Did you know the average length of a piece of spaghetti is 10 inches? It’s just enough to wrap a few lengths around your fork.
They also say you can use a strand of uncooked spaghetti as a bookmark in your cookbook while you cook. The strangest use of spaghetti I’ve even seen was at a pub in Townsville. They deep fried the raw strands and used them as quirky garnishes on top of a meal. Visually striking; challenging to chew.
And while we’re reciting useless but interesting facts here, this one IS useful. Carbonara sauce doesn’t have cream in it. At least the traditional Italian version doesn’t. Cream is an American addition to the dish. Carbonara gets it’s silkiness from egg yolks which are added to the steaming hot pasta and tossed through at the last minute.
Meanwhile, the classic, spaghetti Bolognese, or spag bol as us Aussies like to call it, turns out it isn’t so classic after all. Just when I thought I knew a dish inside out, I didn’t. “It’s never ‘spag bol’ in our house”, one of my Italian workmates says, ‘……it’s pork ragu.”
And so the debate begins. What meat should you use? What makes a good Spaghetti Bolognese? Is there an ‘authentic’ recipe? The sauce originated in Bologna in the North of Italy, and about the only thing I can find in common in the many recipes I’ve looked at, is that it has meat and tomatoes in it. There are so many variations – from the meats used, to the type of wine, stock, chicken livers, mushrooms – take your pick! The recipe has simply gotten a life of its own since spreading around Italy itself and the world.
So there was only one way to find the answer to this soul searching quest for a good ragu (meat) sauce. Survey all my Italian friends. Most Aussies like to stick with a big batch of beef mince. Being a big beef producing nation, it feels like a safe choice, doesn’t it? But as lot of top chefs, friends, and my workmate point out, there are plenty of other meats to choose from.
Louise likes a cut of beef, sliced very, very thinly (never minced), Tanya prefers pork. Ena and Sam like veal and pork mince together. I’ve adopted the mixed meat idea too and prefer a mix of beef and pork, with a dash of cured meat such as prosciutto. Sylvanna likes straight beef mince, but says the key is “lots of garlic. I use a whole head of garlic fried off in lots of butter before adding the meat.”
Seems a load of garlic is quite universal amongst my friends. Ena also opts for ‘an entire head of garlic’ and a jaw dropping “five or six onions for 500g of meat.” She quickly follows this sentence “but this isn’t the kind of sauce you make while you wait for the pasta to boil, it takes 6 or 7 hours, and the onions turn sweet.”
And the controversy doesn’t end there. Giovanni reckons you can use tinned tomatoes and lots of herbs simmered for a while, while Ena says the key is “fresh tomatoes, red wine, and quality beef stock and tomato paste. That gives it a good colour and flavour.”
The addition of other vegetables to the mix is also a hot topic. Mushrooms or no mushrooms? “Sam’s family add peas – the sauce is riddled with peas!” I’m with you on that one Ena.
I’ll tell you a funny story about eating at Sam and Ena’s place. They’re Sicilian. Sicilians can smell a stench a mile off. So we sit down at the dinner table and the first thing Sam and Steffi (their daughter) do is sniff their plates. You see, they have this theory that if you don’t cold rinse a plate after it’s had egg on it, it stinks. So even when it’s on the table fresh from the dishwasher, he can still smell if the plate has had egg on it, and promptly cold rinses the plates. I have to admit, once it was actually pointed out, I could actually smell something and cold rinsing the plate does take the smell away.
But at least the type of pasta you use is slightly less controversial because it does actually follow some kind of rule. Traditionally, the runnier the sauce, the more you’d be inclined to use a cup shaped pasta to catch the sauce, where as thick rich sauces, like ragu, work best with spaghetti, linguini or papparadelle.
With all this uncertainty, how can one be certain about anything? Well I do know one thing for sure – it’s still one of my favourite dishes.
Fettuccini all’uovo e ragù alla Bolognese
A pasta roller if you’re making the pasta from scratch. You’ll also need a few spare hours, a glass of wine, and some opera to complete the scene.
(egg fettuccini in a meat sauce Bolognese style AKA ‘Spag Bol’)
For the pasta
2 cups of plain ‘00’ flour
A little oil
On your kitchen bench, place the flour in a mound. Create a well in the centre. Crack one egg into the well, kneading thoroughly with the surrounding flour, then crack the remaining eggs one at a time and mix well. You may need a little oil to bring it together, depending on how big your eggs were.
Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic when turned out. This will take around 10 minutes of solid kneading. The gluten in flour is a bit like a muscle – you have to work it. It’s hard work; don’t be tempted to give up too soon! Once done, drizzle a little oil over the dough, cover in cling wrap and refrigerate for half an hour. Now that you’re ‘muscle’ has worked, it’s time to let it rest.
Flour your bench top. Take a portion of your dough and roll it into a cylinder, then flatten it out slightly. This helps achieve a nice shape once it starts going through the roller. Progress the dough through the rollers, starting at 1 and going through until 5. Then pass it through your linguini, fettuccini or spaghetti attachment. Then I hang mine over a broomstick handle set up between 2 chairs if I’m not going to use it fresh.
Use the same method to process all the dough. If you don’t use all the pasta, leave it to completely dry. Then it will be storable in an air tight container.
For the ragu:
500g beef (minced, if you prefer)
500g pork(minced, if you prefer)
3 rashers of bacon, rind trimmed off
400g tin diced Italian tomatoes
1 head of garlic
2 red onions
1 carrot, grated
2 sticks celery, finely diced
1 brown onion, finely diced
Pinch of nutmeg
100g tomato paste
150mL red wine
2 teaspoons each dried rosemary, basil, oregano and sage (you can use fresh herbs, but dried herbs are much stronger and more readily available)
Cream (about 100mL)
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Chop the tomatoes, capsicum and red onion into rough chunks. Season with salt, pepper and about a teaspoon of sugar. Drizzle in olive oil and toss well. Cut the end off the clove of garlic (this makes it easier to get the cloves out later) and set in the roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Roast vegetables in the oven until tender, about 1 hr.
Once cooled a little, pop the cloves of garlic out of their skins. Using a stick blender, process the tomatoes, capsicum, onion and the garlic cloves until roughly combined, leaving some small chunks.
For the beef and pork, pulse through a processor until roughly minced; not too finely but not large chunks either.
On a high heat, fry the bacon and prosciutto in a good lug or two of butter until some of the fat releases. Then add the carrot, celery, brown onion, and nutmeg, frying until cooked through. Add the beef and pork, breaking it up with the back of a wooden paddle so no large lumps form. Once cooked through for about 5 minutes, add the wine, canned tomatoes, tomato mix from the oven, tomato paste and dried herbs. Mix well and reduce the heat. Simmer, covered for 1.5 hours.
At this point you can check flavour of your sauce and add more tomato paste, wine, salt and pepper or herbs if you desire. Then continue to simmer for another half an hour uncovered. Add more wine if it’s drying out too much.
Too cook your pasta, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Once boiling, add salt to taste. Don’t add it before it comes to the boil; salted water takes longer to boil. I learnt in pasta making school that your pasta water should be half as salty as sea water – so pretty salty! I worry about my arteries getting clogged and usually add a more conservative amount! But Italians love their salt and tend not to like low sodium dishes.
Add your freshly made pasta (or packet pasta if you’ve skipped that step). Cook for about 1 minute if using fresh pasta, or for about ¾ of the recommended time if using dried (packet) pasta.
Using tongs, take your pasta out of the water and add to the ragu and toss through. You want your pasta to absorb some of the lovely flavours of the ragu and finish cooking in the sauce. Don’t be fussy about draining all the water off the pasta when transferring it. Never rinse pasta; it removes the starch which helps it to cling to the pasta, making every mouthful tasty.
Now add the cream and stir through. The addition of cream (as well as the sugar you added earlier) helps balance the acidity of the tomatoes.
Now you’re ready to plate up and top with shaved parmesan and enjoy it with a good red.