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Always been a fantasy of mine to make the ultimate Bolognese, and do it with a bottle of Penfold's Grange. Crazy, indulgent, but what can you do? I had to give it a crack...
Okay, so one thing I'd been playing around with in my mind was the idea of confit-ing. Wasn't sure what, but I wanted to confit bloody something! I also wanted to have bits in the Bolognese - nice soft bits, but bits of meat, bits of onion, etc. in more of a ragu style than a mince.
So I took a ceramic dish and placed in it some basil leaves, the bay leaves, some sprigs of thyme, and then peeled the shallots and a head and a half of garlic, leaving the cloves whole, and placed them over the herbs.
Filled up the dish with olive oil I'd pre-heated to warm on the stove, until it just covered the bulbs, and then placed the roma tomatoes, sliced in half lengthways, on top, half in and half out of the oil. Seasoned with a fair whack of sea salt. I'm not shy with salt, butter and oil, when it's needed.
Covered the dish with foil and placed it in the oven on 110 degrees, which is obviously not very hot - plan was to leave it in there for a couple of hours, or until the shallots were soft. I'd keep an eye on the tomatoes, and take them out when they were looking soft and cooked.
Next step - the meat. The idea was to slow-cook the meat in whole pieces until it was ready to fall apart, and then break it up into little shreds. So I seasoned the beef osso bucco and the ox tail, dusted them in flour, and browned them in some of the olive oil from the confit, in my casserole dish in batches. Did the same with the pork belly, but didn't dust it in flour, then set the meat aside.
I love all those golden, caramelised bits of meat and juices in the bottom of the pan, and I wanted to keep as much flavour from every process in the end dish, so I stirred that round a bit, then added my finely chopped onions, celery and grated carrot, added some more of the confit oil which was still simmering away in the oven, and slow-cooked on the stove, sweating and caramelising the mix. This is where the sweetness of a bolognese or a stew comes from, and I just kept tasting until I was happy, which was about half an hour on a very low flame. Very important not to brown or burn at this stage, that just kills all the sweetness.
So while that's going on, I took the confit tomatoes out of the oven (they'd been in for about an hour), leaving the shallots, garlic, etc. to cook some more. I took the skins off, and scraped out the pith and seeds from the core, sustaining only minor burns, and ended up with some sloppy, oily confit tomato pulp, nice and soft and juicy. Mashed it up with a fork and added a generous sprinkling of sea salt, because I love the way salt brings out the sugars in tomatoes.
Reason I was going all this was to make my own type of tomato paste. I'd also bought a nice Italian tomato paste, which did actually taste like concentrated tomatoes, and I added some of that, for richness, bit by bit until I was happy with the balance and richness I was happy with. Then I simmered that for about 20 mins, reducing and concentrating it into sort of a roast tomato paste, but still with that zing of fresh tang.
Needed a bit of a kicker on taste, so I added a splash of this Maggie Beer Aged Red Wine Vinegar I have, and that did the trick. I was digging it.
Anyway, so I stirred the tomato paste into my caramelised onion/celery/carrot mix, cooked it in a bit - so far so good. I wanted to get some nice earthy, salty flavours in there, so I had re-hydrated the dried porcini mushrooms (couldn't find fresh ones, or even vac-packed) in warm water. Finely chopped my pancetta, and sauteed that with the mushrooms in a separate pan with a splash of the oil again from the confit. In to the pot that went.
Time for some of the herbs, so I added a little rosemary, and the thyme and bay leaves from the confit, plus the now deliciously softened whole shallots and garlic cloves from the confit, drained of oil, and gently stirred that in.
Now it was getting exciting. Plan was to add the browned meat in whole pieces, turn up the heat, and pour over the wine, letting it reduce and infuse into all the ingredients.
This, however, is where I encountered my first real problem. You see, placing all the meat into the pot made for one very full pot...
My first solution was to transfer it all into my big stock pot, but my stock pot was too tall for my oven.
But then, as I have no doubt many cooks and winemakers alike could attest to - necessity being the mother of all invention, adversity inspiring creativity and all that - I decided to go left of field, and I think it added something special to the whole dish in the end.
I decided to confit the pork belly separately, in the oil I hadn't (thankfully) tipped out from the shallots and garlic. I placed the pork into the oil bath, covered it with foil, and placed it at the very bottom of the oven, hoping that if the main pot was cooking at 160 up top, the confit would be around 130 or so, and all would come together just swimmingly.
That didn't completely solve the pot space issue, so I tipped all the onion, carrot, shallot, pancetta, etc. mush into a big bowl, plan being to reduce the wine and stock over the meat, then add it back in.
Which led me, of course, to the wine...
Now this wasn't going to be called Grange Bolognese for nothing. This was it - the main event. This was the big shabang. This was, well to be perfectly honest, the fantasy.
Now I'm not someone who's had so many bottles of Grange, apart from the odd industry or cellar door tasting, which really isn't the same thing as buying one and cracking it yourself. So I felt a bit like a naughty schoolboy, cracking my very dusty bottle of 1996 Penfold's Grangethat had been slowly aging in my cellar for the past 5 years or so.
I poured myself a little glass (just to be sure it was okay, you understand), swirled it around a bit to get it breathing, and had a taste.
Very nearly lost my resolve at that point, and started running through some other options in my panicked mind - Basket Press Bolognese had a good ring to it at that point, let me tell you, and about a $600 bonus.
I'm not so sure that this magnificent wine thought that her fate was going to lie in a pot of Bolognese, but hey, it's my Grange, and I shall do with her what I like.
Still, I've got to tell you, it's not so easy tipping a Grange into a pot of meat. What if this whole dish doesn't turn out well? What if the pork belly just kills it, and it all tastes like shit? What if I burn the damn thing!!??
Man up, Eikmeister, this is the stuff dreams are made of! And in she goes...
So I poured about half a bottle of 1996 Penfold's Grange over the meat and simmered. You know it's a funny thing, but in the end, when we finally sat down and ate the Bolognese, I thought it could have done with a bit more wine.
But I digress, where was I? Ah, yes...
Reduced the wine over the meat, which turned the richest and most delicious colour as it simmered away in its Grange bath, and so it bloody well should!
Then I ladelled over some chicken stock that I'd made. A note on chicken stock - I like to roast the chicken necks, legs, wings, carcass, onions, celery, carrots, and whatever else I use in the oven first, before putting it in the stock pot - makes for a richer, darker stock, if that's what you're after, and I certainly was!
I didn't reduce the stock all the way down, just got it simmering for 5 or 10 minutes (probably used 2 cups or so), and then over the nicely moist and gooey meat and stock, I poured the rest of the ingredients back in the pot, which was as full as it was ever going to get, put the lid on, and stuck it in the oven, which was sitting on around 160.
At that point, and it was about 8pm by that stage, I rewarded myself with another glass of Grange, which was opening out very nicely indeed.
So it was all on track, really - Bolognese with the beef and ox tail was in the oven, the pork belly was confit-ing, thought I did have to turn the oven down to 120, or else I would have ended up with deep fried pork belly.
Two hours and one very empty Grange later, I took the pot out of the oven (which was smelling quite fine, I might add), fished out the pieces of meat, which were just falling off the bone, and started breaking it up into fine shreds. I just used two forks for this, which went very smoothly for the beef osso bucco and the pork belly, but I had to get my fingers into the ox tail, which seemed to have very little meat to offer in the end, but at least I got all those flavours (and I did enjoy sucking on the pieces after I'd picked off what meat I could!).
The sauce was very close to finished, I'd season it and add fresh herbs on the morrow, and give it a last little bit of time to slow cook all the flavours together, but it was a big day in the kitchen, and I was done!
So the next morning, I chopped up the basil and parsley, added that, and a decent amount of sea salt (big pinch), and stirred it in, then cooked the sauce for another hour or so on 160C, checking every 15 minutes for consistency and flavour.
While that was going on, I made the pasta, which is pretty basic - pile the flour on the bench, make a well in the middle, tip in the eggs, and stir in with a fork until you can use your hands without losing the eggs.
Kneeded the dough for at least 15 minutes, until it softened and developed some elasticity and a smooth texture. Wrapped in glad wrap and placed in the fridge for an hour.
Then I divided it into 4 balls, and rolled each out by hand, then fed into my pasta machine. Wonderful thing.
Made flat sheets of pasta (which was a nice yellow colour from the extra yolks), on setting 5, and then cut them into strips about an inch thick.
Cooked those in a stock pot full of salted boiling water, for about 6 minutes, until aldente, as they say in the classics.
And that, my friends, was it! Pasta on the plates, generous scoop of Grange Bolognese sauce on top, grated some Reggio Parma over it, and tucked in!
I served mine with home made garlic bread and a roma tomato, buffalo mozarella and basil salad.
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