If you think that the sloppy red chewy meat and tomato sauce commonly served in the UK with spaghetti (aka spag bol) bears much resemblance to what a wizened old nonna (excluding Brenda) would make for her extended family, then I have some work to do!
Once we’re over the idea that “spag bol” is something that can be rustled up in half an hour flat, between arriving home from work and slumping in front of the tv, that will be a significant step forward in understanding this wonderful, deep rich sauce which many of us currently quite possibly have our best understanding of, from a jar. At the same time salty, but thin (and probably loaded with sugar, too) over-seasoned yet utterly bland and one dimensional, some quickly fried up mince with a jar of this tomato-y horror is enough to consign this delicious, aromatic treat to our student days without a second thought.
It may look and sound a bit of a faff – and it is – but if you make sufficient quantity, you can make for four people with a dozen or more portions left over for freezing, to make it worthwhile. Incidentally, being a dish primarily composed of minced meat, this is excellent for those of you at home with a Spong – ours was manufactured in 1929 and looks like it was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and, as Brenda will confirm, age is no barrier to efficiency, even if it is to looks. Transforming the leftovers of Sunday lunch into something you can use as the basis for your ragu sauce is as easy as shepherds pie. Here goes.
350g of beef mince
350g of pork mince
(you can just use 700g beef mince but it is just a richer thing if you use half beef/half pork. Also, these are amounts for meat that’s already roasted – and ground. If you’re using raw mince, increase the total amount to 1kg)
2 large onions – finely chopped
2 carrots – finely chopped
2 or 3 sticks celery – peeled and finely chopped
8 fat cloves of garlic – minced
200g pancetta or smoked streaky bacon – finely chopped
6 anchovy fillets
1 small can (approx 140g) tomato puree
1 tin tomatoes – 400g
250ml full fat milk
1 bottle red wine – something you’d drink, but not your best vintage.
1 tsp red chilli flakes
1 tsp fennel seeds
3 bay leaves
small bunch thyme
1 level tsp ground nutmeg
freshly cracked black pepper
grated parmesan and torn fresh basil leaves for serving
1) Begin by setting a medium/large casserole dish on a medium heat and adding a good splash of olive and adding your chilli and fennel seeds
2) Cook fairly gently for a minute or two until fragrant smells begin to waft about then add the onion, carrot and celery. Turn up the heat and continue to cook, stirring regularly, until the veg mix is softened and translucent – it’s great if some of the edges start to gain a little colour but not 100% necessary. This stage should take around 10 mins, at which point add the garlic, thyme, bay leaves and a good pinch (say a teaspoon) of salt and a smaller pinch of black pepper. Stir in and cook another 2 mins. Don’t over-season at this point as this can be adjusted at the end of cooking – the reason being is that the sauce is quite intensely reduced so you don’t want to end up with it too salty.
3) At this point you can add the minced meat to the veg pan. It’ll be much easier if you’ve got your own home-ground stuff because it doesn’t clump together but obviously most will be using raw mince, so there’s nothing for it, but to stand over it stirring and chopping to make sure there are no big clumps of it and that everything gets a good chance to brown evenly. Be prepared to stand over it for up to 20 mins more
4) In the meantime, while the mince is browning, fry your bacon/pancetta in a separate pan a little olive oil until crisp. Tip the contents of this pan – oils and all – into the mince/veg pan, once the mince is sufficiently browned.
5) Even if you absolutely detest anchovies, I insist you now snip 6 of the little blighters into the mix – please please just trust me on this one, you will not taste anything fishy in the end product. Think of it like extra seasoning. By the way I also add the oil from the anchovy tin.
6) At the same time, add your tomato puree – if things are beginning to catch on the bottom, don’t worry, if anything it’s a good thing. Think of it in terms of the burnt bits in the roasting tray when you’ve made Sunday lunch – all great flavour!. However you obviously don’t want this to go too far so don’t be too long about getting your tin of tomatoes in, the liquid from which will obviously douse the ardour of the borderline burning happening. Rinse out the tomato and tomato puree tins, adding the water to the pot (so about 300ml of water altogether, plus most of the bottle of red wine.
7) Drop in the cloves (you could put these in a small muslin bag to make retrieval easier later on) and grate in most of a whole nutmeg if using fresh, or your tsp of pre-ground
8) Stir and allow to come up to the boil at which point turn down the heat to the lowest possible, pop the lid on and simmer gently for an hour – it’s possibly worth checking once or twice to ensure things aren’t sticking too much at the bottom.
9) Switch on the oven after 45 mins to 130C and 15 mins or so later, take the lid off the pot and add the milk fairly slowly which you have popped in the microwave for a minute or two to get hot but not boiling. Swirl through the ragu sauce and transfer, UNcovered, to the oven.
10) Check after an hour, stir, and confirm that most of the liquid has evaporated – the consistency should have changed from soupy to fairly thick. Put back in the oven for anything up to another hour and what you’re looking for is certainly not something completely dried out, but definitely very thick – some sauce spooned out should just about hold its shape as a heap on the spoon. Check the seasoning, still being a little circumspect as the parmesan for serving is pretty salty. Retrieve as many of the sprigs of thyme, bayleaves and cloves as you can
11) The sauce is now ready. It can be used as the “meat” filling in a lasagne – or, as I did today, in a spaghetti Bolognese. To serve, boil the pasta in water about as salty as sea water and a glug of olive oil. When cooked, drain most, but NOT all the water. You’re looking for approximately 3 tbsp water per person left. Then add around 3-4 tablespoons of ragu sauce per person to the pasta and stir in – the water will reconstitute the thick ragu which will loosely coat all the pasta. Don’t serve naked pasta with the ragu sauce just piled over it unless you want it to look like a Dolmio advert…..
12) Sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan, torn/shredded basil leaves and a pinch of black pepper
13) There will be masses left over which, because it’s quite concentrated, can be conveniently frozen for at least two if not three further meals for four – thus you don’t have to go through the above each time you want to eat this and will, overall, have actually probably cost you less time than doing a “quick” version three or four times over. And, as if it needs saying, will also be three or four times as good……