When is a Bolognese is not a Bolognese?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

In my travels on the virtual spiderweb that the denizens of the planet Earth so like to frequent, I have come across a unique creature called a Heston blumenthal (note to self: assess the possibility that the Linnean name of this species will be subject to change based on phylogenetic evidence). What is most interesting about H. blumenthal is that it is the first discovered species that subsists on entropy: that is, in order to get from point A to point B, H. blumenthal adds several steps that increases the total amount of entropy generated, and by this process seems to thrive. And nowhere are the feeding habits of H. blumenthal more apparent than in his BBC television series "In Search of Perfection".

Okay, I don't think I can carry that gag for much longer, but please do cut me some slack: how was I supposed to resist poking fun at a man who serves seafood with iPods, makes beer batter lighter and fluffier by putting it in CO2 canisters, and is infamous for creating life-size, life-like replicas of fruits using meats and offal and little else. So it's really to Blumenthal's credit that the antics don't go stale... because for all the wacky hijinks on display, there's surprisingly little ego, as all of the hubbub centers around the food itself or some detail of its presentation, and the show is never simply for show's sake. It's also convenient that the man is on TV a lot, so lay audiences have access to him and his methodological madness.

My favorite of Heston Blumenthal's shows are "In Search of Perfection" and its sequel "Further Adventures In Search of Perfection". I'd like to say the first series was dogged by its commitment to quintessentially "British" dishes: treacle tart, fish pies, fish and chips, etc... not really dishes the average gastronomer—or anyone living outside Britain and the former Commonwealth, as a matter of fact—gets excited about. But it was beautifully produced, with a clear focus that played an important role in driving the series forward. And perhaps, despite how that focus could vastly limit its audience, that was its main strength, for while the second season catered to a broader audience, featuring dishes with more international appeal, it also suffered from trying to cram too many features into one episode and a general lack of focus. The chili con carne episode, in particular, seemed to be spend most of its air time in fetishizing this strange phenomenon of "spice" and marveling how on earth do people manage to withstand this strange fire. (Hint: It's Not That Spicy, You're Just British.) Being most interested in the cooking aspect myself, I would have liked to see less brain MRIs of people eating spicy things, and more about the culinary importance of the cumin-spiked butter Blumenthal used to finish the dish, and the sour cream sorbet... sorbet! The part where he separated out Jack Daniels into various flavor compounds with a gas chromatograph was pretty nifty, though I was disappointed that he didn't do anything special with the "oak" compound he thereby discovered, and ended up just using the whiskey on its own.

So today I'm going to talk about the one episode (or rather, the recipe featured therein) that I thought was a perfect balance between the clear-minded focus of the first season and the more universal appeal of the second season. I've met very few people who didn't enjoy pasta when cooked properly (and the ones who didn't, frankly, had no soul—let's keep this between you and me, 'kay?). The problem is, properly cooked pasta is not easy or cheap outside of Italy: the situation in Korea is pretty dire, but I imagine it's even worse in England, the anti-food capital of the world. So off to Italy Blumenthal goes, where the closest thing to what the rest of the world would call a spaghetti bolognese is neither spaghetti nor called bolognese: it's tagliatelle al ragù.

"The first obvious difference between tagliatelle and spaghetti bolognese... is how... dry this is."

"Where's the sauce..."

"[But] you mix it and the whole dish comes alive, just like that... this wonderfully golden oil that's from the ragù... the whole thing just comes together beautifully."

In case no one told you, tagliatelle al ragù is pretty awesome stuff.

This kind of awesome.

This, as Heston Blumenthal explains, is how to make it. First you chop up a huge pile of onions, celery, and carrots in a 2:1:1 ratio—what's known as a soffrito, the vegetable flavor base of so many savory dishes in Italian cuisine (the same thing as a mirepoix in French cuisine), designed to enhance the flavor of meat but so richly bodied in itself that it sometimes actually substitutes in a pinch. Then you brown some beef—Blumethal used oxtail, for reasons I'll explain in a bit—with pork or pancetta and get going a base of some of those (mildly carcinogenic) polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are responsible for the wonderful aroma of char-grilled meat. You sauté the soffrito too, not enough to brown (because vegetables are different and caramelize instead of producing PAHs) but enough to bring out the aromatic properties of the vegetables: you basically end up sweating them. You then simmer the heck out of the meat and veggies you worked so hard at bringing to the right color and sheen, and it's not to spite your hard work, but to bring out the flavors you created by all those chemical reactions into the sauce where you'll better taste them later.

But it's also true the end result isn't much to look at.

Now this is where the narrative of ragù diverges from that of bolognese: where all the bolognese sauces I've had before were simply tomato (or marinara) sauces with lean ground meat crumbled in—a prospect which I've always found unappetizing—ragù is first and foremost a meat sauce... after all, it is etymologically related to the French "ragoût", which is an outright meat stew. And for those reasons, the meat must be the absolute star of the show. Everything that goes into this sauce must work towards overwhelming your senses with meaty tastes, aromas, and mouthfeels. All that browning and sweating wasn't just for show, it was to throw the aromas normally associated with meat into the highest relief possible. Collagen-rich oxtail was chosen so the sauce would feel velvety and plush on the tongue and palate. Even the milk used to braise isn't used for its own flavor, but for its ability to maintain the ingredients at a neutral pH against the wine and keep the meat tender. And the seasonings used later in the recipe, though eyebrow-raising, are all meant to heighten levels of umami, the taste that tells your brain that you are eating meat. While he doesn't say it in so many words, Heston does not let you forget that at the end of the day, it's all about the meat.

Still, a modern ragù would not be complete without just a little bit of tomato in there somewhere. And indeed, Heston boldly pronounces his "tomato compote" as the element that will lift his ragù up to another level... possibly because while his meat-and-soffrito base is fragrant, it is completely unseasoned. The tomato compote contains, beside tomatoes, all sorts of condiments: ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and even fish sauce. All, Blumenthal says, meant to boost umami.
Skinning and deseeding tomatoes.

Ready for the pot.

Heston also fries his tomato compote in oil (to concentrate the flavors and add a "roast" note that, again, works well with the meat) before adding it to the ragù base. I thought that was a great idea (remember that "golden oil" from earlier?), but I opted instead to fry the whole sauce at the very end, right before plating, as I saw the chef at the Bologna tagliatelle restaurant do. I also chose not to bone and mince my oxtail beforehand, but braise it whole with the pork and the soffrito: after the 6+ hours of simmering that the recipe calls for, the meat falls off the bone and disintegrates into the sauce of its own accord anyway.

It's worth noting I only used half as many tomatoes as Blumenthal's recipe called for (because I didn't have any more on hand) but the sauce turned out pitch-perfect: probably because Blumenthal had originally been tasked not with cooking authentic ragù, but with restructuring the British public's beloved "spag bol"—god, what a word—and therefore had to stick to a relatively high tomato-to-meat ratio. I don't need to do this, as all I have to cook for are myself and H., who spent years in Italy himself. Trust me, the meatier version tastes much better. Blumenthal and I both used garlic, which is not traditional. But I do think it tastes better this way.

Interesting how I can't tell what the brand name is here: it's the qualities of the pasta (granular surface, egg dough) that are emphasized most on the packaging.

Finally, a note about the pasta. It's traditional to use tagliatelle because it's a wide, flat noodle with a lot of surface area to begin with, supplemented by cracks and bumps in the surface of the pasta itself that gives the sauce even more to cling to. For such an assertive sauce (with oxtail. and celery. and fish sauce.) no flimsier noodle will work, which is why spaghetti is never eaten with real ragù alla bolognese. And, as much work as you've put into the sauce and as weepingly flavorful and delicious it is? It will always play second fiddle to the pasta, at least if you've got a proper bowl of the stuff. I dream of the day when I will be proficient enough at rolling that making my own will no longer seem so prohibitive, but until that day, this will be my number one choice to eat with my homemade ragù.

The end result:

It tasted of bliss, and the snowflakes whirling outside, the dreary cloudcast sky only made the meal seem more heavenly by comparison.

Other, more helpful breakdowns and explanations of Heston Blumenthal's original recipe:
Kok Robin's Blog
Monitor Munching
In Search of Heston (a blog about cooking every recipe Heston Blumenthal has released... that kind of dedication is almost scary.)

A Deceit of Lapwings

All happy people are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy people are more or less alike.