Editor’s note: Food columnist Bill St. John has decided to return to writing his column after a short break.
Ever since I ascertained that the origin of French fries wasn’t France (it’s Belgium, and because I’m half Belgian, this was joy), I’ve been interested in the many proper names associated with foods.
We know, of course, that there aren’t any ladies in the ladyfingers or Johnny in the johnnycake. But how much “Lyon, France” is to be found in potatoes Lyonnaise? Or who’s the “Anna” in pommes Anna? Anyway, why do spuds get all the cool names?
You’d think that Germany must have played a large part in the development of German chocolate cake. (It didn’t.) Or that chicken à la king had a royal birth. (Nope.)
However, about the influence of the city of Bologna, Italy, in the pasta sauce called ragù Bolognese, there’s clearly some Bologna — but also a lot of baloney.
First, the sauce has several names. In Bologna, it is called simply “ragù,” everyone there knowing what it is. In fact, in Bologna, no such thing exists as that which we call “spaghetti bolognese” (more properly, spaghetti alla bolognese). Someone in Bologna would ask for a sort or form of pasta “with ragù.”
And to a Bolognese, “alla bolognese” merely means “the way we do things around here.” It is not synonymous with the sauce.
Many recipes vie as “the” authentic ragù Bolognese, both in Italy and beyond. Because a plethora of ingredients make up nearly any bolognese recipe, all this makes for arguing the fine points.
Whether or not to use milk, what kind of tomato to add and how much, to choose white or red wine. What are the proper proportions of the meats (pork and veal)? Or to use beef chuck instead? Nutmeg? Chicken livers? Celery? Uncured bacon? How long to cook?
Each of these, and more, has been embraced, or eschewed, as fit for a proper bolognese. (The Colorado equivalent would be to fret over what makes for a genuine chile verde.)
In his masterly work, “The Food of Italy,” Waverley Root glosses over the complexity of any ragù recipe, writing that it is, plain and simple, “an unctuous blend of onions, carrots, finely chopped veal and pork, butter and tomato.”
Root is both more expository, and engaging, when he breaks down the word “ragù” to say that “it comes from the French ragoûter, meaning to arouse or enhance the taste — a service which ragù performs admirably for pasta.”
In her “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” Marcella Hazan gives minute instructions for every facet of her recipe for ragù, saying, “There is no more perfect union in all gastronomy than the marriage of Bolognese ragù with homemade Bolognese tagliatelle,” the long-form egg pasta of Italy’s north.
To take a moment, I’d like to school you on the term’s pronunciation because, in Italian, it just sounds so delicious. Let loose the vowels trippingly and try “bo-lo-NYAY-seh.” (To my ears, the American and British “bo-lo-NEZ” sounds like a paint swatch.)
I believe it is most profitable to consider bolognese, in any of its expressions, as a type of cooking preparation. That is, to dice, chop or break up the solid ingredients into the smallest possible bits. And then to cook everything for a very long time, coaxing flavors out of the mix for as long as possible.
That’s why today’s recipe is, at one and the same time, a very unorthodox as well as a quite classic bolognese, using sausage innards for the finely minced meat and roasted butternut squash (not tomato) to hold everything together. I hope that you enjoy it.
Butternut Squash Bolognese
Roasting the main ingredients not only makes for more convenient preparation, it also develops additional flavors than mere boiling or steaming. If you have one, an immersion blender makes puréeing the sauce even easier. (Dads: ask for one for Father’s Day.) Makes 4 servings.
- 1 butternut squash, medium or large, peeled, seeded, and chunked
- 1 large yellow or white onion, peeled and in wedges
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, in 2 batches of 3 tablespoons each
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, crushed
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 cups vegetable broth, slightly more if necessary
- 12-15 fresh sage leaves
- 4 bratwurst-sized chicken, turkey or pork sausages, the meat out of its casings (or the equivalent in loose sausage meat)
- 1 pound tightly-rolled dry pasta (for example, shapes such as ferricelli, casarecce, gemelli or strozzapretti)
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, toss and coat the squash and onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil flavored with the rosemary, salt and pepper. Spread and space evenly on the parchment paper, and roast in the oven, tossing once halfway through, for 30 minutes or until the vegetables begin to caramelize. When done, allow to cool a bit, then blend with the vegetable broth until smooth and the consistency of cake batter.
Meanwhile, over medium heat, sauté the sage leaves in the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil until just crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon or “spider” and set aside on paper towels. In the same skillet, brown the sausage meat, breaking it up into an even consistency, until cooked through, 8-10 minutes. Mix the butternut squash purée in with the cooked sausage and keep everything warm.
In rapidly boiling water, cook the pasta according to package timing until al dente (generally, for this shape pasta, 11-12 minutes). Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
To serve: In a large skillet, coat portions of the pasta in the bolognese sauce, heating through well, using up to 1/4 cup pasta water to thin if helpful. Place on warmed plates, adding a bit more sauce to top, along with 3-4 fried sage leaves and a dusting of the grated cheese.