Spag bol, no spag

Pici with chicken bolognese

Buenos Aires Herald
On Sunday supplement
Food and Wine

Let’s start with the simple part. Spaghetti alla bolognese isn’t an Italian dish. It’s a British dish that’s been imitated in various other parts of the world, kind of like the American dish of spaghetti and meatballs. It isn’t that spaghetti doesn’t exist in Italy, it does. It isn’t that bolognese sauce doesn’t exist in Italy, it does. But the two together, just not happening. You see, spaghetti is a southern pasta, virtually always a dry pasta that’s then boiled up to an al dente texture. And Bologna, the city to which alla bolognese refers, is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, in the north. Keep in mind that Italy didn’t exist as a unified nation until just a century and a half ago.

Let’s stay with the sauce for a moment. Bolognese is a type of ragú (note the reversed accent from the way most people spell it – spell it ragú and it needs to be capitalized as it’s a commercial sauce brand) which more or less means “sauce”, specifically a meat-based sauce. But, it’s a relatively recent term, as, prior to Napoleon’s invasion in 1796, and the introduction and influence of the French term ragoût, which means “to stimulate the appetite”, there are no historical references to the local meat based sauces under that term. What we think of these days as sauces were not served with pasta, rice, or over any other starches, but were offered up as simple stews.

The first recorded instance of combining the two was in the late 1700s, when Alberto Alvisi, chef to the cardinal of Imola, served a local meat stew over maccheroni (which in the vernacular is simply a generic term for pasta, not the little elbows we’re familiar with as macaroni). By the 1830s meat sauces as pasta toppings were becoming all the rage in Emilia-Romagna, and by the late 1800s, with Italy newly unified, the concept spread to other parts of the country.

In Bologna, to make a point, bolognese is simply referred to as ragú, because why refer to it as the sauce made in the style of the Bolognese in its home town. The sauce is classically served with only two pastas, over tagliatelle or layered with lasagna noodles in that classic baked dish. And in both cases, always fresh pasta, never dried. But spaghetti? Dried spaghetti? A southern staple? Not a chance.

Personally, I like bolognese over an even heartier or thicker pasta, something like pici or strozzapreti, the priest stranglers of Tuscany, and that’s the way I tend to serve it. But the sauce is delicious over virtually any decent pasta, even if you resort to espaguettis. To lighten it up a bit I use ground chicken in place of ground beef and pork, at least when I have requests to lighten it up… (if you want to stick with the original, replace the chicken in this recipe with 200 gm each of ground beef and pork, plus 100 gm of chopped bacon).

Bolognese Sauce

1 onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
500 gm ground chicken
250 gm mushrooms, sliced
100 gm tomato paste
2 crushed fresh tomatoes
100 ml whole milk
100 ml dry white wine
100 ml water
½ teaspoon thyme leaves
¾ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Cook onion, celery, carrot, and garlic in oil in a heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add ground chicken and cook over moderately high heat, stirring and breaking up lumps, until no longer pink, about 6 minutes, then add the mushrooms and cook another 2-3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, tomatoes, milk, wine, water, and thyme and gently simmer, covered, until sauce is thickened, roughly an hour. Add salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat. Makes enough for four servings over fresh made pasta.

A series of recipes and articles that I started writing for the Buenos Aires Herald Sunday supplement, Food & Wine section, at the beginning of 2012. My original proposal to them was to take local favorite dishes and classics and lighten them up for modern day sensibilities. We’re not talking spa or diet recipes, but at the very least, making them healthier in content, particularly salt, fat and portion size. As time went by, that morphed into a recipe column that, while emphasizing food that is relatively “good for you”, wasn’t necessarily focused on local cuisine. At the beginning of 2013 I decided to stop writing for them over some administrative issues, but it was fun while it lasted.


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