Sauce of the Italian 'Nonna' is a savory blend of ingredients
Bolognese is one of the great master sauces of Italy, the namesake sauce of the Bologna region, the part of Italy famous for its use of rich meat sauces, cream and butter in addition to olive oil.
This sauce can be as simple as a ground beef with tomato "ragu" or as multi-layered as this version, whose ingredient list clearly supports the supposition that "more is more," as we have two kinds of meat, a long-cooked vegetable base, wine, herbs, cream and lots of grated parmesan.
Traditionally, this sauce is comprised entirely of scraps and leftovers - a few vegetables, a bit of wine, a glass of milk, a bit of ground whatever-you-have-lying around, such as pancetta, pork, guanciale . . . what scraps! Even the debris hanging around the Italian rustic kitchen floors me.
As I doubt anyone will have guanciale (cured hog jowl) lying around the kitchen just waiting to be put to good use, we'll all just have to pretend and use a bit of what we might have in our larders: ground venison, elk or beef . . . and bacon.
I'm partial to elk because I became engaged to my husband over a special dinner of elk steaks au poivre (seared, with a peppercorn crust). But also, the meat is impressive for its mild, rich flavor. To me, it tastes less woodsy and wild than local venison, although it has the same dark character and lack of excess fat.
If packages of frozen game constantly challenge your creativity as a cook (what to do with all of that ground venison?), check out the bolognese. In the spirit of the thing, feel free to adjust the meat quantities in the recipe to include your kitchen extras, though I would maintain the basic ratios of meat to vegetable to wine to dairy.
Although it's great when made with ground beef, it actually improves when made with the darker, more interesting meats. I've used venison, beef, lamb and now elk, and I wouldn't hesitate to add chicken livers or gizzards, either. Under the influence of the sweet vegetables, the wine and the pacifying affect of the milk, all meats--even wild ones--mellow out considerably.
This is Nonna cooking, or the food of the Italian grandmother: slow-paced, with lots of stirring and plenty of taste-testing. Because it takes awhile, I see little point in making a small batch. This recipe makes enough to coat two pounds of pasta, or to feed eight. If you don't have the eaters for such a batch, simply divide the sauce in half and freeze some for later use. It's also makes a wonderful filling for lasagne.
3 and one-half ounces bacon (3 thick-cut slices), finely diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 extra-large sweet Vidalia onion, finely diced
3 carrots, peeled and finely diced
3 celery stalks, finely diced
1 teaspoon salt, divided
30 turns freshly ground black pepper (about 1 teaspoon)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 and one-half pounds ground elk
Two-thirds cup red wine
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary (2 sprigs)
One-fourth ounce dried porcini (or morel) mushrooms
2 dried bay leaves
2 cups low-sodium (or homemade) chicken stock
1 cup whole milk
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 pounds pasta, such as pappardelle, penne or rigatoni
Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Set aside to steep and soften. When cool, chop the mushrooms and reserve the liquid.
Heat a large, high-sided sauté pan over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook until it shrinks a bit, but not until crisp. Add the olive oil, butter and chopped onions, carrots and celery. Season with ½ teaspoon of the salt and 15 turns of ground pepper (about ½ teaspoon). Cook, stirring often, until very soft and tender, and beginning to brown just a bit, about 25 minutes. The slow, thorough cooking of the vegetables at this stage adds immensely to the flavor of the final sauce.
Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook another minute. Add the ground elk and cook, breaking up the chunks with a wooden spoon. When cooked you may want to spoon out any excess fat, if there is any.
Add the wine and bring to a boil. Simmer for 3 minutes to reduce slightly. Add the rosemary, porcini, bay leaves and chicken stock and bring to a bare simmer. Add the porcini soaking liquid, holding back any grit at the bottom of the bowl as you pour.
Cook slowly, continuing to stir and break the meat into fine chunks, until the stock has reduced to cling to the meat, about one hour. Add the milk and simmer until you have a sauce which, when stirred, reveals the bottom of the pan for just a second. You want it to cling to the pasta, but still, to be saucy. It should take a total of about 2 hours of cooking.
Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water. Drain thoroughly.
Add three-fourths cup of the grated parmesan to the Bolognese. Add the cooked pasta and toss to coat. Serve with the remaining grated parmesan.