Saturday, March 8, 2008

Garlic Embargo (and a Recipe for Ragù Bolognese)

At the risk of shocking my readers, I'd like to see a month-long garlic embargo. Of course that will never happen, given its widespread popularity. Garlic, it appears, seems to permeate almost every savory dish we eat - it is ubiquitous. The problem with garlic is that it is often used with a heavy hand. All that you taste is the garlic. Our palates have been trained to confuse what is common for what is good. Then there's the widespread use of processed garlic in the form of powder, flakes and garlic salt - all of which are acrid and bitter - a poor substitute for fresh. Dining out can be a challenge too, as many menu items are loaded with garlic. You order Tilapia and it's bathed in garlic butter. You choose the Lobster Bisque and it's garnished with artfully placed swirls of garlic oil. Uh, no, thanks - where's the lobster? The chefs just assume that we want all that garlic. Not! You know there's a problem when you get home and your bra smells like garlic! (If you're a guy and your bra smells like garlic, then you have an issue which I'm not prepared to address). There is no question that garlic can be a flavorful, if not essential ingredient in many dishes: Bagna Cauda, Caesar Salad, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, Coq au Vin, Shrimp Scampi, Skordalia ... and my braised lamb shanks or pot roast without garlic would be like an opera season without Puccini - acceptable but not preferable.

In her book, “Essentials of Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan said, “To equate Italian food with garlic is not quite correct, but it isn’t totally wrong, either. It may strain belief, but there are some Italians who shun garlic and many dishes at home and in restaurants are prepared without it... on occasion, a more emphatic garlic accent may be appropriate, but never, in good Italian cooking, should it become harshly pungent or bitter." In "Trattora Cooking", cookbook author Biba Gaggiano said, "A heavy hand with garlic doesn't make a dish 'Italian'. The basic principle that guides all Italian cooking also applies to the use of garlic - just enough to flavor a dish, but not too much to overpower it. Never use the dried-up garlic flakes or powder sold in supermarkets. The taste will kill a dish, not enhance it."

One of the things that sets authentic Bolognese Meat Sauce apart is the absence of garlic. Neither Hazan’s nor Gaggiano's sauces contain it. The flavors of this classic dish are derived instead from the trio of onion, carrot and celery, white wine, and the meat itself. Gaggiano's recipe adds two ounces of finely chopped pancetta.

Among my hundreds of cookbooks, I probably have 50 recipes for Ragù Bolognese, some of them using as many as eight cloves of garlic! Some also employ Italian sausage, mushrooms, red wine, bay leaves (too strong for this dish), bell pepper or crushed red pepper. I can promise you that green bell pepper will ruin this recipe, at which point you might as well add the garlic and a can of beans and call it "chili con carne". My friend Marcy, who was born in Rome, says, "there are as many recipes for Bolognese in Italy as there are cooks." Over time, I have developed my own recipe for Ragù Bolognese. You may add garlic if you wish, but the designed delicacy of the dish will be overshadowed.

Ragù Bolognese

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 slices thick-cut bacon, finely diced or 3 ounces pancetta, finely diced
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
2/3 cup finely chopped celery
2/3 cup finely chopped carrot
1-1/2 pounds ground beef chuck
1/2 pound ground pork
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup beef stock or broth, as needed (preferably homemade)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, with their juice
1 parmigiano-reggiano cheese rind (optional)*
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1-1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup whole milk
1 pound high-quality imported dried fettuccini, linguini, or spaghetti*
Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

In a 5-quart dutch oven, with the burner on medium, heat the butter and oil. Add the bacon and sauté until brown, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, celery, carrot, oregano, thyme, salt, and pepper and sauté 5-6 minutes. Add the beef and pork, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up the meat and cook until it loses its raw color, about 5 minutes. While the meat is simmering, place the tomatoes in a blender and pulse until the tomatoes are chopped into small pieces. Add the wine to the dutch oven and cook another five minutes, so that the wine is reduced. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes and optional cheese rind and cook another 5 minutes. Add the milk and nutmeg. Simmer with the burner on low for 1 hour, stirring 3 or 4 times and adding the stock if the sauce seems too thick. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with salt and/or pepper if necessary. Serve with desired pasta and freshly grated cheese. Serves 4-6.

* Cheese rinds can add a wonderful depth of flavor to sauces, soups, stews, and braises. They are ridiculously inexpensive and easily found at most cheese shops.