This isn’t actually a recipe, but if you’re so inclined, you can probably figure out how to make it by reading this. I was just working on a version of the sauce for my guest-chef gig last night at Fearrington House and was reminded how much I dig it.
Rewind: Back when I was working at Oliveto in Oakland, CA, that was my job. Making the Bolognese. My recipe was an amalgamation of versions I’d learned from the chef at the time, Curt Klingman (whom I can thank for so much, professionally). The first batch we made involved, in addition to ground pork, veal, and beef, ground sweetbreads and livers. The second, the one that really opened my eyes, was sort of (for lack of a better description) a deconstructed version. I’m sure Curt would be pissed to hear it called so, but that’s what it was. We braised short ribs, cut them off the bone and then across into small rectangles and built, to order, a “light” version by searing bits of liver, adding cooked mire poix, rendered pancetta, some of the beef and braise, some cream, parm, and fresh noodles.
While I think the second version lacked the “togetherness” that the dish should have, I couldn’t get past how much I preferred the braised, as opposed to ground nature of the meat. So, when I became the lunch guy and started making it every week, I sort of combined the two. Of course, being prone to excess, I got a little carried away and started putting anything and everything in there. Which, by the way, is a great way to use up bits and pieces of this or that.
Every Friday, I’d scour the walk-in for ends of salamis and other cured meats, the last lamb shanks or bits of confit, any chicken livers… all this would accent the main pork and/or beef that I was going to be braising for the sauce. What I learned at Oliveto was that Bolognese is not a tomato sauce with meat; it’s a meat sauce with tomato. I actually kept count of the different meat products I used, and my personal record stands at 18.
At any rate, I’d start my labor of love, braising what needed to be braised, grinding what needed to be ground, browning what needed to be browned, shredding what was already braised, and then adding aromatics and tomato and combining it all into a beautifully rich sauce. I’d then put it up in the walk-in and allow the fat to rise to the top and seal it like a batch of confit and let it mingle there over the weekend to let the flavors truly come together. That would be next week’s Bolognese. It was my sauce and, on my last lunch shift, a regular who came in every week for a bowl of it actually brought me flowers to thank me. It was one of my proudest moments as a cook.
I realize there are a number of ways to make this sauce and many authentic versions rely entirely on ground meat. I just like the succulence of braised and shredded meats in mine. I’ve had delicious versions both ways and feel that it is truly a matter of preference. If there’s one thing that I feel is non-negotiable, it’s a bit of liver. It’s one of those things. You’d never know it was in there unless you were told, but it brings such a depth and richness, and its omission just leaves the sauce one-dimensional and tart.
So, this is sort of why I often say our Jujube Bolognese is conceptually more authentic than most of what passes for this sauce in many Italian restaurants. Because many are just making tomato sauce with ground beef in it, or something like that. They’re not making meat sauce, and they’re afraid to add some liver. So, despite the inclusion of ginger, hoisin, shaoxing, soy sauce, scallion batons, and rice noodles, I think ours is more “true” than most. Because, at least it’s actually a meat sauce.
So, how we make it:
We use a lot of pork cheek at Jujube. It braises up to the same texture of short ribs (which before I discovered cheek meat was my favorite meat for braising) but has the bonus of being boneless and comes in handy-sized portions. So, we always have cheeks around and they just happen to work great for this dish as well. We brown them in the woks, transfer them to a roasting pan, and braise them in the oven under a combination of shaoxing (Chinese cooking sherry), hoisin, ginger, soy, and stock. That takes several hours and, when it’s done; we drain the meat (reserving the braise of course) and mash the now-braised cheeks.
Meanwhile, we dice carrots, celery, and onion as well as some of our Chinese bacon (pork belly that’s been marinated for several days and then roasted in suspended state). Of course, we add the livers. Actually, livers and hearts, from the ducks we get. We use duck often enough that we just save the hearts and livers and freeze them for the next batch of Bolognese we’re going to make. These get ground up and browned with the mire poix and bacon before the meat and braise is returned to the pot. To that we add some tomato juice and cook until the sauce comes together; usually about an hour or so. Like the Bolognese at Oliveto, it’s best when we can make this a few days before we need it and allow it to cure in the walk-in cooler under the layer of hardened fat that has settled to the top and sealed the batch.
Because the dish is so rich, I like to bring a green levity to it by starting each order off with some big chunks of scallions in the wok. Once they have a little color, I add wide rice noodles that have soaked overnight in cold water and then, of course, the finished sauce. The cool thing about the rice noodles is that they end up staining yellow from the fats in the meat sauce, so they look just like fettuccini. Of course, the Chinese aren’t exactly known for their use of cream or cheese, so I leave them out.
Taking a cue from David Chang of Momofuku, we’ve started exploring the use of country ham at Jujube and, since Josh has been working on a side project with a local hog farmer to produce cured meats, we’ve hooked up with a guy who is making some great, prosciutto-like country hams out here. My guess is that it’s only a matter of time before the ends of these hams end up making their way into the sauce as well…