Friday, August 20, 2010

Spag Bol: a critique

Tonight I will be cooking spag bol. Actually it'll be fus(illi) bol, because the kid finds spaghetti hard to handle. Those who want to skip the philosophical investigations can go straight to the recipe.

I have been making spaghetti bolognese almost as long as I have been cooking. It's the great student standby, the thing you whip up (along with metres of garlic bread) when you're young and you want to have a party that involves everyone getting defragmented on wine instead of beer. I don't know what your recipe is, but here is the one that I learned and subsequently made for years, and I bet yours is not dissimilar:

Primordial Spag Bol
Chop an onion and 1-3 cloves of garlic (quantity of garlic depending on how close the friends are that you're cooking for). Fry onions and garlic in olive oil. Add lots of beef mince. Cook until mince not pink. Maybe add some red wine at this point. Add tins of chopped tomatoes and - if you're being really posh - maybe some kind of dried herb, like oregano. Cook for about an hour. Taste and season with salt and lots of black pepper. Serve with spaghetti and that grated cheese that comes in a little drum, with lots of red wine.

Okay, maybe nowadays we aren't buying so much as we used to of that weird dried-out cheese powder that comes in a plastic drum and smells of navels. Perhaps the youth are going so far as to buy real parmesan (or grated parmesan) in a plastic packet. But that's it.

And then, and then, my friends, as we go into our twenties, we start to buy Italian cookbooks, and we discover, perhaps to our embarrassment, that the spag bol we've been cooking all these years bears as much relationship to an authentic Bolognese dish of pasta with ragu as doing well in a session of Guitar Hero bears to being awarded the Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance. And we are discomfited, oh dear me yes.

So we start looking for the perfect ragu recipe. We experiment with cooking the meat first in milk, because Marcella Hazan told us to. We try incorporating such things as nutmeg, sage, ham, pancetta and chicken livers (not necessarily all at the same time). We buy braising steak and chop it finely instead of using mince, because Angela Hartnett (whose mum is Italian) says it's more authentic. We cook it for five hours instead of one. We use any kind of pasta other than spaghetti, because in Bologna they never serve this sauce with spaghetti. We do all sorts of things in the name of cooking a real Italian ragu, instead of that scarlet, peppery, garlic-spiked sludge that we've been eating for years. It could even be that, in the end, we manage to make something that actually resembles, however slightly a true, authentic Bolognese ragu.

I have a question. Why?

What was so wrong with the original dish? Maybe we could have civilised it a bit, using fresh basil and simmering for a bit longer than an hour (because, to tell the truth, it does actually take quite a long time for a sauce like this to calm down and stop tasting of all its constituent parts) but why were we kidding ourselves - why were we letting Delia 'How to Cheat at Cooking' Smith, of all people, kid us - that we could ever make the "real thing"? What were we looking for? The answers are not very difficult to figure out, but one thing is certain; most of them have nothing to do with food.

When I use the word 'we' in this article, unlike most writers who use the first person plural I include myself. I have dicked around endlessly with my bolognese sauce, and it was only a few years ago that, faced with the prospect of cooking a largish meal for a bunch of non-vegetarian and non-fussy people that had to be done on a budget, I resorted to making an old-school student-style Spag Bol. I used good parmesan and bought fresh basil and San Marzano canned tomatoes, and maybe I used some finely chopped carrot and celery as well as the onion, but basically it wasn't a million miles away from the concoction I used to help whip up in my first girlfriend's flat in Stoneybatter in the early 1990s. The result was a lot more satisfying than any of the supposedly authentic ragus I'd cooked up, for one very good reason: we who ate that particular meal knew how it was supposed to taste, and so we were fondly reminded of previous times we'd eaten it, and we were not disappointed or distracted by (to us) alien ingredients such as milk, pancetta or veal. It was a moment of genuine communion, and not - as the professional cookery writers want it to be - an occasion for culinary one-upmanship over whose sauce was more authentic.

So I offer this advice to you who worry about your Spag Bol, and think it needs to be upgraded: why do you want to eat this dish? Think back to what, exactly, you want from it. In Italy, and to be precise in Bologna, it means one thing. To us, who learned a bastardised version, it means something else, and the bastardised Spag Bol is our authentic ground-meat-and-tomato sauce for pasta, not the 'true' Bolognese ragu, that we will almost certainly never taste unless we actually travel to Italy, and maybe not even then.

Okay. Here, finally, is the recipe or tonight's Spag Bol, which because the child was joining us, had hidden vegetables that gave it a certain extra dimension.

Spag Bol with Hidden Vegetables

1 finely chopped medium onion

3 chopped garlic cloves

1 small dried chili pepper

2 carrots, finely chopped or blitzed into fragments in a Moulinex

1 red pepper, ditto

7-8 regular (white or chestnut, not flat or portobello) mushrooms, cleaned and ditto

750g beef mince

tomato puree

Glass of red/white wine (red is richer, white is fresher)

vegetable stock

1 can/packet of chopped tomatoes


2 bay leaves

pasta of your choice - use whatever you like, but dried pasta is definitely the way to go because this sauce will overpower fresh pasta

parmesan cheese, freshly grated

sea salt & black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Using a heavy saute pan or heavy-based saucepan, fry the onion, garlic and chili pepper in the oil till softened. Add the carrot and pepper and fry some more until softened. Take it all out and leave it in a bowl for now.

Add more oil to the pan and then the mushrooms, and fry until they stop exuding juice and are starting to brown. Remove them.

Add more oil, not too much, and add the meat, frying it in batches until it stops simmering in its own juice and has started to sizzle in its own fat. Reserve all the mince as you go. When the last batch of mince is browning nicely, throw in a good glug of tomato puree and mix it in well. Then add the wine and let it bubble and reduce by half.

Then add all the other meat and vegetables and mix well. Add plenty of oregano and season. Taste it. It should taste pretty good already.

Add the chopped tomatoes and vegetable stock to loosen it up. Stir well, add 2 bay leaves, bring to a simmer and let it simmer gently for at least three hours, though five would be even better.

After all that time, it should no longer taste of its constituent ingredients but of a deep, rich, meaty, tomatoey sauce. If it seems a little salty, add a spoonful of sugar. If it seems a little bland, add a dash (but no more) of red wine vinegar.

Serve with cooked pasta, freshly grated parmesan and torn basil leaves, and preferably a big bottle of cheap Italian wine. (If you're really not worried about the fat and carbs content, then you should by all means make and eat lots of garlic bread while you're waiting for the sauce to be ready. This in turn can help soak up the wine. It's been a long time since I tucked into garlic bread with anything like my old relish, basically because I want go on weighing 11 and a half stone.)

This is not ragu, which by most accounts is rich but also subtle and gentle - I've never been to Italy and have never had the real thing in a restaurant. I have nothing against it. I'm sure it's yummy, and one day I hope to eat it. But this is something else, something loud, vulgar, garish, garlicky and a second-generation immigrant: This Is Spag Bol. Up yours, Delia.

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