Ragu alla Bolognese

A base of aromatic vegetables simmered in broth with pancetta, pork and beef is finished with whole milk to make a traditional Bolognese sauce full of deep flavor that pairs beautifully with polenta, pasta or potato gnocchi and a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. This traditional recipe comes from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna and originally used only a 1/4 cup (60 ml) of onion and no garlic. Instead of onion, I used turnip, another aromatic vegetable that has fallen out of style. If you look at older cookbooks, you’ll see it paired with onions, celery and carrots.

This ragu is thicker than many versions of Ragu alla Bolognese, but it’s still an authentic recipe. Even better for people with food intolerances, it uses a very small amount of tomato, which makes it unique. It’s important to use a good quality meat or chicken broth, so save the pan juices from a beef or pork roast or the poaching liquid from chicken, adding water if needed. It’s hard to find broth without onions or garlic, but use it if you can find a suitable brand. For those of you in the U.S., look for Progresso brand reduced sodium chicken broth in the aseptic Tetra pack cartons. I recently found it in my grocery store and so far I’ve had great luck with it. Always check the ingredient list, though, as manufacturers are known to add unwanted ingredients without notice.

Pancetta is hard to mince even with a sharp knife, so ask the deli counter to thinly slice it. Use a pair of kitchen shears to cut the stack into narrow strips. Then snip the strips into tiny pieces. Rather than buying beef and pork just for this recipe, the next time you cook beef chuck or pork loin roasts, cut off a chunk of each one and freeze the pieces in a plastic bag. When you’re ready to make the sauce, defrost the meat overnight, then grind it in the food processor. This recipe freezes well, so consider making a double-batch for an easy week-night meal later in the month.

Ragu alla Bolognese

Makes about 3 cups (700 ml) and serves 4 – 6, adapted from “Biba’s Taste of Italy”

3 tablespoons (45 ml) olive oil
1 tablespoon (15 ml) unsalted butter
1/4 cup (60 ml or 32 grams) shredded turnip
1/4 cup (60 ml or 32 grams) shredded carrot
1/4 cup (60 ml or 35 grams) finely minced celery
3 ounces (84 grams) pancetta, thinly sliced and minced
3/4 pound (336 grams) ground beef chuck
1/4 pound (112 grams) ground pork loin
1/2 cup (120 ml) medium bodied red wine, such as a Chianti Classico
3 tablespoons (45 ml) double-concentrated Italian tomato paste from a tube
3 cups (720 ml) meat broth or low-sodium chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup (120 ml) milk, lactose-free or regular

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the turnips, carrots, celery and pancetta after the butter foams. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables and pancetta brown in spots, about 5 minutes. Add the beef and pork and turn the heat to high, using a wooden spoon to break the meat into small pieces. Let the mixture brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the wine and stir until most of it evaporates. Mix the tomato paste and the broth together and add it to the skillet, along with a dash of salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and partially cover the skillet. Let it simmer for about 2 hours, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes. The sauce should be thick and deep brown, with only a bit of liquid. Add more broth or water if the sauce seems too dry.

Add the milk and partially cover the skillet. Let the sauce simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. If serving with pasta, toss 2/3 of the sauce and 1 tablespoon (15 ml) unsalted butter with a pound of cooked pasta and a handful of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Add more sauce if needed and serve with grated cheese. Italian pasta is coated with sauce, not drowning in it, so don’t go overboard. The sauce may also be served with polenta or potato gnocchi.

6 thoughts on “Ragu alla Bolognese

  1. Like the idea of serving it with polenta … It’s like the French eat pasta with their Boeuf Bourguignon – I always serve it like today … Great and flavorful recipe.

    • I love pasta with Boeuf Bourguignon! The recipes with the deep, long simmered flavor are the ones that taste best with pasta or polenta.

  2. That looks delicious. Love polenta and love a great ragu. Being Italian, these are the foods I grew up eating. They always transport me to my Nonna’s cuccina. Thanks for the memory.
    Queen Jeanne

  3. Looks brilliant but we were told tomato paste is no go for fructose malabsorption? So says the Sue Shepherd article we were given as guide to follow?

    • It’s always a matter of the total fructose (or other problem sugar) per serving, and tomato paste appears to be an ingredient that’s problematic because it’s so concentrated. I have many of Sue Shepherd’s cookbooks, including “Food Intolerance Management Plan”, and she uses tomato paste as an ingredient, but always in a very small amount. It’s my understanding that the guidelines are meant as a place to start the process of sorting out what can and can’t be tolerated, as well as how much an individual can eat of a given food. People vary greatly in their tolerance levels. The other thing that makes all of this so confusing is that the guidelines are always being revised, as new research is released. It’s always best to follow the advice of your doctor or dietician, as he or she is most familiar with the particulars of your situation.

      Rather than following the recipes exactly, I hope that people will see them as ideas about how to modify and cook to suit the individual situation.

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