Ragù alla Bolognese (a la Heston Blumenthal)

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens…

The summer I was 11 years old, my sister and I overdosed on The Sound of Music. Oh no, I don’t mean we watched it multiple times over a few sunny months. What I mean is that we actually watched it every(!) single(!) afternoon(!) for the entire summer vacation.

Both of us had just finished our first semesters in American schools, having moved from Hong Kong over winter break. I remember starting sixth grade in my all-girls, sort-of-Catholic-but-mostly-in-name-only school on Hong Kong island, surrounded by my Cantonese-speaking friends, and ending sixth grade in a not-all-girls, seriously-Catholic private school in a tiny town in Florida, surrounded by a bunch of non-Cantonese-speaking classmates. To say it was jarring is a slight understatement.

During our first semesters as American students, even as my sister and I soared to the top of our classes in math, we struggled to stay afloat in all other subjects requiring reading and writing in English. We learned English in Hong Kong as a subject but never could we have predicted just how fast English-speaking people actually spoke! The phrase “I mean” confused me to no end and I could not figure out for months why it kept appearing in conversations at the oddest times. My use of British words like “lift,” “torch,” and “rubber” made my classmates look at me funny. Summer vacation was a much-needed respite.

Summer days in Florida tend to involve huge mid-day thunderstorms. A few weeks into summer vacation, we learned to recognize that certain smell in the air that would signal the impending downpour and suggest a wise retreat into our new home. We’d drape ourselves over the couches and my mom would ask us what movie we wanted to see. Our answer was always the same. Maybe because our world had been turned upside down and everything we had known for the last 11 years were suddenly thousands of miles away, we found ourselves craving something constant to cloak us in familiarity, something where we knew every step, every song, every dance and held no confusing surprises. We found it in Julie Andrews and the von Trapp children.

I know already that 2011 will be a year of changes, sure to be accompanied by a healthy dose of chaos. In between trying to finish my degree, figuring out what to do next, finding a job, and seeing if we need to move for it, I’m once again finding myself in need of a blanket of constancy. And while I may not have outgrown The Sound of Music (how can anyone?!), I did promise long ago to spare Nathan from musicals. So instead of finding solace in “My Favorite Things”, I’m turning to pots of ragù alla bolognese, simmering for hours on the stove on sunny (or not so sunny) afternoons. Hearty, meaty, and increasingly more wonderful the longer you let it simmer, bolognese has this magical property of seeming perfectly familiar even if your childhood didn’t actually involve anything resembling spaghetti and meatballs.

A daily dose of Julie Andrews got me through my first year as an American student. Maybe, just maybe, a regular dose of ragù alla bolognese will get me through my last year as one.

I found this amazing recipe for “New Style” Ragù alla Bolognese, courtesy of British chef Heston Blumethal, in issue #110 of Saveur.

While the ingredient list may look daunting, the instructions are deadly simple and involves one single pot. Given that it calls for star anise, fish sauce, and Tabasco, it’s only natural that I picked it out of an entire issue of ragù recipes to try first. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m even going to bother going back and trying any of the others.

I substituted ground beef in place of the diced pork shoulder and served it with packaged, dry spaghetti instead of freshly made pasta. Other than that, I stuck pretty close to the original recipe.

For the herb bundle:
4 sprigs thyme
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
1 fresh bay leaf
1 sprig tarragon

extra-virgin olive oil
1½ lb ground beef
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 large carrots, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
1½ tsp coriander seeds, crushed
1 cup white wine
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, drained and smushed by hand
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ tsp fish sauce
¼ tsp Tabasco
1 cup milk
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar

For serving:
cooked pasta of your choice
parmigiano-reggiano, grated

Make the herb bundle: Tie together all the herbs using kitchen twine or use my favorite alternate method: stuff them all into one of those little teabags made for packing in your own tea leaves.

Cook the meat and vegetables: Heat a few glugs of oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or large pot. Add meat along with a few pinches of salt and some black pepper. Cook until the meat is browned, about 12-15 min. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Heat a little bit more oil in the pot. Add in onions, carrots, celery, garlic, cloves, star anise, and coriander seeds. Cook while stirring until the vegetables slightly soften, about 15 min. Add wine and allow it to evaporate, about 5 min.

Settle in for the long haul: Lower heat to medium. Add in herb bundle, crushed tomatoes, ketchup, Worchestershire sauce, fish sauce, and Tabasco. Throw in a couple pinches of salt and a few turns of black pepper. Bring the whole pot to a boil and lower heat to simmer gently.

Once tomatoes break down (~15 min), add in beef and milk. Bring to a boil again and turn heat to low. Allow to simmer very gently for 3-4 hours (or longer!), stirring every so often, until the ragù gets very thick. If it starts getting too thick and not sauce-like, dribble in some water.

To serve: Retrieve herb bundle and stir in vinegar. Taste again and adjust with salt and pepper accordingly. Toss with cooked pasta and top with grated parmigiano-reggiano.

Yield: lots, probably enough for 10-12 servings
Time: ~5 hours


  1. 26 January 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Did you learn some Cantonese while living there? This sauce is perfection!

    • angi said:
      27 January 2011 at 12:00 pm

      Yup, although I kind of stagnated at 6th grade Cantonese, so I’m not grabbing Chinese newspapers to read. I can get by just fine though in restaurants! ^_^ Thanks for reading, Belinda!

  2. Jean said:
    26 January 2011 at 6:39 pm

    So glad you said you haven’t outgrown the movie, I still haven’t. :-) I was in love with Frederik!

    Unique take on bolognese–I like it. :-)

    • angi said:
      27 January 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Yes Frederik!! Also, I remember wanting to be Liesl or Brigitta — I thought they were so pretty! :)

  3. Monet said:
    26 January 2011 at 7:12 pm

    This was such a wonderful post. I also grew up with the Sound of Music…and I still love the movie. But what I appreciated the most was your eloquent and moving description of your childhood. You are such a talented writer (and an amazing cook too!) Thank you so much for sharing with me tonight…and thanks for your sweetness on my blog…it means so much to me!

    • angi said:
      27 January 2011 at 12:05 pm

      Monet, you’re so sweet. To tell you the truth, the wonderful stories you share on your blog are a huge inspiration for me to write about more personal stories. :)

  4. 26 January 2011 at 7:57 pm

    This sounds fabulous! That last shot of the the spaghetti on the fork is priceless, and definitely making me hungry. I love ragu (and also ‘my favorite things’) so this post was a delight for me to read, and reminded me of some forgotten favorites! :)

    • angi said:
      27 January 2011 at 12:07 pm

      Thanks Amanda! And I seem to be sensing a major correlation between food lovers/bloggers and Sound of Music lovers – I love it!

  5. Sara said:
    26 January 2011 at 9:34 pm

    You bring me back to 4 years ago with your story! Even if I was a grown up I was astonished by the use of “I mean” and many other things of the American English language that I was encountering in conversation. I still am actually! Coming with my “queue” instead of line or knowing when the words “cute” and “dude” were appropriate (not together lol!)
    I hope this ragu will be able to clear your mind about figuring out your life. Just, please, don’t move! 2011 is the year we need to meet more often…don’t move now!

    • angi said:
      27 January 2011 at 12:10 pm

      Sara, I’m so happy to hear I’m not the only one confused by “I mean”!! I also hope we don’t have to move, or even if we do, not too far — we’re aiming to stay in the Bay Area, so plan away on those foodie gatherings! ^_^

  6. 27 January 2011 at 12:00 am

    “Glugs” of oil – I like that.

    • angi said:
      27 January 2011 at 12:07 pm

      Can’t take credit for it though. That might be trademarked by another British chef Jamie Oliver. ;)

  7. Christine said:
    27 January 2011 at 10:31 am

    Even as a 6-yr-old, I thought Captain von Trapp was hot.. LOL.

    Good luck with your schooling! I’ve been missing your post, but once you post, you deliver with such punch! And great photos too..

    • angi said:
      27 January 2011 at 12:08 pm

      Oh yes, Captain von Trapp IS hot! :) Thanks so much for reading Christine, even though I’ve been such a spotty blogger lately. Hopefully, once this graduation business is done with, I’ll get to write more.

  8. elizabeth said:
    27 January 2011 at 3:30 pm

    OK–I initially hid the Heston Blumenthal reference because I wasn’t sure how the husband would like seeing that it was from him (he objects to Blumenthal’s approach to food because it’s SO elitist and SO unapproachable most of the time) but he was actually nonplussed…so we are SO making this on Saturday because it looks amazing.

    • angi said:
      31 January 2011 at 11:21 am

      I actually don’t know much about Blumenthal’s other types of food but knowing that they have a lab at his restaurant, it doesn’t surprise me that it’d be hard to recreate his dishes at home. But this ragù is so easy to like! Can’t wait to hear what you and your husband think of this, Elizabeth!

  9. Jessica said:
    27 January 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I love Sound of Music and will never tire of it. Bolognese sauce is also a classic. Love the connection.

    • angi said:
      31 January 2011 at 11:22 am

      Agree – these are two things that one can never have too much of. Thanks for reading, Jessica!

  10. Kita said:
    28 January 2011 at 2:32 pm

    I hope the chaos finds a calm for you. That photograph of the finished bolognese and fork is absolutely beautiful.

    • angi said:
      31 January 2011 at 11:23 am

      Thanks so much Kita! And you know what, all of you guys’ sweet comments are definitely helping me feel the love and manage the chaos. :)

  11. Lana said:
    29 January 2011 at 11:58 am

    What a wonderful story, Angi! My oldest daughter was obsessed with “Sound Of Music” and watched it constantly in third or fourth grade (and me with her, of course:). Love it, still!
    Your memories ring true to me, too. I came to the U.S. with a degree in English, but all of our profs at the University, except for one, were British, and I still rebel, trying to use the “weird” expressions (“zed” instead of “zee”, “lady-bird”, instead of “lady-bug”, “fringes”, instead of “bangs”, etc:)
    I am glad you managed the cultural shock so well, and I hope that your future will be as easy to solve. Good luck!
    BTW, ragu looks wonderful! I love such hearty dishes.

    • angi said:
      31 January 2011 at 11:24 am

      Thanks Lana! I had a feeling you’d understand the culture shock aspect of this story. And if I may be so bold, I love your oldest daughter more and more. Hunting down Korean food in Berkeley, cooking, Sound of Music…. she’s awesome! :)

  12. sippitysup said:
    31 January 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Did you know I grew up in FL. Did you know I know all about those mid-day-t-storms? I also know about bologonese. Another youthful story that is at least r-rated. So I’ll just say. Yours Looks Great. GREG

    • angi said:
      8 February 2011 at 9:08 am

      Whoa, Greg, I didn’t know you grew up in FL! I’ll definitely have to ask you about this bolognese R-rated story next time I see you in person. ;)

  13. Danielle said:
    3 February 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Hmmm, your pictures look almost exactly like what I had for lunch except that I’ve got chunks of bone marrow in the bowl ;)

    Slow stove-top simmering is definitely the way to go for ragu. Marcella Hazan has a similar recipe that I love love love. So much that I won’t eat spaghetti bolognese unless I’m in Italy or I make it!

    • angi said:
      8 February 2011 at 9:12 am

      Wait wait wait… you had me at bone marrow! That’s seriously like one of my favorite food groups. I’ll have to hunt down Marcella Hazan’s recipe and do a comparison, I think.

  14. Jackie said:
    5 February 2011 at 1:32 pm

    You had me at ‘Heston Blumenthall’ who, as I may have mentioned copious times, is my food hero. Although I’m slightly more disappointed in him since he sold out to the big corporation and started backing Waitrose… but this looks super simple and delicious. I’m a big bolognaise fan – I’ll have to give this one a go when I get back to London!

    Good to see you back, my dear, excited for SF soon!

    Jax x

    • angi said:
      8 February 2011 at 9:13 am

      Ah, it seems famous chefs backing big corporations can’t be avoided – oh well. Can’t wait to meet you in person, Ms. Jackie! :)

  15. sippitysup said:
    7 February 2011 at 8:55 am

    Of course it’s one of those movies. Just like a a good ragu. It really sticks with you.

    • angi said:
      8 February 2011 at 9:13 am

      Indeed. :)

  16. LIren said:
    8 February 2011 at 7:46 am

    What a beautiful post, Angi. I don’t think we ever outgrow The Sound of Music – my kids love it now, and when I watch it with them, it brings me back to my own summer afternoons in New York, when I would watch that movie repeatedly. Here’s to those things that bring comfort, and this bolognese does look comforting (I put fish sauce in mine, too!). I’ll be thinking of you as you deal with this very busy time!

    • angi said:
      8 February 2011 at 9:16 am

      Liren, thanks for the sweet wishes and kind words. And it’s absolutely adorable that you and your kids watch The Sound of Music together and good to know that even in this day and age of crazy 3D/fast-action movies, a classic musical like that still grabs kids’ attention. ;)

  17. Joyti said:
    10 February 2011 at 11:35 am

    I loved your story, it was so well-written. Even though I was born and bought up in California, my family is Indian and so I feel like I understand the immigrant experience.
    The recipe looks delicious…very comforting and hearty.

    • angi said:
      17 February 2011 at 10:44 am

      Thanks Joyti! Hope you’re keeping warm and dry in this crazy raininess!

  18. Mariko said:
    17 February 2011 at 12:43 am

    Ah. There you are. Grad school explains the long absence, at least. :)
    I’m not a huge musical fan. Except for little shop of horrors, and Glee. (yes, I am one of the dazed masses.)
    What I am a fan of is a good bolognese. Yummmmmm.

    • angi said:
      17 February 2011 at 10:45 am

      I know, I predict I’ll be a terrible blogger for the next few months. But thanks for sticking with me, Mariko! ;)

      I have grand plans to reward myself with watching Glee (amongst other things) from the beginning when I’m done with this degree… Nathan’s gonna love it! ^_^

  19. brhau said:
    22 February 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Erin made this tonight in the red dutch oven, so our stove looked very much like your title photo! I really love how distinct and clear the flavors are in this recipe.

    • angi said:
      22 February 2011 at 11:28 pm

      What! How come I didn’t know we have matching Dutch ovens?? But yay! I love it when people make recipes from my posts, especially when they turn out well. :)

  20. Laura said:
    20 March 2011 at 10:02 pm

    My family is addicted to fish sauce-all of us, even my girls. So I must try this ASAP. Thanks!

    • angi said:
      21 March 2011 at 6:11 pm

      We should start a Fish-Sauce-Addicts club, Laura! I hope you and your girls will like this recipe. Thanks for reading! :)

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