Minced meat, principally beef, is a British staple, foundation of such family classics as spag bol, lasagne and cottage pie. It is often proposed as a key ingredient for the sort of happy, Bisto-family meal to which we are all supposed to aspire. However, the sort of quick-cook methods that are sometimes described for these dishes can rob them of their comfort value, producing meal, grainy meat in a thin, insipid sauce. I am not proposing a slavish adherence to authentic Italian methods, because we all recognise that while a Bolognese sauce in the UK bears little relation to any dishes from Bologna, it can still be a fine thing in it’s own right.
I make these sort of dishes a fair bit – and it’s handy to cook a British bolognese sauce in a large quantity, and freeze some or use it in a different dish. The basics are fairly well known, and can be got from most basic cookbooks: soften onions and other vegetables; brown the meat; add liquids and flavourings, simmer until done. Hopefully the tips below will elevate this comfort dish from ordinary to exceptional:
- Firstly, get your mince from a source you trust. I am not going to advocate going to your butcher and asking for a whole piece of beef to be minced in front of you, or mince it yourself (although for the best hamburger, that you can serve rare, please go ahead!). Mince is necessarily unidentifiable when you buy it at the supermarket, and will have been made from the cheaper cuts, so it’s important to go for a good source, and maybe pay a bit extra to get better quality meat.
- Don’t go for the ultra-lean packet – some fat is good here as it will keep the meat tender and moist. 10 – 15% is good.
- Brown the meat separately. This can be done before or after cooking the veg – I tend to prefer to brown it first in a very hot pan, removing the meat to a plate and pouring off any excess fat before cooking the veg in the same pan, and finally combining it all back together. This allows you to get the meat very brown and develops lots of meaty flavour – don’t stir it too much to start with or it will just boil as water is release. Wait for a brown crust to develop before breaking up the lumps and turning them over.
- Vegetables – onions are a must, and I like to use chopped celery and carrots, each about 50% of the volume of chopped onions (measurements don’t have to be exact). I also use mushrooms whenever I have them in, either chopped fine or sliced, and cooked after the beef on a fairly high heat to brown them a little and cook off most of their water.
- Liquids – possibilities include red wine, beef stock, milk, water, chopped tomatoes (tinned or fresh, skinned ones) or passata (sieved tomatoes). If using wine, use about a wine glass full, and add it first, reducing it down before adding other liquids. Marcella Hazan, the great Italian food writer, swears by cooking the meat gently in milk for about 30 minutes, until it is absorbed before adding the tomatoes. I have tried it, and it is tasty, but if I want to get it simmering quickly and then leave it alone, I’ll skip that step. I virtually never use beef stock as I never have it in the house, but might use chicken stock or a stock cube.
- Flavourings – traditionally include a bay leaf. You can also include other herbs, especially parsley or thyme. Dried mixed herbs are fine as long as they are added with the liquid so that they have a good long time to soften and release their flavour. I also like Worcestershire sauce, added near the end to boost the meaty flavour, and tomato paste, added to the vegetables and stirred in before the liquid.
- The most important step – once everything is in the pot, simmer it very gently, on the lowest heat that will still liberate the occasional bubble. Leave the lid off and simmer for at least 2 hours, or until the sauce has thickened up – this could take up to 4 hours, depending on the size and shape of your pot.
Once you have a lovely, thick sauce, taste it and season with salt and pepper. This sauce benefits from being really tasty, so don’t go too easy with the salt (although if you have used a stock cube, you may find it’s fine as it is). And then you can go ahead and make dinner! Favourite uses: spag bol, with plenty of parmesan on top (or use rigatoni or penne instead – they’re actually much more suitable than spaghetti for this sort of sauce, but I have a nostalgic affection for spaghetti nonetheless). Lasagne can be easily constructed, either with a bechamel or an easy sauce of creme fraiche and cheese. For cottage pie, stir in some frozen peas, top with really buttery mashed potatoes and bake until it’s bubbling and brown on top.
I actually made bolognese this evening, so here is a slightly more accurate recipe:
A British Bolognese Sauce
1 kg beef mince 1 jar passata 3 medium onions, chopped 2 large carrots, chopped 2-3 ribs of celery, choppped 250g mushrooms, chopped 100ml red wine 500ml chicken stock 1 tbsp tomato paste 1 tsp dried mixed herbs
olive oil, salt, pepper
Chop the onions fairly finely, and gently soften in oil in a large casserole (I use my Le Creuset). While they are cooking, heat a large saute or frying pan over a high heat and brown lumps of the mince in batches. Leave the meat to develop a good brown crust before stirring. Remove each batch to a plate with a slotted spoon once it’s done. While the meat is cooking, chop the celery and carrots and add to the onions to soften.
Once the meat is cooked, add the chopped mushrooms and brown. Add the tomato paste and cook for about a minute before deglazing the pan with the wine. Reduce the wine until it’s fairly thick, then scrape the whole lot on top of the vegetables. Add the meat to the casserole as well, with the passata, stock and mixed herbs and bring too the boil. TUrn the heat down and simmer for at least an hour or as long as you’ve got. Top up with hot water if it gets too thick or dry.