Growing up as a child of the ’80s in the Philippines, spaghetti Bolognese meant, for the most part, mushy pasta topped with a bright red sauce of ground beef, sweet tomato sauce and grated quick-melt cheese. Fast food sweet spaghetti in a Styrofoam container eaten with a plastic fork was the norm. On special occasions they were homemade and sometimes the spaghetti would be replaced with elbow macaroni, then the entire thing was baked in the oven, forming a plastic-y crust of yellow cheese goo that stuck to your teeth. For birthdays sometimes you’d find bits of red hotdog in it or maybe have a side serving of them on a stick topped with pastel-colored marshmallows, slightly tinged pink from canoodling with the hotdogs.
As hard as I try, I can’t seem to remember when was the first time I had a proper Bolognese, or one that wasn’t sweet. I do remember that in high school the home of one of my best friends was famous for its lasagna. We would all head there after school and indulge in their extremely gooey and cheesy lasagna, followed by equally gooey fudge brownies. I also remember I had a fixation on the lasagna being sold at Starbucks back then. It was watery and tasteless but for some reason I enjoyed it to the point that I had a fight with my high school sweetheart because during one of our Starbucks dates we found out they took it off the menu.
Bolognese, whether sweet with hotdogs on mushy spaghetti or found in between layers of lasagna and cheese, has always been and always will be one of my ultimate comfort foods. And, for the life of me, as shameful as it may seem, with serious doubts beginning to form in my mind about the reliability of my memory, I cannot tell you where I’ve had the best version of it other than in my own home. Which seems odd considering the amount of times I’ve been to Italy, eaten in fantastic Italian restos, dug my fork into a mountain of pasta al ragu like a proficient miner and indulged in a giant melt-y plate of lasagna with as much gusto as Garfield. And while I don’t usually like to toot my own horn, I have to say that our homemade Bolognese is truly spectacular. Toot! Toot!
Everyone has a go-to dish, the kitchen equivalent of a little black dress or crisp white shirt. Something that even on the laziest of days you know will taste good and even better, make you feel good. For us at home it’s got to be the Bolognese. It’s something I almost always have the ingredients for and something both my husband and I can do pretty darn well. It’s even better when we collaborate over the pan. Perhaps it’s because we have done it so often that we’ve managed to perfect it, or perhaps it’s because it’s something we’ve managed to tailor exactly to our liking that we find it so good. Our version is not too saucy, a little spicy, full of veggies and best of all, extremely versatile. We use the same ragu and instead of just a regular spaghetti Bolognese, we use it for lasagna, hachis parmentier (a French version of a shepherd’s pie), or for throwing into a pot with a can of beans to make a quick chili con carne.
Here is our not-so-secret secret recipe. Feel free to play around with the proportions to your liking. I always keep 250-gram portions of ground beef in our freezer. Defrost in case of emergency or uncontrollable desire.
La Maison Crespi Bolognese
250g ground beef
¼ cup cubed zucchini (small cubes!)
¼ cup cubed eggplant
¼ cubed carrots
¼ cup mixed fresh mushrooms – brown or white button, Portobello chopped and a handful of whole shimeiji mushrooms (optional)
1 tomato thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 can crushed or chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
a pinch of smoked sweet paprika, hot paprika, cayenne, chili powder and dried Italian herbs
½ tsbp butter
salt and pepper to taste
keep some pasta water to thicken the sauce
garnish with parsley, basil and parmesan
Saute onions and garlic in some olive oil. Then add the mushrooms. Cook them till soft and browned. Make sure not to overcrowd the pan. Add the eggplant and zucchini and cook till soft. Add the ground beef and make sure the pan is very hot. Get the beef really browned and add the spices. Season with some salt and pepper. Add the carrots and mix well. Add the tomato paste and the canned tomatoes. Mix well and turn down the heat. Allow everything to simmer until all the tomatoes have turned a deep orange-red and the oil becomes a little orange. Next, deglaze with some balsamic vinegar and white or red wine (whichever bottle is open and available). Allow that to cook off and simmer and season. Use some pasta water to thicken the sauce making it more or less liquid as you wish. Add a knob of butter and mix through right before serving. You can even add a dollop of cream. Serve hot on top of spaghetti or toss in some farfalle. Serve topped with basil, parsley and parmesan cheese.
For other uses like lasagna, I keep it a little more liquid and even adjust with more canned tomatoes. For a hachis parmentier, dry it out by cooking it a little longer and do not add nay pasta water – see full recipe here. You can also take the leftover bolognese and turn it into a chili con carne. See that recipe here.