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Spaghetti bolognese

Four hundred-plus posts on this blog, and there are still some really basic, popular things I’ve not written about. Would you believe that I haven’t cooked a spag bol since 2005? I spent yesterday evening remedying the problem – here’s a recipe for a rich, savoury, gorgeously gloppy version, full of wine and herbs.

As any self-respecting Italian will tell you, if you ordered what we call spaghetti bolognese in Italy, you would get a funny look. In Italy, this sauce is called ragù or ragù alla bolognese, and it’s not usually served with spaghetti – you’re more likely to find your ragù as a layer in a lasagne or served with tagliatelle.

Back in 1992, the folks in Bologna decided that they had had enough of the world’s bastardisation of their hometown sauce, and the Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina issued a proclamation. From that point on, bolognese sauce would be defined strictly, and could only be called ragù alla bolognese if it was made with a limited set of ingredients: beef, pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, passata, beef stock, red wine and milk.

Inevitably, I’ve strayed away from the strict letter of the Accademia’s law here in (cough) a few details, but I don’t think you’ll be too saddened by this, because what results is damn tasty. Please use the anchovies even if you don’t usually like them – they add a subtle depth to the sauce, but they don’t make it taste fishy.

To make enough spaghetti bolognese to serve four, you’ll need:

500g ground or minced steak (ground steak is more authentic here, but if you can’t find it, mince is fine)
4 banana shallots
5 anchovies
2 bay leaves
2 carrots
2 sticks celery
500g passata (pressed tomatoes)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
4 cloves garlic
5 sundried tomatoes in oil
¼ bottle red wine
1 ladle beef stock
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 large handful fresh oregano
1 large handful fresh basil
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Parmesan to garnish

Chop the shallots finely and sweat in a large, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid over a low heat in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil for about 20 minutes, until translucent but not colouring. Add the anchovies and bay leaves to the pan and continue to cook, stirring, until the anchovies disintegrate into the shallots. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the beef to the pan, cooking, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browning all over. Add the finely diced carrot and celery with a tablespoon of dried oregano and the chopped garlic and chopped sundried tomatoes. Sweating off these vegetables will add some moisture to the pan – keep cooking and stirring until the pan is nearly dry again.

Pour the wine into the beef mixtures, bring up to a simmer and add the passata and beef stock with the Worcestershire sauce and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer gently with the lid off until the sauce has reduced to a thick texture (20-30 minutes), and continue to simmer with the lid on for as long as possible, checking occasionally and adding a little water if things seem to be drying out. Mine was on the hob for four hours – if you have time to leave yours even longer, feel free – the longer the better.

Immediately before serving, stir through the chopped fresh herbs. Cook 100g spaghetti per person according to the packet instructions, and serve with the sauce and parmesan cheese.

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16 comments to Spaghetti bolognese

  • Having lived on spag bol as a student I’ve steered clear of the stuff ever since.

    Perhaps anchovies are the very thing to rehabilitate the old war horse.

  • Liz

    I think you may have hit the nail on the head: one of the reasons I’ve not cooked spag bol in years is that it was a bit of a standard when I was a student, and I became bored of it. It’s nice to resurrect these things. I must make cauliflower cheese (another old fave) some time too – haven’t had that in *years*.

  • You’ve got me in a dither over this. We’ve been laying off the pasta but Spag Bol is one of my favorite foods. I will use your recipe tonight!

  • Anchovies are a great addition to bolognese. In my bastardised recipe I throw in a star anise (just one) when simmering it, and remove it before serving; it gives the sauce a great depth.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve secretly put anchovies in my sauce before and can honestly say that there is no fish taste but I’d agree with the extra richness they bring. I’ve never put balsalmic vinegar in and today my 15-year-old daughter is going to try out this recipe as she needs one to make her very own classic.

    Will report back on flavour later

  • Liz

    This is funny – I’m really bad at guessing which recipes are going to generate the most comments, and I thought this one would probably pass by without any at all. I’m really glad everyone is so spag bol-conscious – but can anyone explain why there are no comments next to the world-beating Christmas cookies I came up with earlier in the week? (Pouting a little now.)

    Lizzie – I will give your star anise go a twirl next time I make some. Thanks! And Anon – I am looking forward to hearing how your daughter gets on.

  • Heston Bloominhell uses the star anise trick, which is cheating if you ask me.

  • Dear Liz,
    This recipe was brilliant. The anchovy and other stinky condiment bits made the sauce reduce to a lovely rich color and flavor.

  • Well, I don’t even tell my guests about the anchovies. Well, there was a time…It started when I put them into a sauce for a strict vegetarian, back when I was young and unethical. Best marinara he ever had…wanted to know, was it the rosemary? He he, nope. Maybe I’ll do a spaghetti reply. Ciao Liz

  • Lorna

    Ooh… yum! I’m going to pass this on to the Young Man, who, as you know, has been conducting extremely scientific research into the make-up of the ideal ragu. He favours the worcester sauce and tabasco addition, but maybe I can bring him round to anchovies.

    I did hear (though whence I cannot remember) that you’re supposed to make a ragu with a mixture of beef mince and pork mince. Is this somethign you’ve heard of, or are long hours at work making me hallucinate?

  • Lorna

    Aargh…. “something”, not “somethign”. I did say it had been a long day!

    PS – wv = “redolded”. Is it just me, or does that sound as if it should be in the OED?

  • MollyinHampshire

    Liz- this recipe was so so good. Even my picky eater children loved it. I thought they wouldn’t because of the red wine, but it turned out wonderful.
    I know you wrote this post all the way in Nov. but I did a google search for Spag Bol and it came up with your blog.
    Thank you so much!

  • Liz

    Excellent news, Molly! Really glad they enjoyed it. (Hope they don’t develop too much of a taste for wine!)

  • “Excellent news, Molly! Really glad they enjoyed it. (Hope they don’t develop too much of a taste for wine!)”

    I too have used wine and have the kids like the food. In my case, the apples didn’t fall from the tree.

  • sandra

    i will try this recipe tonight, i will let you guys know how it went, i think i will add star anise too.

  • Marcus

    Was planning on doing a Spag Bol tonight and had anchovies in the cupboard, so I decided to google it to see if people loved or hated it as an ingredient. Your page came up, read the comments and it’s now simmering away. Had a sneaky taste and it’s fantastic. Cheers.

    P.S. Instead of celery (as one child seems to suffer after eating it), I have opted for apple (tart ones work best). Surprisingly works quite well.

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