Hovering over a cauldron of hot meat, somewhere in a poky flat in London, two students of chemistry fervently debate what they honestly believe to be the finer points of an Italian classic. No, no, one must dissolve the stock cube in 40 degree water before-hand…ah but my learned friend, one can just simply sprinkle it straight in to the meat, and considering the energy coefficient of solubility it will be fine. We beg to differ, but surely anyone worth their salt would cook the meat first and then add onions. Oh my fellow collegiate, it is all but obvious that one cooks the onions first and then adds the meat. But why Balsamic? I mean why are you throwing a carboxylic acid in to a meat sauce, you’re mad…..Ahh yes but this acid will be offset by the coefficient of not really knowing what we are doing.
Through all of this intense, and what we thought was intellectual, debate not once was the true understanding of what we were doing discussed. In particular thinking about flavour, texture and the science of what really happens.
I remember a two day residential course during my A-level years (16-18 year old) at a university in the North of England and being bedazzled by the professor of organic chemistry who could synthesise the most incredible molecules from basic reagents. But this is not the reason why the experience has stuck with my all these years later. It was the sheer brilliance of the man when it came to making coffee. And it was brilliance because it was so bad. A lumpy (undissolved powdered milk), weak and tepid mess that was more Damien Hirst than Delia Smith.
Luckily for me, I managed to overcome the handicap of being a chemist to be able to cook with a degree of flair and efficiency, I hope. Years on from that meat cauldron I have been able to understand more about what happens when cooking – and do now consider flavour- and feel confident enough now to share with you my latest, and proudest, version of the Italian classic, spaghetti Bolognese.
Fortunately I discovered two things: the first is the wonderful mirepoix, and the second is that I can cook the meat and onions at the same time, in different pans. Now try telling that to a professor of chemistry. Enjoy.
- ■ 1 kg pork and veal mince | Of course lean beef can be used, but I love this combination.
- ■ 2 pork sausages | If you can, purvey good English style pork sausage from a good butcher – or the equivalent weight in sausage meat.
- ■ 5 tbsp. olive oil |
- ■ 100ml red wine | Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz – not too expensive though unless you are going to drink the rest.
- ■ 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar | A good aged one works well. There is something about the balsamic that seems to ‘lift’ the flavour of the sauce.
- ■ 2 carrots | Finely diced.
- ■ 1 brown onion | Finely diced.
- ■ 2 celery sticks | Finely diced.
- ■ 1 baby fennel | Finely chopped – this is optional but does add a super subtle aniseed note.
- ■ 1 leek | Finely chopped – white part only.
- ■ 2 pinches sea salt |
- ■ 250ml vegetable stock | Chicken or beef can be used. See here for chicken or beef stock.
- ■ 2 tsp. tomato purée |
- ■ 2 x 440g cans diced tomatoes | This can be made with fresh tomatoes, but quality tinned tomatoes are just as good.
- ■ seasoning of sea salt and black Pepper |
- ■ about 100g/person dried spaghetti | If I have time I will make fresh, otherwise dried is perfect.
- ■ a glug olive oil | Used to loosen the spaghetti when cooked.
Pre-heat your oven to 150 deg. C (300 deg. F).
In a large heavy based frying pan over medium to high heat add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When hot add the mince and work with a wooden spoon to break it down as it cooks. Cook until brown.
In the meantime add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a large casserole dish or heavy based pan that can be put in the oven, and put over a low heat on the hob. When the oil is hot add the carrots, onion, celery, leek, fennel and 2 pinches of sea salt. Mix well so the vegetables are coated with oil and sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the vegetables to brown (caramelise).
Back to the mince: once browned add the sausage meat. If using sausages squeeze tiny balls of meat from the skin and add to the mince. Once it’s all added, stir and cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. The mince will start sticking which is good, as this will add lots of flavour to the Bolognese.
Once the vegetables are soft and translucent add the tomato purée and stir. Once the meat has cooked add it to the vegetables and put the frying pan on high heat. Add the red wine and balsamic, and scrape the stuck on bits from the pan’s surface. Once the wine and balsamic have been reduced by half, add to the vegetables and meat, ensuring that the loosened sticky bits go in as well.
To the meat and vegetables add the stock and tinned tomatoes, stir and bring to the boil. Cover with a tight fitting lid and put in the oven for about 1hr 45 minutes. After an hour check the sauce. If it is looking a bit dry add a little hot stock or water to moisten.
Meanwhile for the spaghetti, cook according to the instructions on the packet. Once cooked, drain and reserve about a tablespoon of the cooking water. Put the spaghetti back in the pan, add the reserved cooking water and a glug of olive oil, stir and the cover the pan. This should keep your spaghetti fresh for 10 minutes or so.
Remove the Bolognese from the oven, season according to taste with sea salt and black pepper, and serve on the spaghetti. Buon appetito.