Halloween is over, which means it is almost Christmas (big jump, right?), which means winter is coming, which means it is time for cold weather foods! I cheated this year and got a head start a week ago with a kick ass beef stew (no frills, but plenty of flavor, with big chunks of carrots and potatoes and a bit of red wine to round out the flavors). Today, since I am not at work because of a badly aching sprained wrist, I decided to cook up something yummy and comforting. But, of course, because of my sprained wrist, I can’t do any real chopping. Hmm…
October’s Cook’s Illustrated was all about Italian foods done right, with recipes for meatballs and veal scaloppini and lots of other goodies, but the bolognese stood out to me because I’ve never actually made a bolognese from scratch and I love it. It is right up there with meatballs on my list of favorite Italian comfort foods. Since making it at home is such an involved process, I’ve never bothered, but today I had plenty of time and almost all of the ingredients that a traditional bolognese calls for, so I went with it. I looked at a bunch of other bolognese recipes too, because I figured there’s gotta be more than one way to skin a cat right? Right.
This is what the sauce will look like an hour and a half in. Looks pretty good, right?
The recipe I ended up going with is actually an amalgamation of a bunch of different recipes and it is incredibly easy, involving very little hands on time, just a lot of slow simmering and reducing. The ingredients are pretty much all things any well-stocked cook has on hand. And most importantly for me, this recipe involved no chopping. I started by browning three strips of thick cut bacon and then dicing them when they were cooked through but still soft. I saved the fat and browned some diced onions and garlic in it (onions done with the mandoline and garlic done with the press, which I know is really bad and blah blah blah, but whatever.) Almost every recipe I looked at called for a mirepoix (onions, celery, and carrots) but all I had was the onions. It still tastes amazing but I bet the sweetness from the carrots would be great too. I ended up adding a little olive oil because I had a lot of onions. Then I added a pound of ground beef (many recipes call for some combo of meats, but I had ground beef so I went with ground beef) and the diced bacon, and cooked the beef until it was just brown. Then I simmered the meat in milk and then in red wine (most recipes called for a dry white wine, but substituting the dry red worked fine) and finally I added some diced tomatoes and let it go on the lowest heat for about 3.5 hours. Which is a very very long time, but oh so worth it.
The sauce is all about the meat. Some recipes called for herbs but most didn’t and I omitted them, even though I had some rosemary and thyme on hand. I am glad I did because the beefy flavor really stands out. This sauce is rich and delicious and I could probably (definitely) eat it with a spoon, but I decided that would be kind of ridiculous so I cooked up some penne and grated some parmesan cheese over it and it was amazing. You should try it: for very little effort, you can have a meat sauce that is super flavorful and very impressive, certainly impressive enough to serve to friends or family. In fact, with a little garlic bread and a nice salad, this would be a fantastic meal for a dinner party. Mmmmm… garlic bread…
Recipe: Penne Bolognese
3 strips thick cut bacon
2 medium onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 lb ground beef (or you can use any mixture of beef, pork, and veal as you see fit)
1 cup milk
1 cup red wine
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes and their juices
olive oil, as needed
salt & pepper, to taste
1 box penne (or other pasta), cooked according to package directions
2 tbsp butter
freshly grated parmesan cheese, for serving
Preheat a heavy thick bottomed skillet or dutch oven over medium heat. Cook the bacon until it is cooked through but still fairly soft. Remove the bacon from the pan but keep the fat. Dice the bacon.
Add the onions and garlic to the bacon grease and cook them up until they are soft and just starting to get brown, maybe 6 minutes. You may need to add some olive oil here if you don’t have too much bacon grease in the pan; I added about a tablespoon.
Add in the ground beef and the diced bacon. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until the meat browns, breaking it up into small clumps, for 5-10 minutes.
Add the milk and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer until all the milk is evaporated, 10-15 minutes. The milk will give the meat lots of sweetness and will keep it from getting tough.
Next, add the wine and again, simmer until it is evaporated, 10-15 minutes.
Finally, add the diced tomatoes and their juices and bring the mixture to a simmer. When it begins to simmer, turn the heat down as low as it will go, so it is barely at a simmer (with a couple of bubbles coming up occasionally) and cook for 3-4 hours, until the liquid is almost fully evaporated and the mixture is wonderfully saucy. Season again with salt and pepper.
Add the butter to the cooked pasta and then mix it up with the meat sauce. (The butter will help the sauce adhere better, and lets face it, you’re not really counting calories when you’re making a rich sauce like this, right?)
Serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Yum!