26 January 2007

Ragù Bolognese

This ragù isn't something that came from a jar. It was born out of several hours of careful cooking, simmering and reducing ingredients until they fell apart and combined in a glorious sauce. In the mood for some comfort food, I used a recipe from Marcella Hazan, the one from her indispensable Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and I chose to use the variation made with half beef and half pork. While on first glance it may appear like the kind of spaghetti sauce you might see at a potluck dinner, this sauce has layers of velvety flavor that are incredible. (And that's freshly grated freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top of the rotini, not something out of a green can.) I doubled the recipe for the sake of leftovers, but the whole thing had a pint of milk, a pint of white wine, the juice from two cans of tomatoes, and the residual juices from the vegetables and meat, and yet the finished product is barely wet. The whole process is closer to making chili than what you normally think of as an Italian pasta sauce.

I've been to Bologna, and when I started writing this post, I decided to consult my journal from my trip to Italy ten years ago and see what I ate there. Turns out I didn't have anything with a bolognese sauce while in the native city, but I had a delicious application of it in Milan. Nor did I eat any bologna or mortadella in Bologna. I appear to have been easily swayed by hand-made tortellini.

The sauce required some white wine, and I used the only bottle on hand: the 2003 Redbank "The Long Paddock" Chardonnay from Victoria, Australia. Crisp, fruity, and unoaked. Medium acid, not tart. Citrus flavors dominate.

But before dinner, how about a little antipasto? This isn't regionally authentic, but still fun for the palate. The light yellow cheese is the Coastal Rugged Mature Cheddar. This is a traditional white English cheddar, aged 15 months, and there are little crunchy calcium crystals in it. Full, savory flavor. The wedge is a sample of Carr Valley Mobay from Wisconsin: a layer of sheep's milk cheese and a layer of goat's milk cheese separated by a thin strip of grape vine ash*. Both varieties were delicious, and the ash imparted a unique flavor on the edge. (And there's that unique aftertaste of hay and alfalfa that rips you out of the urban setting.) Finally, the sausage is just a domestic sopressata, a dry cured Italian sausage somewhere between salami and pepperoni.

Side dishes in Italy are called contorni, and this was a slightly Italian theme on my mother's dish of boiled asparagus on toast with white sauce. Instead of toast, I used bruschetta. The asparagus tips were blanched and then grilled on the stove. The sauce is a béchamel enriched with some white wine and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

(Now I know asparagus isn't in season right now. But it looked good and I had a craving for it. And this whole meal was all about comfort food, so why not? It's cold and rainy here in Memphis, and this was a great staying-in and relaxing sort of dinner.)

For the wine, we drank the 2000 Bottega Vinaia Trentino Lagrein from the Trentino-Alto Adige region in northeast Italy. This region rests beside Austria, and German and Italian are both spoken (in fact, it also goes by the name Südtirol). Hence the notably un-Italian name of the grape, Lagrein. It has a sort of smoky barnyard aroma with a hint of pine sap, but below that you get deep stewed prune flavors, a touch of fig, and a nice light mouthfeel. At six years of age, I decided to decant it for an hour beforehand in order to leave the sediments in the bottle and let it breathe. It doesn't taste like an Italian wine, but was a great match nonetheless.

*Whenever I look at this cheese, all I can think about is Cake's song "Sheep Go to Heaven, Goats Go to Hell", and I ponder over the theological implications of the ash layer.


Anonymous said...

Now I'm hungry. And thirsty.

Andrew said...

I had a great Lagrien ages ago - thanks for spiking my interest again; I must hunt some more down.

Allen said...

I am in Hong Kong now and wish I was in Italy or your Kitchen. Great write up. On to Amsterdam for great beer and cheese.