of a classic ragu is hand chopped pork and beef/ veal in a tomato sauce, people have been messing about with this dish for sometime. Even back in 1891 the great Artusi published a version with dried mushrooms, sliced truffle and a glass of cream. It is not surprising that Heston Blumenthal has also toyed with the recipe, applying his scientific approach to cooking and adding some pretty unusual things to his version of a ragu.
Heston takes cooking right to the edge when it comes to extracting flavour and while I am sometimes a little unpersuaded with his ideas I did very much like one flavour enhancer he had for spaghetti Bolognese. In addition to the sofritto (sauteed onion, carrot and celery) used as the aromatic vegetable base of the sauce, he caramelised some onion in a separate pan with star anise and after removing the star anise added the infused onion back to the sauce. I tried it and it was wonderful. It did not impart an obvious anise flavour but it certainly added an intriguing, warm, sweetness to the sauce that I really liked. I recommend it if you want a secrete wow factor for your ragu. I omitted all the extra, weird sauces he used at the end apart from a couple of teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce (pepper sauce) which in the scheme of things probably didn’t add that much to the flavour profile. He cooks the meat in milk and white wine, which is the classic approach but rather than adding the milk and wine separately and waiting for each liquid to cook down, he bunged both in at once and stewed away for a merry six hours! I did four hours and it was pretty dam good. And of course, I added my freshly chopped tomatoes last without using yet another saucepan and cooking them separately as Heston did; after all he has a plongeur or two in his kitchen.