What’s your most favourite Italian dish? After the pizza, I mean. If you're not a food snob and wont to drop names like “Zabaglione” (which is quite a sublime dessert, by the way) or “Saltimbocca alla Romana” (a delectable veal concoction), likely as not, you will say it’s spaghetti Bolognese. It’s simple, it’s hearty, and it’s available everywhere — which also accounts for its popularity.
Unfortunately, in India at least, the spaghetti Bolognese is a much abused dish. It often tastes a lot like spaghetti with keema curry, or spaghetti with minced meat groaning under an overwhelmingly sour tomato sauce.
I can tell you about a horrendous spaghetti Bolognese I had at Calcutta’s Bengal Club a few years ago. The so-called Italian restaurant there was being managed by an outfit called Don Giovanni at that time. It was an oily, spicy, minced meat sauce served with tough, underdone pasta. It was nothing short of an abomination.
So anyway. Here’s my recipe of spaghetti Bolognese. I did read somewhere that Bologna in Italy never spawned this sauce, and the correct name of the dish is really spaghetti al ragu (a meat-based sauce). But a rose by any other name etc…
300g pasta (spaghetti, tagliatelle or linguine)
400g minced meat (mutton or beef)
1 large onion finely chopped
A few garlic cloves crushed
3 large juicy tomatoes chopped
1 celery sticks finely sliced
2 tbsp tomato puree
I tsp dried marjoram
Salt and sugar to taste
Olive oil for frying
400ml mutton stock
Freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan
Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling salted water. I add a few drops of olive oil to the water, but that’s optional.The pasta should be cooked al dente – firm to the bite, but not floury and underdone. So do check frequently, that’s the only way to get it right.
Drain the cooked pasta and keep aside.
Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the chopped onions, garlic and celery and fry over a slow fire till the onion turns soft and takes on a golden yellow colour.
Now add the mince meat. Fry it over medium heat, stirring constantly until the meat turns dark brown.
Now add the chopped tomatoes and fry till they melt into a pulpy mixture. Now add the tomato puree, give it a good stir. Add the dried marjoram, stock, some freshly ground pepper, salt and sugar. Bring to a boil. Then lower the heat and cook covered for about 20 minutes or until the meat is done. Remove the cover and boil away any extra liquid. You should get a rich, glistening, dark red meat sauce. Check the salt and sugar one final time. Tomatoes have varying degrees of sourness. How much sugar you add will depend on your taste and how sour your tomatoes are on that day.
Serve with the pasta, some freshly grated parmesan and some toasted bread drizzled with olive oil.
A word about the mince: I always buy a portion of mutton and then get it minced. This gives much better results than the ready mince that most supermarkets keep. (You can always use the bones to make the stock, so nothing is wasted.) Ask for a medium mince -- as in, not too fine. That gives the sauce its body and bite.