bolognese AT ITS BEST
WHY BEEF CHEEK IS BETTER
For a long time, tackling Bolognese felt like a daunting prospect. Not because of the cookery involved, and certainly not because of any doubt as to its worth - I mean who would genuinely take exception to a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese? It is surely one of the most beloved comfort foods throughout most households. And there-in lies the problem. Spaghetti Bolognese, Spag Bol, Meat Sauce, Ragu - it means many things to many people, most of which involve fond and fiercely-defended memories.
The issue with such popular comfort foods is they are often left open to interpretation and deviation - something in and of itself that can yield wonderful results.
Yet, as the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison and so it is difficult to truly criticise the bolognese one person loves over the one I do.
Or it would be if I were to be truly empathetic. I’m choosing not to be.
Watery, overcooked spaghetti, topped with a divorced, bland lump of cottage pie minus-the-mash and a dusting of powdered parmesan.
It’s the stuff of school-dinner, canteen (and if I'm to be honest, the occasional well-meaning parent) nightmares. Let alone how the continental Spag Bol must be viewed in Italy. Famed for their passion in advocating authentic and traditional cookery, it’s with equal parts amusement and horror that I would see a bologna Nonna served a plate of my Great British secondary schools ‘bolognese’.
Beef Cheek is one of my favourite things to cook. It’s a labour of love, and it’s important to note now that this is NOT a quick cook, but most of that cook time is hands-off and the results cannot be argued with.
Beef Cheek, when cooked low and slow yields sweet, rich and undeniably ‘beefy’ meat, falling away in tender mouthfuls of unabashed unctuousness. And as mentioned, there is a time investment with Beef Cheek - proof if nothing else, that the individual serving you this dish cared enough to start concocting it several hours beforehand.
So Beef Cheek gets the nod ahead of mince in our Bolognese along with the classic onion, celery, carrot, garlic and tomato concentrate to form the base of what looks like a fairly traditional ox cheek ragu. However, for this to be a Bolognese in my eyes, there are a few key additions.
Smoked Pancetta, because some form of pork product seems inexorably tied to bolognese. Tomatoes, and lots of them to bring balance to the rich meat. White wine and Chicken Stock, because it’s lighter and fresher than red wine and beef stock. And perhaps controversially, Milk. Though traditionally used in many a Bolognese recipe, milk often raises a quizzical eyebrow as an ingredient in a rich beef stew. It really works.
There is a succession of browning, sweating, deglazing and finally braising in the oven over a number of hours to achieve this dish. There is undoubtedly a time investment here, but the dividends are huge. A rich, savoury and impossibly moreish sauce with tender bites of beef cheek permeating throughout. The nature of this recipe is predisposed to large quantities. A blessing as this sauce freezes fantastically to be enjoyed throughout the coming months when the opportunity presents itself.
The depth of flavour of this sauce may not even necessitate pasta, a spoon can suffice. However, if serving with pasta, and I highly recommend it, please, please don’t choose spaghetti. I’m not going to wade into the debate as to how untraditional it is to serve spaghetti with bolognese, but rather present my own feelings on spaghetti.
There’s no amount of clever wordplay that can accurately summerise my thoughts on spaghetti. It’s just crap. There’s not enough surface area to hold any sauce, it’s difficult to eat, frequently under or over-cooked, it causes a mess. It’s just crap.
Pappardelle, on the other hand, is not crap. In fact, it’s really quite good. Especially when perfectly coated in rich luscious Beef Cheek Bolognese. Which neatly leads on to my last, and perhaps greatest pet peeves.
When serving your Bolognese, please do not just dollop a spoonful of it onto your pasta like a token bit of seasoning.
The idea that there is ‘Assembly Required’ with my plate of pasta is a farce. I want my pasta evenly coated in the beautiful sauce I've just laboured over as a single, cohesive experience. Not two separate components, thrown together in a last-minute panic.
Finishing your masterpiece is carte blanche. A little parsley and or Basil - lovely. A restrained grating of parmesan or pecorino - marvellous. But the star is the sauce, trust me, you will agree.
And that is my Bolognese recipe. It may not be to everyone's taste, and it is not necessarily the way I would cook bolognese every time. But it is the way I want to eat bolognese every time. A comforting treat for an equivalent occasion.
And one final thought. Bolognese is a glorious, comforting treat, much like this recipe.
But Lasagne… Now that’s one step better. More to follow.