Ah! The traditional Spag Bol – one of Britain’s staple weeknight meals. There are many incarnations I’ve had of this classic dish, most of which have been pretty disappointing. (I’ve even had some with sweetcorn added…?) And with Dolmio recently announcing the vast amount of salt, fat and sugar a jar of their sauce contains, it isn’t surprising many people have been put off this classic dish.But bolognese needn’t be dull and full of added nasties!
Let’s take a trip back to Bologna from where this dish originates. The earliest document of a meat-based sauce in Italy comes from the 18th century in a small town called Imola, near Bologna. It had very little resemblance to what we recognise as ragù today – minced veal, carrot, onions, liver and mushrooms, covered with a beef broth served with medium-sized pasta and a dash of cream. Not a clove of garlic or tomato in sight!
The tomato-y, meat sauce dish we recognise today originates from many years of outside influences from many different cultures. Even in Italy now, adding tomatoes to the sauce is only just a small part of a ragù, spaghetti is forbidden, and no garlic is used at all.
We all have our favourite versions of this dish, but there are a few tips to pick up from the original recipe worth noting. In particular, using a wider pasta than spaghetti. Spaghetti is great in light, creamier sauces, but struggles to hold that wonderful, big bold meaty ragù sauce. In short, the bolder the sauce, the bigger the pasta. Traditionally, tagliatelle is used, but I’ve opted for penne here. Not only is it my favourite pasta of all time, but I find it soaks up the mince and sauce beautifully with its ridges, and holds its own against the meat. Plus it’s easier for kids to scoop up and eat. Win win!
Here’s what you’ll need –
- A few rashers of bacon or pancetta diced
- 250g pork mince
- 250g beef mince
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 stalk of celery, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed (not traditional, I know, but I personally love garlic!)
- 1 tin of plum tomatoes (get into buying plum toms! They are so sweet and full of flavour)
- A small jug of beef stock
- A glass of decent red wine
- A sprig of rosemary, leaves pulled and chopped finely
- A bunch of basil stalks chopped finely
- 4 bay leaves
- 400g of big, bold pasta – tagliatelle, pappardelle, penne, rigatoni etc.
- Salt and pepper
- Basil leaves chopped to serve
- Parmesan cheese to serve
- 1 tsp dried chilli (optional, but gives a wonderful kick)
- Once you have all your ingredients ready, heat a high-sided frying pan with a lid (or casserole dish) on high with no oil and brown off your mince and bacon, making sure the meat is well-browned. You should start hearing a popping noise and see the mince turning a golden colour – this makes for a rich sauce later. Remove from the pan onto a plate with a few sheets of kitchen roll and drain off the excess fat. Turn the heat down to medium, then add the diced vegetables, chilli, herbs and garlic until they are soft.
- Place the meat back in and the red wine, stirring until the alcohol has burnt off. Then pour in the beef stock and sweet plum tomatoes, smushing the toms into the pan with the back of your spoon. Reduce the liquid by half, season with salt and pepper to taste, then cover with a lid and cook low and slow for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. At this point, you can put this into a slow cooker overnight if you like (just make sure the sauce is well reduced first otherwise you’ll end up with a soup).
- When you’re ready to serve, put a pan of water on to boil with plenty of salt (think seawater) and add your pasta, testing to see when it’s only just about cooked through – it should still be firm. Then drain, keeping some of the pasta water aside in a mug. I find draining the pasta just before this point stops it going soft and mushy when you serve.
- Add the pasta to the pan of your rich, slow-cooked sauce and toss, making sure the sauce coats the pasta evenly. Add some of the pasta water if you need to keep it silky. Add some chopped basil and parmesan to taste.
I love serving this with garlic bread and a big, bold, mixed leaf salad. Try drizzling some olive oil and balsamic dressing from the salad over the garlic bread whilst it’s still warm – it’s honestly wonderful. You can spruce up even a 40p pack of garlic bread like this – it’s delicious and very addictive.
At roughly 600 calories per serving, throw that jar of ready-made pasta sauce in the bin. Try this and you’ll never look back!