Classic Bolognese sauce is a terrific thing: mild, milky, and rich. It’s so admired that the government of Bologna keeps an official recipe, from the early 1800s. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be messed with. This modern version, laced with Asian fish sauce, creates a richer flavor that will last for minutes after every bite. The key is slowly caramelizing the vegetables for a mellow, sweet base, then patiently searing the meat until it’s crusty and brown. This isn’t a dinner-in-20-minutes kind of meal, but the result is a pasta sauce that people will remember a couple of centuries from now.
Modern Bolognese (makes 12 to 15 servings)
- Olive oil, as needed
- 1 large onion, finely chopped*
- 6 cloves garlic, smashed
- 4 medium carrots, finely chopped*
- 12 oz white or cremini mushrooms, finely chopped*
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- ½ cup tomato paste
- Salt and pepper to taste
(*or pulsed in a food processor)
- 12 oz pancetta, finely chopped (use bacon for a smokier flavor)
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1½ cups red or white wine
- 2 lbs ground beef
- 6½ cups beef or chicken stock
Caramelize The Base
Generously coat a large sauté pan with olive oil and place over medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent. Add the carrots and a few pinches of salt, and cook until the vegetables soften and begin to caramelize. This will take a while, more than 30 minutes, but the longer the base cooks, the more even and thorough the browning will be.
Begin the Sauce
When the carrots and onions are richly browned, add the mushrooms, half the thyme, and a few more pinches of salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. The mushrooms will release a lot of liquid, so cook until the pan is dry. Add black pepper and a few splashes of fish sauce. Stir in tomato paste, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Stir occasionally – just enough so the bottom doesn’t scorch.
Cook the Pancetta
While the vegetables are caramelizing, place a large, heavy Dutch oven or braising pan over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered but the meat is still a little chewy. Strain, keeping the fat and meat separate, and set aside.
Sear the Meat
Place the braising pan over medium-high heat and add enough pancetta fat to slick the bottom. When a little smoke appears, add the pork in a thin layer and sprinkle with salt. Sear, untouched, until the bottom is thoroughly crusty. Be patient. When the meat is deeply browned but not burned, add a couple splashes of fish sauce, cook for a few minutes, and then add a splash of wine. Scrape up the browned bits and empty the meat into a large bowl. Rinse out the pan and wipe dry, then repeat the whole process with the beef, searing it in two batches.
When the last batch of beef is fully browned, add the rest of the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up all the bits on the bottom. Lightly boil the wine until it reduces to about half its volume. Return the rest of the meat to the pan. Add the cooked pancetta, the vegetable base, the stock, and the remaining thyme. Season with salt and fish sauce.
Finish the Sauce
Bring it all to a boil, then lower to a gentle, lazy simmer. Cook for 1½ to 2 hours, until the meat is tender and the sauce has a rich, ragù-like texture. Skim off any fat that floats to the top. Remove the thyme sprigs and season to taste with a few splashes of fish sauce. Serve with pasta and Parmesan cheese.