Meat sauce, mince, ragu alla Bolognese, savoury mince; call it what you will, almost every cuisine has a version (for example Phat Kaphroa, the Thai dish flavoured with fish and oyster sauces and Holy basil).

My Scottish roots mean “mince and tatties” were a staple when I was growing up – the meat fried with onions in a thick (Bisto) gravy and served with mashed potato and green beans. It was the definition of comfort food, and what I always requested when it was my turn to decide the menu.

The versatility of minced beef makes it a shopping trolley staple for most households – turn it into burgers, meat balls, meatloaf or a substantial sauce for pasta (we love spag bol, even though we are now sophisticated enough to know that the natives of Bologna would never eat it with spaghetti).

I’ve been to Bologna and eaten it in a restaurant there, and keenly followed the debate on whether it should have tomatoes in it, or simply a spoonful of tomato paste, given that there is a school of thought that it is not a “red” sauce.

Indeed, nearly 20 years ago on a trip to Bologna I stayed at a farmhouse BnB (agriturismo), the guest of a lovely farmer’s wife called Luisa Bedeschi. She too had strong opinions on the right and wrong way to make the local dish and was the first to tell me to use milk instead of wine.

We agreed to trade recipes and I sent her one for spiced apple cake (based on my Quick Vanilla Sponge) that I’ve been making forever.

I was overjoyed to receive back her family recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese and I still make a version of it today.

Of course, being Italian, it begins with a sofrito – the holy trinity of onion, carrot and celery, fried in a mix of butter and olive oil.

A 50:50 mixture of minced beef and pork is the rule, with cured pork belly (pancetta) and prosciutto added for good measure. Chicken liver is also an optional extra.

The technical tip is to fry the meat and vegetables hard, until all the liquid has evaporated and the meat starts to get brown and crispy (but not burnt). This can take longer than you think – 15-20 minutes with regular stirring.

Then a glass of white wine (or milk, which mimics the acid to break down the proteins in the meat), and a jar of passata or tinned chopped tomatoes. Turn the heat down and simmer for 3 hours, adding water or stock if it gets too dry. Season with salt and pepper before serving.

Interestingly, Luisa does not add garlic or any herbs (she frowned and shook her head when I asked about adding oregano or dried thyme. ‘No, nothing else’ she insisted).

I have evolved a hybrid recipe that does include garlic and herbs, and a pinch of dried chilli flakes. Pancetta and prosciutto (or smoked streaky bacon) are optional, and I sometimes add mushrooms if they are drifting around the vegetable drawer.

The only other proviso is time – I recommend making this sauce the day before you need it, to allow for maximum simmering time and then maximum chilling time for the flavours to really mellow and meld.

Good Parmesan is worth it – avoid the sweaty supermarket vac packs if you can – and then the only dilemma left is whether it will become lasagne or velvety cladding for thick-cut home-made pasta, or pappardelle from the corner shop.

As there are only two of us at home, this makes enough for at least two meals, so I usually put half aside for a chilli later in the week. Any chilli leftovers become breakfast, with a poached egg on top.

It’s super economical, and adding lots of veg stretches the meat to feed more mouths.

Ingredients

Serves 4

250g beef mince (I prefer 10% fat but the OH always buys 5%)

250g pork mince

100g pancetta (or smoked streaky bacon or lardons), chopped into small strips

100g prosciutto (optional, or double up on the pancetta)

80g chicken livers (optional), finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

30g butter

100g chestnut mushrooms (optional), roughly chopped

1 tablespoon concentrated tomato paste

Pinch of dried chilli flakes (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme (leaves only), or a teaspoon of dried Italian herbs

2 bay leaves

250ml white wine (or milk)

1 x 400ml jar of passata (tomato sauce), or tin of chopped tomatoes

Salt and pepper

Method

Heat the oil and butter in a saucepan and add the onion, carrot and celery with the pancetta. Cook for 4-5 minutes until translucent, then add the the rest of the meat.

After 5 minutes add the chopped mushrooms (if using).

Keep the heat high and stir regularly so that it doesn’t stick but allows all the moisture to evaporate, until you can hear the meat and veg sizzling. Keep going until the meat starts to brown and get crispy on the edges. Add the garlic when the meat is nearly done – you don’t want it to burn.

Now add the tomato paste, give it one minute, then the wine or milk, give it another minute to sizzle and then turn down the heat. Add the tomatoes and herbs, chilli and a glug of water or stock if it’s looking too dry. I usually add a tomato tin worth of water at this stage so it has plenty of liquid to simmer in.

Put on the lowest heat (I use a diffuser plate on my gas hob) with the lid on and leave to simmer. Check on it every so often, give it a stir and add more water or stock if necessary.

The sauce is cooked when the tomatoes have broken down and the oil on top has taken on an orange glow. Minimum 2.5 hours, possibly longer.

Then season to taste with salt and pepper (I sometimes use a little bouillon powder).

With this batch of meat sauce I used half to make a lasagne and froze the rest for another day.

I made a béchamel (white sauce) and soaked bought lasagne sheets in boiling water for 5 minutes to soften (even the ones that say they don’t need soaking always do, so don’t be tempted to ignore that stage, it will result in dry, undercooked pasta in your lasagne!).

My white sauce recipe is simple: 45g of olive oil, 45g plain flour, in a saucepan over medium heat, stir to mix, slowly add 250-280ml whole milk, stirring all the time (a sauce whisk is useful here), until it’s thick and bubbling. Add some grated cheese, salt and pepper.

I grated lots of Parmesan and sprinkled some in each layer as I was building the dish – a thin layer of meat sauce, pasta sheets, white sauce, cheese, repeat. If you have  a ball of mozzarella tear that up and distribute it between the layers as well – you can’t have too much melty cheese in this one.

Finish with a layer of béchamel and lots of cheese – I usually add grated cheddar to the topping as well.

The dish needs around 40-45 minutes in the oven at 170C until golden brown and bubbling. This is my version, with apologies to my Italian friends!

© Linda Galloway 2021

beef ragu layered with pasta and cheese sauce in a dish