We’ve Reached the Pasta Bolognese Phase of 2020
Chef Karen Akunowicz of Boston’s Fox & the Knife offers her personal recipe and advice for making this ultra-comforting dish.
There is pasta sauce—and then there is Bolognese.
The vegetable, meat and tomato sauce is so essential to Italian cooking that the Bologna delegation to the Italian Academy of Cuisine established an official recipe for the dish in 1982.
“For me it’s incredibly comforting,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Karen Akunowicz, of Boston’s Fox & the Knife, which is known for its version of the sauce. “I lived in Emilia-Romagna for a year [and] trained as a cook and a pasta maker.”
Akunowicz, who’s a contestant on the current season of Top Chef All Stars, describes the food she serves at her restaurant as “modern Italian grandma”—that is to say, familiar and based on classic recipes. So, you can imagine her frustration that Bolognese in America is often made too similarly to marinara sauce.
Traditional Bolognese is far more balanced and uses tomato to season rather than to drown out other ingredients. It also includes milk, which gives it a silkiness.
“There should be nothing left on the bottom of the plate that hasn’t been clinging to the noodles,” she says. “You should have something that feels incredibly comforting, while not making you feel incredibly weighed down. You shouldn’t finish it and feel like you couldn’t go dancing.”
Here are the chef’s expert tips and advice for making Bolognese sauce at home, and the recipe for her spicy, herbaceous take on the classic.
The base of this classic sauce is the holy trinity of sautéed carrot, onion and celery, which is traditionally called mirepoix.
“One of the important things to me is that each of those vegetables are added separately and caramelized to bring out the flavor of each one instead of just putting all three in the pan at the same time,” says Akunowicz. “I’ll typically start with the celery because it’s less sweet and has a higher water content and really try to get some nice color on it.”
She recommends adding freshly ground black pepper and a bit of the pancetta (or prosciutto or bacon if you’re using a substitute) as you add each vegetable, which will allow some of the fat to render. “Really try to build flavor with every step because it’s a long simmering sauce [and] it’s important to develop those flavors at every part of the process.”
While the official Bolognese recipe calls for beef alongside pancetta, this is where Akunowicz begins to veer from tradition: “I like to use veal, pork and wild boar,” she says. “While I was living in Emilia-Romagna, I spent a lot of time in Tuscany when I wasn’t working, so there’s a little bit of influence from Cinghiale with the wild boar that I add. I think it gives it another layer of flavor.”
Odds are, however, that wild boar isn’t readily available at your local market, so go ahead and pick up ground beef. Akunowicz says the blend of ground veal, beef and pork with pancetta will still “come out absolutely delicious.”
The meat will be added directly to the mirepoix, so be sure to use a pot that’s big enough so that everything can caramelize.
As the meat goes into the mirepoix, you’ll also add your herbs and other seasonings. Akunowicz likes to add a bit of crushed red pepper to the sauce to give it a touch of spice. She’s also liberal with her rosemary and thyme.
“Those herbs bring an earthiness to the dish,” she says. “Anytime you’re adding herbs, it’s just sort of lifting it up. You’re looking [to add] harder, not softer herbs, but if I have a little bit of [fresh] oregano, I might add that even though it’s completely untraditional.”
Only have dried herbs? Work with what you have. She promises it will be delicious either way.
To give her Bolognese sauce that wonderfully velvety texture, Akunowicz uses a dry white wine (“the rule of thumb is that you should never cook with something that you wouldn’t drink”), veal stock (that can easily be substituted with chicken stock), a modest amount of tomato puree for the acidity, and a unique ingredient. “The element that I think makes our [version] really special is instead of using milk, I use whey byproduct from ricotta and I add a lot of herbs to it,” she says. But, don’t worry, you can also use whatever milk you have on hand.
The liquids will cook in the pot until everything—the mirepoix, meat and liquid ingredients—come together. “We want it to look homogenous,” she says. “It should be thick. It should be rich. Basically, it’s going to reduce it by a third.”
One totally unexpected element in Akunowicz’s Bolognese is her finishing ingredient: chicken livers. While this isn’t necessarily an essential element, she contends that it adds the ideal final flavor and the perfect mouthfeel to the dish.
“We sear the chicken livers and chop them, and then we whisk them into the sauce in the final 10 minutes of cooking,” she says. “It adds richness, like if you’re mounting something with butter in French cooking.”
Akunowicz serves her Bolognese over freshly made tagliatelle noodles at Fox & the Knife. However, she has no qualms about using boxed noodles.
“I think that if you have the time, you absolutely can make your own pasta,” she says. “It’s a wonderful project, especially on a weekend and something that you can do with your family. That being said, there is absolutely no shame in the dry pasta game.”
If you are using dried pasta, though, you’re probably better off going for a smaller, more rigid noodle like campanelle or radiatore. “Those little ridges are going to really nicely catch the sauce,” she says.
Once you’ve layered and seasoned your way through the vegetables, the meat, the liquids, the livers and the pasta and served yourself a big, inviting portion, the last ingredient is, of course, the cheese.
“Because Bolognese is from Emilia-Romagna, we would use a cheese that was from the region as well,” she says. In this case, that’s Parmigiano-Reggiano,” she says. “I like to Microplane it by hand. It’s incredibly light—like snow sort of melting on the top of the pasta.”
Recipe from Chef Karen Akunowicz of Boston’s Fox & the Knife
For the Sauce:
- .25 cup Olive oil
- 2 cups Carrots, diced
- 2 cups Celery, diced
- 4 cups Onions, diced
- 8 Garlic cloves, sliced
- 2 cups Pancetta, diced (you can substitute prosciutto or bacon)
- 4 Tbsp Rosemary, dried or freshly chopped
- 4 Tbsp Thyme, dried or freshly chopped
- 2 tsp Crushed red pepper flake
- 2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp Kosher salt
- 1 cup White wine
- 1 pound Ground veal
- 1 pound Ground wild boar or beef
- 1 pound Ground pork
- 2 cups Tomatoes, milled or puréed
- 2 cups Veal or chicken stock
- 1 cup Whey or milk
- 1 cup Chicken livers, cleaned
For the Cinghiale Tagliatelle Bolognese:
- 8 oz Fresh tagliatelle or linguini (or dried pasta of your choice)
- .33 cup Bolognese sauce
- 2 Tbsp Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1 tsp Rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 tsp Thyme, finely chopped
- 1 tsp Unsalted butter
Pour the olive oil into a large heavy bottomed pot, then add the celery and caramelize over medium-high heat until toasty and tender. Season with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, rosemary, and thyme. Next, add the carrots and sauté until browned, seasoning again with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, rosemary, and thyme. Repeat for onion, garlic, and pancetta. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and scrape the nice brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add the ground meat one pound at a time and sear (but don’t cook all the way through), thoroughly breaking up chunks. Season each layer with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, rosemary, and thyme. Next add the whey or milk, and simmer the meat to finish cooking and make it tender. After 5 minutes or so add veal stock, and tomato puree and bring to a medium simmer. Turn down to low and simmer for 2 hours, until reduced.
To a heavy bottomed frying pan, add 1 tablespoon of canola or other neutral oil. Add chicken livers and sear over high heat. They should be seared on the outside and medium rare on the inside. Set aside to cool for 2 minutes and then mince finely and whisk into the Bolognese.
Remove from heat and taste for seasoning.
Bring a gallon of water to a boil in a large pot and add .25 cup of salt. While waiting for the water to boil, heat 1 cup of Bolognese sauce gently in a sauté or frying pan over medium heat. When the water boils, drop in the pasta and cook for 1 minute if using fresh pasta, 6 minutes if using dried. Add the pasta and .25 cup of the pasta cooking water to the Bolognese sauce and let simmer on low for 30 seconds so the pasta can continue to cook in the sauce. Toss the pasta in the pan or stir gently with a pair of tongs. When the pasta is perfectly coated, add the teaspoon of butter and half of the cheese and toss again. Divide between two bowls and top with the remaining cheese.
Makes 2 servings