Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of simpler days and simpler ways - recreating mom's Bolognese sauce

1 pound ground beef (80/20 lean)
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups Italian parsley, chopped
3 medium carrots, diced
4 celery stalked, diced
3 cans diced tomatoes (no sodium added)
2 cups red wine
¼ fresh thyme
freshly ground Parmesan to taste

Everyone has some of these dishes that with one sniff of a certain smell, one bite of a certain flavor and texture, instantly let you relive a memory from your childhood. Maybe the first day of spring when you played in the garden and mom called you in for dinner, your birthdays when every year mom would make you something special, or the weekly food feasts she whipped up on slow and lazy Sundays. Why is it that what we eat when young will be forever intertwined in our brains with the happy memories of those early days, having us strive for that food and state of mind when life was straightforward and carefree?

Since then, your world has been turned upside down, life has opened doors and brought you to places you’d never even knew existed. You ate frog legs and sea urchin, mysterious vegetables with exotic names and eaten in exotic places. You love experimenting with the unknown and exploring the new. And yet, somehow you are still on the quest for re-creating your mom’s recipes, the ordinary but homely dishes that impersonate perfection, reminding you of simpler days and simpler ways.

Most likely, you already have begged your mom for the recipe, but all you got out of her was a non-committal “oh nothing special, just a little bit of this and a little bit of that, you know I never really cook with a recipe...” So not helpful. Then probably came the years of trial and error, with you spending hours and days in the kitchen, attempting to make something that is at least close enough.

For me, one of those dishes is spaghetti with Bolognese sauce. To this day, I don’t know how exactly my mom made it, what ingredients she used and in what proportion. All I had were splinters of memories - of the aromas of thyme and tomato in my mouth, the sizzling of red wine being added to hot oil, the scents of meat being browned in onions and garlic filling the house. And I remembered the goodness of the first spoonful of noodles, the background the tomato provided for the earthiness of the meat, every bite conveying the assurance that this was home.

Resurrecting what I could from these smithereens, I developed my grown-up version of Bolognese sauce, a comforting and versatile sauce that also lends itself to being made in batches and frozen for many quick and delicious pasta dinners.

I start by browning the meat in a dutch oven. Despite the hype for lean beef, I recommend using a slightly fatter beef (80/20) because of the intensity of the flavor. Following my own philosophy of eating meat as a side, there is relatively little ground beef in the sauce anyway, so one should make the best out of it.

Once the meat is halfway done, I add half of the chopped onions and one chopped clove of garlic to infuse the meat, and after another five or so minutes, the first cup of red wine. When the wine has been absorbed by the meat, I transfer it all to another bowl with a skimmer, making sure to leave as such of the liquid fat in the pot.

Taking advantage of the flavor of the beef fat (it might be necessary to add a little bit of extra olive oil), I make my tomato sauce including the second cup of red wine, however without the long simmering - that comes at a later stage when the meat is added back in. For the Bolognese, the tomato sauce is pureed directly and then the meat rejoins the pot, together with the fresh thyme (a side note on the thyme: after washing the it, pat it dry with a kitchen towel; when dry, it is so much easier to pluck the leaves from the sprigs).

Now the sauce should simmer for at least 30 minutes (longer is better) for the flavors to fully mingle and develop, and then you are ready to eat with the pasta of your choice, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and maybe enjoyed with a little salad and a glass of Chianti Classico.

What's your favorite dish that your mom made for you?

Life is good!


  1. That looks delicious! I never think to make spaghetti anymore.

  2. my inner child LOVES spaghetti. and it's gotten healthy, too - a great review on the new generation of whole grain pasta can be found in this new york times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/dining/13appe.html

  3. Ohmygosh, my Italian grandmother ALWAYS had a pot of spaghetti on the stove! This looks so homey and comforting- and NOT a million ingredients! I can almost smell it...It's cooling down in LA, this is a perfect dish for the changing weather. Thank you. :)

  4. my mom made the best carrot cake on earth. never been able to recreate it myself though...

  5. and now that i found out how to post links in the comments form, here comes the whole grain pasta link to simply click on :-)

  6. What a delicious sauce. My mom was not a good cook, so my food memories come from the kitchens of neighbors. I remember loving Swedish meatballs and homemade rolls as a child. The meatballs were delicious and I fell in love with the smell of baking bread. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary


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