Before there was Lidia, there was Marcella. I’m talking about Marcella Hazan, who reigned as the doyenne of Italian cuisine until her death in 2013. Her cookbooks are classics in the Italian food repertoire and are the first place I go to when I’m looking for a traditional recipe like basil pesto or gnocchi alla romana. Born in Italy, she wrote her cookbooks in Italian, and her husband, Victor Hazan, translated them into English. Married for 58 years, theirs is a love story that continues even after she is gone. Victor has taken over Marcella’s Facebook page since her death, and occasionally posts beautiful tributes to her, including these lines: “I am at life’s end and in looking back I can see how Marcella and I were squeezed from a single lump of clay.” Or these: “Where cooking was concerned she didn’t need to check how others were doing it. She didn’t have to because Marcella didn’t have doubts, she knew, and out of that knowledge, whose mysterious creative source had always been a wonder to me, she produced the pure, expressive taste of her cooking.”
I don’t know why it took me this long to make her ragù Bolognese, but I’m glad I finally tasted for myself what Marcella followers have known for decades. It doesn’t get better than this. It takes a long time to simmer, but it’s worth the long wait.
Start by sweating the vegetables in olive oil and butter – carrots, celery and onion,
Add the ground meat and cook until it loses its pink color, then add the wine.
Next comes the unusual step of adding milk and seasonings that include a generous grating of nutmeg. It looks curdled at first, but after it cooks and the milk gets absorbed into the meat, it will look more blended. Be patient, it may take a while for this step.
The tomatoes are added last, after the milk has become absorbed. Turn the heat to low and let it simmer for at least three hours – even longer if you have time.
After the lengthy cooking at low temperature, you’ll be left with this rich, dense ragù.
Perfect for adding to a bowl of pappardelle, as I did, or if you prefer, use tagliatelle, or fettuccine.
The recipe makes more ragù than I needed for the pound of pasta I cooked, so I served the leftover ragu another night with a bowl of polenta. It was equally as good and soul satisfying. Grazie Marcella, for this gem of a recipe. And grazia, Victor, for keeping those memories alive through Marcella’s Facebook page.
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- 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons chopped celery
- 2 tablespoons chopped carrot
- ¾ pound ground lean beef, or a combination of beef, veal and/or pork
- 1 cup dry white wine
- ½ cup whole milk
- ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 cups canned whole tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
- 1 pound pasta - tagliatelle or pappardelle (you'll have leftover ragu)
- In a Dutch Oven or large heavy pot, add the onion with the oil and butter and saute briefly over medium heat until translucent.
- Add the celery and carrot and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the ground beef, crumbling it in the pot with a fork.
- Add 1 teaspoon salt, stir, and cook only until the meat has lost its red, raw color.
- Add the wine, turn the heat up to medium high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated.
- Turn the heat down to medium, add the milk and the nutmeg, and cook until the milk has evaporated. This may take a while.
- Stir frequently.
- When the milk has evaporated, add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly.
- When the tomatoes have started to bubble, turn the heat down until the sauce cooks at the laziest simmer, just an occasional bubble.
- Cook, uncovered, for a minimum of 3½ to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Serve with tagliatelle, or pappardelle, and a good sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese.