When I was a lad growing up in Calgary, Italian fare in our household generally consisted of Kraft Dinner, lasagna or pizza on special occasions, and that ubiquitous old stand-by: spaghetti with meat sauce. The spaghetti nights were by far my favourite. I loved the slightly sticky noodles, the thick, meaty tomato sauce spooned on top, and of course, garlic bread!
It was a long time before I came to discover that my beloved childhood favourite, like many things that I liked at that age, was a bit of a fraud. (Try watching any animated show from the 80’s. They don’t hold up very well today. I’m looking in your direction “Go-bots”. Basically what I’m saying is: growing up sucks!) The dish I loved, also known as spaghetti Bolognese, is actually just an Italian-American knockoff of the true Italian version: ragù alla Bolognese.
Ragù bears about as much resemblance to spaghetti Bolognese as I bear to Ryan Reynolds. Although we have comparable bits, and we originate in the same part of the world, I have never starred in a movie as bad as “Green Lantern”. Ragù is more like a meat stew that is served with pasta, than a tomato based sauce. In fact, ragù has very little tomato at all, and is never served with spaghetti. In most parts of Italy, if you ask for ‘spaghetti bolognese’, they will laugh derisively, and then proceed to ignore you until you leave. But of course, their mockery will sound so lovely, (as all things do when said in Italian), that you won’t want to leave, and lots of uncomfortable silence will follow.
So does this mean that we should relegate spaghetti bolognese to the scrap heap of mediocre Italian-American dishes that were foisted upon us by lousy big-box Italian eateries? Not necessarily. With a few tweaks, spaghetti bolognese can takes it’s place once again amongst our treasured childhood memories; much like how, with a few million crunches, I can assume my place alongside Ryan Reynolds as one of the world’s sexiest men. (Maybe with a bit more work than that.)
Ragù is usually served with a broad noodle, such as pappardelle, or tagliatelle. That is because ragù is much drier than most pasta sauces, and it adheres better to the surface of a flat noodle more easily. If we are set on using spaghetti, we have to change our sauce accordingly. The chunky, tomato-filled sauce from our childhood needs to be smoother, and a bit thinner, to coat the thin spaghetti noodles properly. Tossing the noodles with the sauce will eliminate the dreaded ‘too much pasta, not enough sauce, so the noodles wind up sitting in a puddle of tomato-ey water on the plate’ debacle. We’ll be using lots of freshly grated cheese to help create an emulsion between the noodles and sauce. You can omit the cheese if you wish, but the results won’t be quite as good.
Spaghetti Bolognese, Americano-style
(Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time: 1 hour. Serves: 4-6)
- 1 lb lean ground beef or veal
- 2 small yellow onions, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp ground coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp dried Italian seasoning
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp red wine vinegar
- 1/2 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 tbsp freshly-ground black pepper
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 796 ml can crushed tomatoes
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (finely grated)
- 1 lb dried spaghetti noodles
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Brown the meat in a large sauté pan, over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and continue cooking until the onion has become translucent. Add the spices, and cook them with the meat and onions until they become fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Then pour in the chicken broth. Scrape any crusty, cooked on bits off the bottom of the pan with the spoon (commonly known as ‘deglazing’ in chef-speak). Now mix in the crushed tomatoes.(Always add the tomatoes after the broth, otherwise the thick tomato purée will sploop all over, and make a gigantic mess.)
Now add in the salt, bay leaves, basil, and cheese. Keep stirring the sauce until the cheese is incorporated. Cover the pan, and simmer the sauce over medium-low heat for 30 minutes. While you wait, put a large pot of heavily salted water on to boil, and practice your best “Don Corleone” impression. After 30 minutes, taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Err on the side of less salt- you will be adding to the saltiness of the finished meal with cheese and the pasta later. Cook the spaghetti in the boiling, salted water- (the pasta water should be as salty as seawater) for approximately 8-10 minutes, or until it is cooked al dente. This means the noodles should be slightly chewy, or ‘toothsome’. It’s easy to over-cook pasta, so taste a noodle starting at about the 7 minute mark, and continue to try one strand every minute thereafter, until you find the perfect doneness. Set aside 1/4 cup of the starchy pasta water.
Drain the spaghetti, then dump it back in the pot. Using a set of tongs, gradually mix in the olive oil, the parmesan cheese, and a bit of the pasta water with the noodles until they are all incorporated together. Now add your meat sauce, 1/2 cup at a time, and toss with the spaghetti until you have thoroughly coated the noodles (approx. 2 cups). Serve your pasta by using the tongs to twirl it onto the plate, and garnish with more grated parmesan cheese, and maybe some chopped parsley.
Taste that spaghetti! This is so far removed from that sad plate of sticky noodles topped with watery sauce, they aren’t even in the time zone. These noodles are all silky, and just slightly saucy, but so full of flavour it brings tears to your eyes. This recipe makes a lot of extra sauce, which I like to freeze until I need it (it will keep for 2-3 months). It’s better than the store-bought, jarred stuff; and it’s less expensive too.
Finally, a spaghetti bolognese which can stand with it’s Italian brethren! A spaghetti dish that melds the best of the old world, and the new world, in one harmonious meal. Make sure to serve this to your ‘Godfather’ the next time he’s over, as a sign of respect. Otherwise, you might wind up with a horse’s head in your bed. Have fun explaining that one to your landlord.