It's almost deer season again. My larders are running low as I am almost out of my kills from last year. As the weather has begun to get cooler, the days shorter, I begin making recipes that have long cooking times and deep flavor. I want comfort food. I want slow food.
I have, in the past, had the pleasure of working with Giuliano Hazan. He is the son of Marcella Hazan. He knows his Italian food. At one class we were working together we had a brief discussion about Bolognese sauce. This is the famous pasta sauce from Emilia-Romagna, where Bologna is the capital. Regional dishes that have acquired world renown often have many different variations (like chili in Texas) and almost everyone has their own way of making it. Bolognese is no exception. Giuliano talked about his version and I talked about mine. They were remarkably similar. The difference was that, while his used the standard mirepoix (carrot, celery, and onion), mine added minced garlic and herbs.
For this recipe I wanted to try something a little different. Because I was using venison I wanted to use something that complimented the slight gaminess of the meat. I thought that saffron might be a nice addition with its deep, floral earthiness. I had a little saffron on hand so methinks, "WTF?" I mean, really, how bad could it be?
If you don't have venison on hand then ground chuck will work just fine, with or without the saffron. If you use chuck you will want to drain the fat after you brown the meat. Play around with the herbs and spices but understand the you should use them sparingly. Also understand the nutmeg is common and essential. Don't substitute the butter and milk for anything low-fat, either. There isn't a whole lot of either one and both play an important role in adding body to the sauce and helping to break down the meat.
First things first. Mis en place ou mourir dans la merde. This is French term, when loosely translated means, "Do your prep or die in the shit." (One of my chef buddies actually has this tattooed on his arm.) Mis en place is an actual culinary term. Literally translated it means "to put in place". Chefs refer to their prep work as mis en place, or simply, mise. The term is used in the movie Ratatouille. But I digress. Let's prep. It's really very simple. Put your meat in a bowl and mince your vegetables (mirepoix + garlic).
See? Easy peasy.
Now put your minced veggies into a deep pan or stock pot with the EVOO and butter. Turn on the heat to medium and cook the veggies until they are slightly soft. Don't rush. You'll be here all day making this sauce and getting your house to smell erotically saucy. Take your time.
While the veggies are slowly cooking get your spices together, if you are going to use them.I'm using chopped fresh thyme, dried oregano, and saffron. You may be asking yourself why I used fresh thyme and dried oregano. The answer is simple: because that's what I had. If I had any oregano growing outside I would have picked it and used it fresh. Don't forget to stir the veggies now and again. You don't want them to burn. Burned food tastes bad.
When the veggies are beginning to show slight signs of browning then you may add the meat and brown it. Don't adjust the heat to a higher level. Let it take it's time. Stir it now and again so that the clumps of meat break apart. Pour a glass of wine and don't worry that you are drinking at 10:00 a.m. If you are worried that someone will scold you for drinking wine so early in the morning then just pour it into a coffee mug. Slow food has it's rewards.
When the meat is properly browned it should look like this:
At this point you will add a cup of dry white wine. I like to use a soave or pinot grigio. Stay far, far away from chardonnay. Chardonnay = bad, bad, bad. Why? Because I feel that the nuances of oak, vanilla, butter, and pear that are present (sometimes in sledgehammer proportions) in chardonnay really interfere with, rather than integrate, ingredients in most recipes.
Cook the wine (don't forget to give a stir every once in a while) until it has almost evaporated. Then add the milk and spices, cooking and stirring until the milk has almost evaporated. (Though you can't see it in the picture there is a little freshly grated nutmeg underneath that pile of goodness.)
It's time for the tomatoes. Don't use fresh tomatoes unless you can find them at the peak of their flavor in the summer. This means that you have about a 2 or 3 month window to make this sauce in the summertime. During the rest of the year fresh tomatoes are going to taste like shoes. Use canned whole tomatoes. I bought 2 large cans of San Marzano tomatoes (any brand will work, though). Open the cans and, using a pair of kitchen shears, roughly chop the tomatoes in the can. Conversely, you can put the tomatoes, juice and all, into a food processor and pulse them a few times. Just remember that it is a rough chop. Let the long, slow cooking process break the pieces down. Add the tomatoes to the meat and spices. (Those two whitish things in the pot are Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rinds. Extra flavor.) Now we get to use my favorite culinary term of all time: cook the shit out of it.
When the sauce starts to bubble turn the heat down to the lowest setting so that the sauce just barely simmers. The sauce will need to be stirred occasionally. You don't want it to stick and burn. I cooked mine for about 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Like I said, take your time. Plan to be at home all day when you make this sauce. The slow cooking time really does let the flavor develop into something so deep that you will suddenly start speaking as if your last name were Soprano or Corleone. Or you may do this. The finished sauce should look like this:
Season to taste with salt. Stir it until you find the cheese rinds and discard them. You have spent a long time making this sauce. You should know that it freezes well so don't be afraid to put half of it in the freezer for another time. When you serve it you want to toss the pasta with the sauce. Use only enough sauce so that the pasta is just coated and the meat is evenly distributed. Don't drown your pasta with the sauce. Top the bowl of pasta with a grating of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. Don't forget the vino. A sturdy sangiovese, bonarda, or barbera would be a good match. I also think that a negroamaro or cannonau would be good, too. But really, drink what you like. It will be fine. Oh, one more thing: this sauce tastes better the next day; just something to think about. Yum.
Venison Bolognese with Saffron
1 Yellow Onion, peeled and minced
2 Carrots, peeled and minced
2 Celery Ribs, minced
3 Garlic Cloves, minced
6 Tbsp. Butter
4 Tbsp. EVOO
2 # Ground Venison (or ground beef chuck)
2 cups Dry White Wine
1 cup Whole Milk
2 tsp. Fresh Thyme, chopped
2 tsp. Fresh Oregano, chopped
1/2 gram Saffron Threads
1/4 tsp. Nutmeg, freshly grated
2 large cans Whole Peeled Tomatoes, roughly chopped
Put the EVOO, butter, and minced vegetables in a large, deep pot or stock pot and turn the heat to medium. Allow the vegetables to cook until they are just beginning to brown.
Add the meat and break it apart with a wooden spoon. Allow the meat to brown.
Add the wine and cook it, stirring occasionally, until it has mostly evaporated. Add the milk and spices and cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, until the milk has mostly evaporated.
Using kitchen shears inserted directly into the can, roughly chop the tomatoes. You can also pulse them, juice and all, in a food processor until they are just chopped but still fairly chunky. Add the tomatoes to the pot and let them begin to bubble. When the sauce begins to bubble reduce the heat to low so that it just barely simmers. Cook the sauce until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 3 or 4 hours. When the sauce is thick season it to taste with salt. Freeze half of the sauce (or more) and serve the rest tossed with freshly boiled pasta (spaghetti, linguine, or some shape, like orrechiete, that catches the sauce) and topped with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.