Classic meat sauce

This is one of my most cooked recipes and is extremely reliable. It  is basically a meat sauce ‘base’ recipe that can be used as a Bolognese sauce, for a cottage pie (when using beef mince) or for a shepherd’s pie (when using lamb mince).

The ingredients:

  • 400-500g (depending on pack size) of good quality mince (lamb or beef; I tend to cook more with beef, usually the lean stuff  / steak mince)
  • 1 medium/large onion (or 2 small)
  • 1 medium/large carrot (or 2 small)
  • 2 sticks of celery (don’t omit this, even if you don’t like celery; the taste itself isn’t strong)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 large flat field/portabello mushrooms (or 4-6 small closed cup mushrooms)
  • 200ml of red wine (please don’t omit this, even if you’re t-total. All the alcohol burns off in the cooking anyway)
  • 200ml of stock (I use 1x Oxo cube mixed with 200ml water)
  • a cup of milk (Nigel Slater says full-cream milk or cream itself; semi-skimmed is fine)
  • 1 level tablespoon of sugar
  • 2 bay leaves (don’t omit these, they impart a wonderful but subtle flavour)
  • 70g of cubed pancetta (in the UK this comes in double-packs from the supermarket, you use one half of the pack. Again, don’t omit this)
  • 200ml of passata (you can buy this in small tetrapacks. Failing that, about 1/2 a tin of peeled & chopped tomatoes will suffice)
  • dollop of tomato ketchup (optional)
  • dollop of tomato purée (optional)
  • salt & pepper

OK, so that’s the ingredients. I know N.America uses different measurements to us so you’ll need to check equivalency. I’m guessing that 200ml is about 1 cup.

With regard to the vegetables above – they all need to be ‘fairly’ finely chopped. I’ve done this either in my mini food-processor (which has a tendency to chop the ingredients into oblivion) and also by hand. Last time I made this I don’t think I chopped the ingredients quite small enough. You don’t want pieces the size of rice grains but nor do you want ‘chunks’. Aim to chop slightly smaller than the size of a pea.

Prepare the dish as follows.

  1. Throw the butter into a LARGE saucepan, the heavy-based ones are ideal. I use a stockpot type pan from Ikea’s 365+ range which is great for this type of thing. The chunkier the pan the better.
  2. Throw in the pancetta and let it cook gently for about 5 minutes. You are not frying it like bacon; you are just slow cooking it. It doesn’t need to go brown so don’t burn it.
  3. Now throw in the garlic and onion. You’re sweating these so let them cook for a few minutes (3-4 is fine).
  4. Now throw in the chopped celery and carrots. Sweat these for another 3-4 mins or so.
  5. Now throw in the chopped mushrooms and keep stirring.
  6. Add the bay leaves at this point and stir in.
  7. Let the above cook on a LOW heat for 10 minutes. Really, you must not go mad on the hob with this kind of dish. Cook it gently and you’ll be rewarded when you come to eat it .
  8. Now, turn up the heat and throw the meat in. Use your wooden spoon and a fork if necessary to break it up. Leave on high for 3-4 minutes for the meat to cook mostly through. You can stir a bit to ensure all the meat turns brown. If it takes longer, that’s fine.
  9. Now add the other ingredients. Throw in the wine, stock, tomatoes, sugar, tomato ketchup and tomato puree. Stir well.
  10. As soon as its simmering, turn the heat RIGHT down to it’s lowest setting on the smallest hob ring you have. To quote Nigel Slater: “Turn the heat down so that everything barely bubbles. There should be movement, but one that is gentle, not quite a simmer.”
  11. Partially cover the pan with the lid and leave for 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally. The only ‘variable’ for this dish which I can’t instruct you on is the liquid levels. If it looks to dry, add more liquid. I doubt it will be too dry as I’ve never found that. If it looks much too liquidy (unlikely) remove the lid completely. In all likelihood it will be fine, but do check it now and again and stir occasionally. Pour yourself a glass of wine.
  12. After 1.5 hours, slowly pour the milk in. I rarely use all 200ml, instead I put about ‘half a cup’ in. Pour it in slowly. The colour of the meat sauce goes a wonderful light chocolate brown.
  13. Continue cooking for another 20 minutes. The sauce will likely be thickening at this point which is fine.

You are now finished. Check salt and pepper levels, I like a decent amount of both. Do ensure there is enough salt in the dish as it brings out the flavour. Also, do try and refrain from using that awful ‘easy pour table salt’ which is vile and not good for you. I use rock salt (in the UK you can easily buy Maldon seasalt which is very nice).

Et voila, c’est fini! Really, this tastes even better if you make it the night before. It’s also easier to convert to cottage pie if you make it the night before as you’re then putting it cold into a pie dish and putting the mash over it which spreads better (is more likely to sink when you spread mash over very hot meat sauce).

The above recipe makes 4 generous, ‘man size’ portions or 6 ordinary portions. I tend to get 4-5 out of it. I would recommend using 1/2 for a cottage pie and the other 1/2 with pasta.

If doing cottage pie, ensure you use nice floury potates and throw salt in when cooking. Add enough butter AND milk to make the mash very puréed, more than you might for say, bangers and mash. This helps to spread it over the meat sauce. I’d then put it in the oven at say 150c for 45 – 60mins.

If having with pasta, just add to good quality cooked al dente pasta and if liked, grate some parmesan.

Let me know if you try it and if you like it. Or if you have variations!

PS My inspiration for this recipe is from Nigel Slater’s wonderful book, The Kitchen Diaries, from his recipe titled ‘A really good spaghetti Bolognese’ page 21.

PS This recipe was last posted as a guest entry on Vic’s blog.