We aren’t Italian but my Mom loved to cook all sorts of cuisines, not just curry. And one distinct food memory I have is making sauce with her. She called it a sugo and it always started with a “trilogy.” My job was to stir. And stir. And stir. And stir. Once I mastered stirring I was allowed to chop and dice. But then straight back to stirring (and tasting). Now this simple Bolognese is a go to recipe for me. I also usually have all the ingredients, except the meat, already in my fridge and pantry so this involves very little planning. But let’s start with my Mom’s “trilogy.”
What she called a “trilogy” is more commonly know as a cooking holy trinity, the French term for this mix is a mirepoix, in Italian it would be a Soffritto. The essential goal is to slow cook, not brown or sauté, diced vegetables, and occasionally herbs. Depending on the cuisine your vegetable medley will change accordingly. For instance, a Cajun or Creole holy trinity is onions, celery, and bell peppers. Today we are sticking with carrots, celery and onions. You generally want the onions to be roughly equal to the carrots and celery combined. I ended up chopping half a red onion as well to get the correct balance.
The key here is to let them cook on a gentle heat, you don’t want these to burn, sauté or cook to quickly. This usually takes about ten to fifteen minutes depending on how thick your pan is, how low your heat is, and the size of your dice. With practice you will begin to have a feel for how long it will take in your kitchen and not have to hover over your pan so much. Just before they would start to caramelize it’s time to add in your carrots. Let these cook for another 10-15 minutes and then add in your celery and let them cook for an additional 10-15 minutes. If you notice that anything is beginning to stick a splash of chicken stock will deglaze your pan. I also throw in a pat of butter before I add my meat. This will help balance out the acidity of the tomatoes at the end.
While your vegetables are cooking you don’t want to forget to season. You want to add salt and pepper every time you add a new item into your pot. If you are into garlic, like I am, then you should also add a sprinkle of garlic powder. If you are into a nice round heat than a sprinkle of crushed red peppers won’t do you wrong either. But the real pièce de résistance is the Italian Seasoning you chose to use. I have made this sauce with fresh herbs before and it just didn’t work. The long stewing caused the herbs to leave a bitter aftertaste in your mouth. I’ve made it with cheap seasoning and it took the whole bottle and the flavor was never quite right. A good spice blend is worth the investment. When I don’t make my own I use Penzeys Spices. We are lucky to have one in RVA and they have a great online store as well! This Italian herb mix came in their Soul Box.
Since this is a meat sauce it’s important to buy the right meat. I like to use a combination of pork and chicken sausage. I’ve made this with beef before and just found it overwhelmingly oily despite how assiduously I drained and skimmed the fat off. And with plain ground turkey or chicken it doesn’t quite hit that requisite richness you are looking for.
I uncase the sausage and throw it right into my pan and incorporate the cooked vegetables and spices into the meat as it cooks. You could mix the two meats together in a bowl and then transfer it into the pan. But this is an extra step and dish that can be avoided. Make things easier on yourself!
It actually is quite easy to smooth into one homogenous mix. Although if Lloyd is loitering I usually ask him to do this part by complaining that it makes my wrist hurt. But it really is important to get everything well mixed.
The meat takes a while to cook, but it needs to be moved around enough to make sure it cooks evenly and doesn’t burn. Also, moving it around breaks up the meat. But don’t fret too much about breaking it down into even pieces because we are going to blitz this all up at the end.
The next essential ingredient to a tomato sauce are the tomatoes! Canned are best. I once chopped about a dozen tomatoes to make a tomato sauce “from scratch” and it was just not nearly the same. The tomato flavor fell flat and was watery no matter how long I cooked it. I never got that rich, robust flavor that I look for when I make this sauce. I try and find canned tomatoes without excess salt because why let someone else season your food?
You can add the diced tomatoes into your pan as they come because we are going to be blitzing everything together. Or you can be pedantic like me and blend them up before hand. Either way, into the pan they go.
Next comes the tomato paste. I used to be so stingy with my tomato paste. I can’t explain why I was afraid to add tomato flavor to my tomato sauce but I would only add in about a tablespoon and then fret that my sauce wasn’t right. Now I scrape every last bit of paste out of that can and relish in the richness of the flavor at the end.
Once you stir the paste in you will see that classic red, richness that one associates with a good tomato sauce. That was another problem with fresh tomatoes, they were never “red” enough.
Now for the most important, the most transcendent step… the wine! My rule is that if I won’t drink it I won’t cook with it. Every now and then Lloyd and I don’t finish a bottle of wine and this is usually a good impetus for me to cooking something that calls for wine in the next day or two. Or I open a bottle of what we are going to drink with our meal and use that. Today I had a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the night before and just poured whatever was left into the pan, you usually need about a cup.
Once I reach this point we are very close to the simmer phase so I add in some whole garlic cloves. I don’t want to add them in too early because overcooking them can cause them to loose a lot of flavor. Today I used roasted garlic cloves because that was what I had and Lloyd loves them. I didn’t worry about dicing these guys up because I knew I was going to blitz later.
Don’t feel that you have to blend this up. I like a smooth sauce and have an immersion blender which makes it very easy to blend in the pan. I would never even think about transferring this to a stand blender, it would be way too messy. So you do you! Whatever you decide it’s still going to taste great and stick to whatever you decide to smother with this sauce. But here is a side by side look at chunky vs smooth for your edification.
The last and final step it to let is simmer, covered, on low for hours. The longer it simmers the better it tastes. I swing by the pan and give it a good mix about every 45 minutes to an hour. You also want to taste each time. This gives you a good sense of how the flavors are marrying and you can adjust anything if you need to. Sometimes you’ll notice that your sauce has an acidic taste you can’t quite shake. Don’t worry a pat of butter will smooth that right out. Just pop it into your sauce, let it melt and come back in 30 minutes to taste! But there you have it! A simple bolognese that will surely become a kitchen staple.
***I usually make a big pan of this sauce, enough to make at least two lasagnes or casserole. I tend to use half and freeze half***
- 2-3 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion
- 4 stalk celery
- 2 medium carrots
- 1 box of unsalted chicken stock
- 1-2 pats of butter
- 1 Lb chicken sausage
- 1 Lb pork sausage
- 1 14 oz can diced or crushed tomatoes
- 1 6 oz can of tomato paste
- 1-1.5 cups red wine
- 4-5 roasted or raw garlic cloves (or too taste)
- Salt, pepper, garlic powder, crushed red peppers and Italian seasoning to taste (a pinch or two of each every time you add an ingredient is a good rule of thumb)
- Dice onions, celery and carrots. 1 part onion to 1 part carrot/celery.
- Heat a thick bottomed pan with a good size slug of olive oil and slowly cook your onions with a sprinkling of spices.
- Add in your carrots, followed by celery, seasoning as you go. Deglaze as needed with chicken stock.
- Add in 1 pat of butter once your vegetables are cooked, reserve the second if needed at the end.
- Uncase sausage and add to pan.
- Mix thoroughly together, completely incorporating the vegetables.
- Once meat is mostly cooked through add in crushed or diced tomatoes, stir to mix.
- Add in entire can of tomato paste and stir to mix completely.
- Throw in garlic cloves.
- Add wine.
- Blend using immersion blender.
- Let simmer for at least three hours.
This is a fairly versatile sauce. It works great just on plain pasta with a dusting of cheese. It’s also great for a chicken or eggplant parmesan. But my go to is usually a very hearty lasagne. However, we are going low carb these days so I tried out a Chicken and Vegetable Bolognese Bake instead. It totally satisfied my lasagne craving.