December marks the transition from the sweet confections of Thanksgiving to the more complex, rewarding foods of winter. Sure, there’s still Hanukkah with its fried latkes and apple sauce (an easy thrill) and Christmas with its sticky, gooey ham (which could fit comfortably on the Thanksgiving table) but, for the most part, when the weather gets cold, the food gets better. Case in point? Marcella Hazan’s Rigatoni Bolognese.
Bolognese is like the sophisticated, better dressed cousin of chili. Those dusty, over-aged canisters of cumin and chili powder in your cabinet have no place in a Bolognese; here, the marriage of ground beef and tomatoes is harmonized elegantly with a strange, elusive combination of milk (which gets absorbed into the meat first), wine (which gets absorbed second) and, finally, that most bewitching of winter spices: nutmeg.
But it’s milk, in fact, which is at the root of what makes Bolognese so fantastic: this, unlike most olive oil based sauces, is a lactic exercise. The vegetables are sauteed in butter, then there’s the milk added to the meat, and finally you add more butter and grated cheese at the end. Bolognese, therefore, might be seen as the ultimate celebration of the cow: both its meat and its milk are used to achieve a sublime whole. I can’t think of a better dish to serve on a cold winter’s night; the union of meat and milk–two instantly familiar foods, both nourishing in their own ways–is a direct formula for cold weather comfort.
So how do you make it?
It’s really easy. You just need time (about three hours) and the following ingredients:
1 Tbs vegetable oil
3 Tbs butter plus 1 Tbs for tossing the pasta
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
3/4 pound ground beef chuck
Black pepper, fresh from the mill
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine (I used Vermouth and it worked fine)
1 1/2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta (I used just 1 pound of dried rigatoni)
Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
[Note: the amounts of onion, celery, carrots, meat, etc. don’t need to be exact. I sort of eyeballed it, using more than the recipe instructed.]
1. Put the oil, butter, and chopped onion in the pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook until the onion’s translucent, then add the celery and carrot and cook for 2 minutes more until coated well.
2. Add the ground beef, a large pinch of salt, and a few grindings of pepper; crumble the meat with a fork and stir until the beef has lost its raw, red color. [Don’t take it too far here; remember, it’s going to cook for a few hours more.]
3. Now the cool part: add the milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely.
Add a tiny grating–about 1/8 teaspoon–of nutmeg and stir. (I added a bit more than that, but it’s not advisable. I just really like nutmeg.)
4. Add the wine, let it simmer until it’s evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all the ingredients.
When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers (just an intermittent bubble here and there). Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. (This is a recipe to start late in the afternoon so you’re not dying of hunger when it’s done 3 hours later.) According to Marcella: “While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat. To keep it from sticking, continue the cooking, adding 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must be left and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.”
Look how different it looks three hours later:
If that picture doesn’t arouse your tastebuds, your tastebuds are dead on the inside and need to get out of this relationship. Seriously: that image is enough to make me want to eat Bolognese forever.
5. At the 3 hour mark, or 10 minutes before, cook your rigatoni in lots of boiling water until al dente. Add to the Bolognese pot with 1 Tbs butter and stir all around.
Serve with lots of grated Parmesan and enjoy the first truly wonderful taste of winter. You’ll wish it stayed cold forever.