For my inaugural recipe contribution to Best Blog, I felt the urge to share my lockdown version of this iconic sauce, typically destined for Spaghetti and often called Bolognese. I prefer to call it Ragu because if only you knew how many tries it took me to get the spelling of Bolognese right. This is a recipe that warms the home, from the heart of it, the kitchen. During these housebound times, this is the perfect recipe to explore and make your own, especially as the cold weather starts to creep in and we have a civil duty to spend our Sundays curled up on the sofa as the oven slowly does all the hard work for us.
You will come to learn that my recipes call for more use of common sense than an adherence to the exact recipe. You no like-y the spicy? Leave out the chilli. You don’t eat pancetta, swap it out for some chopped mushrooms for extra umami. You’re feeling bold and beautiful? Why not mix your protein up and use pork, veal & beef mince. The beauty of cooking for yourself is that you are in control of the process and the end result is an expression of self love. Take it slow as though you were on a beautiful coastal drive, listening to your favourite music, heading towards utter deliciousness. This recipe generously serves between 6-8 people and will take no more than 1 hour to prepare and +- 3 hours to complete without much work at all. I highly recommend enjoying it after 24hrs, allowing the flavours of the sauce to truly marry. This rule applies to anything cooked low and slow.
4 tablespoons of olive oil + more if needed
4 garlic cloves, their outer skins removed and left whole
100g diced smoked pancetta
1 whole onion, finely diced
1 large carrot (or 2 mediums), finely diced
1 celery stalk, finely diced
500g Grass Fed Beef Mince (I use Farmer Angus), portioned into lazy naartjie sized meatballs, seasoned generously with salt and fine black pepper
2 heaped teaspoons of tomato paste
+-200ml White wine
400g Tinned Italian chopped tomatoes
2 Bay Leaves
2 tsp Dried Oregano
1/2 tsp Fennel Seed
1 tsp Chilli Flakes
2 tsp Fresh Rosemary, chopped
2 tsp Fresh Thyme, leaves picked off the stalks
Plenty of Black Pepper
(For video footage of this dish being made IRL, head on over to my Instagram highlights)
- Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius
- In an oven proof pot, add the olive oil and gently sweat the garlic cloves with the pancetta. You want to ensure that garlic cooks slowly over low heat and doesn’t take on too much colour, which will make your dish bitter.
- Once the pancetta has rendered out its fat and the two ingredients have taken on a golden hue, add in the diced onion, carrot and celery. This stage is very important and often overlooked. These 5 ingredients are the base of the sauce’s flavour and you want to cook them out slowly, until they are soft and almost jam-like. This could take up to 20 minutes. Continue to stir every now and again, ensuring that nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Once the vegetables have reduced more than half their size, the onions are translucent and your kitchen smells incredible, remove the vegetable base from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
- Turn the heat up slightly & with the residual oil left in the pan, brown the meatballs in batches until a golden crust forms around the outsides but the interior remains uncooked. Be sure to leave about three fingers worth of space between each ball, allowing for excess steam to escape, resulting in really good caramelisation. This step is one of the secrets as to why this sauce is so flavourful! Set the meatballs aside.
- Add the tomato paste to the pot with the herbs and cook these out for 2-3 minutes until fragrant and the tomato paste has taken on a deep red colour. Scrape any bits left on the base of the pot from browning the meatballs, those are maximum flavour enhancers. Add the wine and reduce until the harsh alcohol scent has evaporated. Add the vegetable base & meatballs back to the pot, followed by the tinned tomatoes, stirring to combine. Fill the can up with water to about half way and add that to the pot, this helps remove any remaining tomato juices left behind. Gently break the meatballs apart into the rest of the sauce with a spoon/spatula.
- Turn the heat up, bringing the sauce to a simmer and cover with a lid. Pop the pot into the oven for 2-3 hours, checking in on it every hour or so for a quick stir and taste check. The pancetta lends quite a bit of salt, hence why we haven’t added any extra yet. The golden rule of salt is this; you can always add more, but you can never take some away, so always season with salt little by little, tasing as you go.
- Once the sauce has deepened in colour and reduced by around a third, remove from the oven and allow it to cool. Check for seasoning and adjust according to your personal preference with good quality salt and black pep. The sauce can store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, and the flavours will continue to develop and just get better and better. I like to portion mine into smaller containers around day 2 and keep in the freezer for future use.
- Serve with your pasta of choice, adorned by a final flourish of grated parmesan and some fresh basil leaves to lift the spirits.
Bonus Best Tip:
When cooking pasta, the cooking water should taste as salty as the sea. This liquid is like gold, always reserve a cup of the salty, starchy water before draining.
When the pasta has 3 minutes cooking time left, drain and return to the pot, remembering to reserve some of that cooking water aside. Add your desired amount of ragu to the pot along with the pasta, a splash of the cooking water and a knob of butter, continuously tossing the pasta around while the sauce reduces and thickens and the pasta finishes cooking until it is al dente. Adjust the consistency as needed with the reserved pasta water, until the sauce is glossy and coats the pasta. This is how it is done in restaurants and why pasta always feels more special eaten out. Ah, the power of butter. This final step is super important, tying everything together as one harmonious dish.