This article is from the San Francisco Chronicle on February 21, 2007. If you want to check out the whole piece online, go here.
Though the word "bolognese" also has become a generic term for meat sauce, it has a much stricter definition within Italy, where the quintessential ragu, or ragu alla bolognese, comes from Bologna and its surrounding region, Emilia-Romagna. But even there, recipes vary greatly. Most do not have much in the way of tomatoes -- usually only a little tomato paste or puree -- and include milk or cream.
Regional differences often come down to the availability of agricultural products. Northern Italy has more access to meat, while the less prosperous south relies more on vegetables. This partly explains why a Neapolitan ragu contains more tomatoes and less meat than a bolognese, says Chronicle contributor Joyce Goldstein, author of "Italian Slow and Savory" (Chronicle Books, 2004).
At Nopa restaurant in San Francisco, cook Liz Bills developed a recipe for Nine-Hour Bolognese as a way to use up high-quality scraps of meat, both cooked and raw. The restaurant serves the sauce over creamy polenta on Sundays.
"One day we may sell out of our beef entree, and the next day hardly sell any at all," she says. "So my solution to utilize most, if not all, of our meat products was to produce this dish and cut down on waste."
Bills will use lamb, pork, beef and pancetta or all of the above in the sauce, and she recommends doing the same at home with whatever you have in the refrigerator, be it leftover pork chops or a little hamburger meat.
The reason the sauce takes so long to cook is that Bills first adds milk to the sauteed vegetables and meat, and allows it to evaporate very slowly, up to three hours. She then adds wine and repeats this lengthy evaporation process, before adding the tomatoes. At this point, she lowers the heat even more for an additional three hours of gentle simmering.
The grand total is more like 10 hours, if you include all the chopping and sauteing that goes on in the beginning. But home cooks making smaller batches will find it takes less time to evaporate the milk and wine than it does in Nopa's industrial-size pots.