One of our favourite bloggers helps us get our hands on the famous San Marzano tomatoes, and gives us the perfect excuse to make another recipe from the Heston archives.
When we first started this blog it was mainly to boast about a few nice restaurant meals and to document the journey of cooking all of Heston’s Perfection recipes. A coward’s version of Auldo’s incredible work on The Big Fat Undertaking.
Back then we had a different name and look, and one of our few readers, and main sources of inspiration was Gary Fenn who runs the very popular BigSpud blog. Gary is a huge Heston-fan and co-conspirator (and, we’d hope, friend of ours). BigSpud is a great read, and Gary has conquered many of Heston’s Perfection and regular recipes. We’re big fans, and all three of our current regular readers will notice we reference his posts quite frequently.
In one of his recent posts was a tribute to this very blog. A massive surprise and a huge honour, considering Gary is the kind of guy who gets invited to VIP Waitrose events where Heston Blumenthal personally cooks for him, and has been featured by the Guardian’s very own Felicity Cloake (another food hero of ours).
Gary tweeted us to alert us to Tesco’s offer for bargain price San Marzano tomatoes. These are the specific variety used to create Heston’s Perfection Pizza recipe. The very kind Gary used in his own Perfection Pizza experiment. We’d use them next time.
We have had fun testing Heston’s recipes against his rivals (like pitting his Chilli Con Carne and Chocolate Fondant recipes against Gordon Ramsay’s). And, odd as we are, we also like comparing Heston’s older recipes with his newer ones, to see how they’ve changed or improved.
So, as a return tribute to Gary, and in the spirit of archive exploration (along the lines of Heston’s Marinated Squid with Parmesan recipe) we’re using the Tesco San Marzano tomatoes to make Heston’s original Spaghetti Bolognese Ragu recipe, first published in 2003.
Special Equipment: None
Special Ingredients: None
Time: 9 – 14 hours
Cost: Under £10
Serves: 4 – 6
Difficulty: Very Easy
This recipe, based on the ragu sauce from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking, pre-dates Heston’s Perfection Spaghetti Bolognese recipe by about 3 years. So it’s not as developed or “out-there” as some of his other recipes.
What it does do, much like 2012 TV series How To Cook Like Heston, is introduce a few of the sciencey techniques that we associate with Heston to try out on a comfortable and familiar recipe.
Oh, and because we’re not tackling enough issues already we’re adding Heston’s recommended side dish of Wilted Spinach with Mortadella and Chili Oil too.
Step 1: Onions
Anyone who’s seen a few of Heston’s recipes will recognise this trick, adding star anise to frying onions to boost the meaty flavours. According to Heston this is due to a chemical reaction taking place between the two ingredients to create meaty flavour compounds.
The second sacrilegious addition is garlic, which apparently never features in the Italian version of the dish.
Step 2: Sofforito
This is a lot more convenient than Heston’s Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese recipe, where the star anise onions are caramelised in a separate pan to the carrot and celery.
In the years since we first made Heston’s Perfection Bolognese recipe my chopping skills haven’t gotten much faster. So I just about had the carrots & celery ready after the onions had been on for their allotted 30 minutes.
Step 3: Meat
This blog has been an education for me, and so there’s some times when I just can’t bloody help myself. Heston’s ragu recipe calls for beef mince, or a mixture of beef and pork, so a packet of bog-standard supermarket mince should be fine.
But oh no, not for me. I had to use a mixture of half mince and half pork cheeks. To be honest I’d been seeing these at Morrissons for ages and was looking for an excuse to buy some. They’re phenomenally cheap and exceptionally flavoursome.
The recipe asks you to simply add the meat to the pan of vegetables and press down. Once again I couldn’t resist putting on a separate hot pan to sear the meat (in two batches, no less!) to add some roasted Maillard flavours. I’m basically a lost cause.
Step 4: Liquids
In Heston’s Perfection Bolognese recipe you slowly stew milk, wine and water on the hob. This ragu recipe asks you to take a more risotto-like approach, reducing the wine (and the milk!). Fresh nutmeg goes in at this point, which is an ingredient missing from Heston’s Perfect Bolognese recipe.
Then it’s tomato time, the bit I was most looking forward to.
Opening the can of San Marzano tomatoes is like cracking open a tin of vivid red paint. The Royal Mail post box colour is incredible. I couldn’t’ resist dipping a fingertip for a quick taste-test: significantly more fresh and vibrant than the regular tinned tomatoes we use.
Step 5: Slow-Braise
Once you’ve got the mixture bubbling it goes into the oven for 8 hours at 80°C. We figured an hour either way wouldn’t make that much difference, so it went into the oven just before bedtime.
Unfortunately we didn’t wake up to the expected rich, dry sauce. Perhaps our crappy and imprecise fan-oven is to blame, or maybe our lid wasn’t sufficiently ajar. Either way the ragu was as wet and sloppy in the morning as we’d left it the night before.
Step 6: Rescue Plan
With both Bolognese and Chilli Con Carne we like the dish to have a very dry, paste-like texture. Something you could stand a spoon in. In fact, something you could stand a ladle in.
To get that richness, and thickness we stuck this on the stove for a good 4 hours. Not a problem since we could do this in the morning and check it throughout the day.
We’ve had similar problems trying to get these recipes to reduce sufficiently in our slow-cooker as well. If you have any tips for reduction using slow cookers or ovens please let us know.
After that it’s time to put your pasta on (Tagliatelle if you want to be truly authentic)
Step 7: Side Dish
Not so much a step as a whole other recipe. In another break with Italian tradition Heston suggests serving this as a side dish. We’re cheating by using shop-bought chilli oil instead of making a Motadella-infused oil from scratch.
Simply slice Moertadella sausage…
… then make a beurre noisette…
… strain and combine in a pan with chilli oil…
…add the spinach and sliced Mortadella…
… cook a couple of minutes until wilted…
… then season and serve.
Imagine that there’s three tiers of Spaghetti Bolognese recipe. At the bottom you’d have something like the quick-and-easy ragu used in the Cookalong Live Lasagne recipe from Gordon Ramsay. At the top end you’d find the unassailable Heston Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese recipe, made without a single deviation from the book. This recipe sits comfortably in the middle tier.
When we first made Heston’s Perfection Spaghetti Bolognese recipe we said it maxed out all the best aspects of the dish, as well as being an object lesson in umami.
Heston’s other goal with his perfection recipe was to preserve some of the originality of the dish. This ragu certainly feels more original, and it’s absolutely delicious. But it’s missing the complexity and depth of flavour that Heston’s Perfection recipe has.
That’s not surprising if you compare the ingredients lists of the two recipes. Heston’s Perfection Bolognese includes a dozen extra ingredients that all provide that aforementioned complexity. However, it is significantly easier to make than the original Perfection recipe, or the shortcut version we made.
The spinach with Mortadella recipe worked great. Although there was no need to go to the trouble of making a beurre noisette, most of that butter dripped off before serving. In the end we just drained the rest off in a colander.
And as for the San Marzano tomatoes? They were quite simply the best tinned tomatoes we’ve ever eaten, and we’re incredibly grateful to Gary for helping us to find them. The downside is that, with so many flavours going on in this recipe, the quality of these tomatoes gets slightly lost.
The solution? Use them to make an exceptional pizza sauce the way Gary does.
A bit like the Macaroni Cheese recipes we’ve been hammering away at, we think we’ve finally found a perfect recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese, one that balances flavour and technique with convenience and practicality. Our next Bolognese will be exactly this Ragu recipe, cooked slowly on the stove and with the following additions taken from Heston’s Perfect Bolognese recipe:
- Worcestershire Sauce
- Soy Sauce
- Fish Sauce
- Sherry Vinegar
- Ground coriander (pinch)
- Ground cloves (pinch)
- Bouquet Garni
Those should roughly give us the same depth and complexity as Heston’s Perfection Bolognese, but with half the trouble.
BigSpud – Naturally, Gary has already tackled this recipe and has a few recommended shortcuts of his own worth discovering.
Kok Robin – The definitive post on Heston’s Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese recipe. With arguments still raging to this day in the comments section.
Are you a Spag Bol fan, and do you think a dish as supposedly “simple” as this is worth spending 14hurs to make? Do you agree with adding things like fish sauce and star anise to boost those meaty flavours, and have you tried doing so yourself? Let us know in the comments section.