Sunday, 19 October 2014

The magnificent bolognese

This is the opposite of Spontaneous Pasta, my quickety-quick don't-even-cook-the-tomato-just-warm-it ten-minute-from-start-to-finish dish. You are going to sloooooow cook this baby.
You're going to pick a day when you're home anyway and feel mellow and relaxed and quietly interested in the world. Hey, put it on at lunchtime if you fancy.
It wants a long, slow, luxurious cook that does something secret and crazy to the flavour of the tomatoes, turns the meat oh-so oh-so rich, and reduces all that wine to mouth-filling glut of flavour. Once it's on, you won't be cooking, just keeping an eye on it every so often, adjusting the heat to get the perfect magical simmer point, and gloating over it. Because it's such a lazy long cook, I tend to make vats of the stuff. Also, it forms the basis of anything you want it to be - the best ever spag bol on the day you made it, a cottage pie with some mashed potato on top, a chilli con carne with a few well-chosen additions (which in turn becomes the filling for a fajita when you have leftovers), a lasagne (which is not such a schlepp if the bolognese is already made), even a cheeky quick-and-dirty Balti keema. How much you make depends on your freezer space, but I'd give this a bit of freezer priority cos it's so slow, so good, and can become so much. (Recipe summary at the end)

 All the ingredients for the magic bolognese. This makes masses (it would serve 12 at least) so if you want to make less or don't have a big enough pot, just divide by two, or three.
I'm listing exact quantities here, but bolognese is very forgiving of give-and-take.
Black pepper
1 head of garlic (10 cloves, more or less)
2 large onions
1.25 kg mince
3 large carrots (I decided against the 4th)
4 x cans / boxes chopped tomato
1 bottle of red wine
1 bunch of woody herbs (see next pic)
1 kg mushrooms

You'll also need a pot that can hold at LEAST 3 litres - preferably bigger, so you're not too crammed while you're cooking. If you don't have such a big pot, you can use two smaller pots or halve the quantities.

Fresh woody herbs -  eg thyme, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage (careful with sage, it's strong) tied up in a Megan-makeshift bouquet garni. (Aka, string.)

My standard I'm-ready-to-cook layout: surfaces clear and clean (makes me calm & happy), board and lovely knife, and a bowl for peelings.

I keep stray heads and cloves of garlic in a little bowl next to the stove, because I think they're rather beautiful.

10 cloves of garlic (pretty much a whole bulb). Peel these babies quickly with the cheffy garlic trick.

All your peeled cloves. If you have a garlic crusher, that's brilliant, but a good garlic crusher is hard to find. This one's okay - found it in a charity shop, often older ones are better - but needs quite a bit of wrist strength. Crush them into a ramekin to keep your board space nice and open.
If you DON'T have a garlic crusher, then slice the garlic roughly, sprinkle it with salt, and mash it with a fork. The salt helps the fork get a grip.

Remember to use the chef trick for chopping onions -  which, counterintuitively, starts with chopping them in half while their skin's still on.

All the chopped onion! I'm always amazed at how much an onion explodes. It always looks like more than one onion's worth and there's still another to come

Melt the ghee or butter in your biggest pot - plenty of it, about 4 big tablespoons / 100 grams. Medium-hot heat.

Novice tip on COOKING FAT: I often fry in olive oil, but it is a total waste of good oil. Butter is good, but on a high heat it can burn and go brown, which sucks. Ghee is amazing; it's made from clarified butter, so it can go to a very high heat and not burn. It is pure HEAVEN to cook with. You an also use vegetable oil - the smell of sunflower oil makes me feel sick, though, so I never do.

Novice tip on MEDIUM-HOT HEAT: Recipes are vague about stove-top temperatures for good reason: every stove, stove ring, and pot makes it a bit different. So people only really list about 5 heats - lowest, medium-low, medium, medium-high, highest - and the cook adjusts to their own stove / pot.

Grind the pepper into the melting butter / ghee / oil. As much as you like, really. Or until your arm / wrist gives out. Or until it's all melted.

Like most spices, pepper does well with a good fry.

Add the crushed garlic and stir it very rapidly, to shake it all apart from its clumps, and almost immediately...

... add the onion. Turn the heat down now to medium-low.

Novice tip ON FRYING ONION: This is one of the secret magics of being a good cook: take your time with frying onion. Keep it on quite a low heat, and give it at least ten, ideally more like 25, minutes to fry. Stir occasionally. You'll watch the onion first go translucent, then go quite golden, and then go darker still as it caramelises. (I actually had the heat just a bit too high this time round, so my onions only got 15 mins - any more and they would've burnt.)
Because we're being really patient with the onions, that's plenty of time to do a bit more prep, and some cleaning up.

Grate the carrots - no need to peel, and no need to chop the ends off; you can use the ends to hold onto while you grate.

Novice tip: When the grater gets too full, shake the carrot out, and move the grater along so you can carry on.

Wash up as you go along, as always - the garlic press and grater are both easy to wash immediately and a bitch to clean if left.

The mince is often all stuck together, and that's hard to separate once it's in the pan, so I pull it apart beforehand.
Novice tip: Use your hands when you cook - it's so much of the pleasure. Wash them well beforehand and after you handle each ingredient, but just keep using your hands for everything you can.

Also, mince comes with this weird blood-catcher thing, so if you just tip it in the pot, sometimes that falls in!

Washing my hands in overly hot water, about to yelp in pain... (It didn't need to be that hot.)

Check the onions: they're starting to look good, but I have had the heat a bit high. Oops. Turn it down a bit. They still have about 5-10 mins left to go, so I'll carry on getting stuff ready.

Decapitating all the tomato boxes, so they're ready to pour in - cutting the whole top off, I've never understood making a "pourer" when you're putting the whole lot in.

Okay, onions are definitely ready, and a bit crisper than I'd planned. Cooking is an approximate art!

Chucking in the well-separated meat (it's a brighter read in the photo than here), and turning the heat right back up to the highest.

Tossing the meat till it browns - it releases a fair bit of liquid, and the high heat helps that bubble off so the meat is actually browning, not boiling.

Add in the carrot, and give it a good stir. This needs a few minutes to keep frying, so that the carrot releases its carroty smell and flavour; I'll stir it occasionally, but again I have a bit of time on my hands for cleaning up.

Washing the board...

Okay, carrot fragrance is emerging from the pot (I cook as much by smell and hearing as I do by sight) so I can throw in all the chopped tomato...

... and give it a good stir (can you see the beautiful golden colour? That's the carrots that did that.)

And start pouring in wine.

 To the last drop. No left-over wine for chefs, here. Best to use wine you're not jealous of, then.

Oops, my pot is a bit bloody full! Ah well, it'll reduce a bit before I add the mushrooms, should get away with it.

Put your herbs on the sauce.

And gently push them in.

I've moved the pot to a smaller ring so it can simmer gently on a lower heat. 

Novice tip: A simmer is when the surface is just breaking with bubbles, and no more. The exact settings depend on your stove, your pot, whether or not you've left the lid on.

I was running out of time (I'd started it late) so I left the lid off and only simmered it for an hour. Normally, I'd keep the lid on for the first hour (so as not to lose liquid) and then simmer it for a further 30-45 minutes, even another hour, with the lid off.

Kitchen's all tidy, mushrooms at the ready (they're the last ingredient to go in), time for a glass of wine. Kick back.

This is a beautiful starter-simmer. As it keeps cooking, the simmer gets more evenly spread across the whole surface. Achieving the perfect simmer is a wholly Zen experience.

After 1-2 hours, it's time for the mushrooms to go in. I think peeling and washing mushrooms is bollocks. You can just knock off any dirt clinging to them. Also, don't slice them, that can make them slimy in a sauce. Just break them up like this...

Pull the stalk out first (you'll use the stalk, throwing away good stalk is insane)

Crumble the stalk in your fingers; tear the rest of the mushroom into chunks. I'm showing this on the counter, but I usually do it straight into the pot.

Standing by the pot, peacefully tearing mushrooms apart and throwing them in...

I've stirred the mushrooms in, now I'll give them at least half an hour to cook.

Mushrooms looking good, water boiling for pasta. The bolognese will have many different, exciting, and various fates, but tonight, after all that cooking, it'll be straight-up spag bol!

The next day, when the rest of the bolognese has cooled nicely, dish it up into appropriately-sized portions (these ones are 600ml not quite filled up, so 500ml really for 2 people), and label - I use masking tape and a Sharpie - with what it is, how much, and the date. There's a fifth tupperware here, but it got camera shy.  All this bolognese could just be more spag bol for another day, or could be oh-so-much more...! (WATCH THIS SPACE.)

 Recipe summary

·         Makes 12 portions
·         Total time: 3.5–4 hours (Prep: 30m; Active cooking: 30–40m; Simmering time: 1.5–2.5h)


100g / 4 heaped spoons of butter / ghee / oil
Black pepper
10 cloves garlic, peeled & crushed
2 large onions, peeled & chopped medium
1.25 kg mince
3 large carrots, grated
4 cans / boxes of chopped tomatos
1 bottle red wine
1 bundle of woody herbs (eg oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, rosemary)
1 kg mushrooms


Large pot (at least 3 litres, preferably 4+)
Wooden spoon / spatula
Chopping board
Good knife
Garlic crusher (ideally)


  • Garlic & onion: Heat the butter / oil / ghee on medium-hot heat, in the pot. Grind in the pepper. Add garlic, stir briskly; add onion immediately after. Turn down heat, let onion cook gently for about 20 mins, until golden.
  • Meat & carrots: Turn the heat to highest and add the mince, Stir regularly until browned.  Add the carrots, stir in well, and stir regularly until they release their fragrance / you get bored / you finish clearing up the kitchen.
  • Liquid & herbs: Pour in all the chopped tomatos and the bottle of wine; stir well.  Push the bundle of herbs down into the sauce. Bring it to a simmer and leave to simmer.
  • Simmer on a low heat for 1–2 hours. (If 2 hours, keep the lid on for the first hour at least, or 1½ hours.)
  • Mushrooms: tear into chunks and throw into the sauce
  • Simmer for a further 30–45 mins, to cook the mushrooms.

Bolognese becomes…

spaghetti bolognese chilli con carne lasagne tortilla filling cottage pie

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