Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese – A Study in Fat

Do you have any Marcella Hazan cookbooks in your collection? If you don’t you should. She is without question the Grand Dame of Italian cooking. Or perhaps I should say she was the Grand Dame of Italian cooking, as sadly, she passed away a few years ago. If you’re unfamiliar with who she is, and the huge impact she’s had on Italian fare in America, please read the wonderful bio/obituary the NY Times wrote just after her death.

If you don’t have any of her cookbooks, you should pick up what is probably her best collection of recipes, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”. It’s chock full of great Italian dishes, of which I’ve made more than a few, and they never disappoint. Plus there’s instructions for cooks of all levels on things like how to make pasta, risotto, and other classic Italian dishes. As well as information about herbs, spices, and cheeses used in Italian cooking.

The other day (and it takes almost a whole day) I decided to make her bolognese for the first time, and what I discovered, is that it’s a dish that’s all about fat.

An unctuous, mouth coating, unabashed glorification of fat. Though if you’re not paying attention, you’d not likely notice, because she delivers the recipe in a no nonsense matter of fact style, that understates the genius of the dish and doesn’t quite allude to how special it truly is.

She starts the recipe with a brief description of what we’re about to embark on:

“Ragù as the Bolognese call their celebrated meat sauce, is characterized by mellow, gentle, comfortable flavor that any cook can achieve…”

That mellow, gentle, comfortable flavor that everyone is celebrating is FAT. She continues by giving us a bulleted list of tips, one of which is to make sure we use beef with plenty of fat:

“The meat should not be from too lean a cut; the more marbled it is, the sweeter the ragù will be…”

So she begins by imploring us to use fatty beef, and then the first step in the recipe,

“Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, and 3 tablespoons of butter…”

4 tablespoon of fat. The first layer of fat. Then she has us sauté a mirepoix in the fat, add the fatty ground beef and cook the red out of it. Then the next layer of fat:

“Add 1 cup whole milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently until it has bubbled away completely…”

Guess what gets left behind after the milk has “bubbled away”? The milk fat remains.

She continues and has us add wine, cook that until it has completely evaporated, then add tomatoes with their juices. Next, she has us cook the bolognese at the “barest of simmers” for “at least 3 hours or more“. She then has us add water if the bolognese becomes dry, but she makes sure we cook it out before serving, and this is key:

While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it begins to dry out, and the fat separates from the meat. To keep it from sticking, continue the cooking, adding 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must be left.”

This dish is a sauce, but the only liquid in it is fat. The sauce consists of the chopped vegetables, meat, and fat, lots of fat. The vegetables lose all of their texture and become silky smooth and almost creamy. The meat also becomes very tender, and it too almost melts in your mouth. The fat from the oil, butter, milk, and meat all remain, and all that fat coats the pasta, (and your palate), and makes for an umami laden, rich, and delicious dish.

Here’s the pot of bolognese I made. If you look closely, you’ll see the fat pooling on top, but there is no liquid other than the fat itself.

This sauce is so full of flavor and has such a pleasing texture, that I ate a couple of small bowls of it without bothering with the pasta. Really, it’s the best way to appreciate just how good this sauce is.

At the very end of the recipe, Mrs. Hazan then suggests we toss the pasta with butter (more fat) before tossing it with the bolognese, and serve it with parmesan cheese (yet even more fat). This woman understands the joys of fat.

If you’ve never made a true bolognese (tomato sauces with meat in them are not the same thing), make this recipe and serve it to guests, who’ll think you’re an Italian cooking genius. Just don’t tell them the secret; what they’re eating is a plate of fat.

Of course I need to share the recipe with you, and instead of taking up a ton of space on the blog writing out her recipe, I found a NY Times page which has the full recipe:

Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Sauce


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s