Ragù alla bolognese is a versatile Italian classic, and here it's cooked with all of the authentic flavours but fewer calories...
This skinny but authentic-tasting version is from only 159 calories per serving for the extra skinny version of the sauce (ragù), which comes to 240 calories served with courgette /zucchini 'spaghetti' and grated parmesan (see below for more information on calories).
Probably one of the most well-known and loved Italian dishes, the ragù alla bolognese is possibly one of the first dishes many of us make once we leave home, in the form of spaghetti bolognese - which is actually a dish which originated outside of Italy! The Italians tend to serve their ragù (Italian for 'meat-based sauce') in the form of tagliatelli alla bolognese (with flat pasta), or in lasagne alla bolognese, as this kind of meat sauce does not stick well to spaghetti.
Back in the day, I imagine most of us when trying to cook our first masterpieces in the kitchen went through a phase where we probably threw onions, mince and a tin of tomatoes into a pan with a shake of mixed herbs, and came out with a tasty pasta sauce, which then evolved over the years. Once outside of Italy, the ragù seems to change quite drastically depending on which country it has 'emigrated' to. Believe it or not, adding bacon/pancetta and herbs is not so authentic, however it's a taste which so many of us are accustomed to, so I've put them in as options. Here is my healthier version of the traditional recipe, which is based on all the traditional ingredients (plus a couple of optional ingredients to satisfy modern tastebuds) for a very authentic flavour, including milk (which may come as a slight surprise to a few people, and certainly isn't something I included in my early days of cooking, but is very traditional) which has an amazingly tenderizing effect on the meat, so please do include it if you haven't previously - the difference is really noticeable!
Stretching your sauce further!
Having authentic origins (but erring on the healthy side) this is quite a 'meaty' sauce. For the record, don't tell anyone but I'm a victim of having a taste for English 'emigrated' ragù, and after cooking this recipe, frequently 'dilute' a single portion for me with a tin of chopped tomatoes per single portion, to make it into two portions before re-heating to bulk it up as I like a more chunky, tomato-y sauce! (Just between you and me, right?). The added bonus of this, is that as well as reducing your red meat consumption, if you're counting calories, that takes it down to 159 calories per serving! Him indoors loves the meaty version, of course - try it both ways, and see which you prefer (or have the more tomato-y version to keep the calories down, but fill you up! You could even go for a double portion - especially if you're having it with courgette/zucchini noodles to keep the calories and carbs down).
Servings and calories
Serves 4-6 (easily doubled to make a big batch), calories per portion for the ragù alla bolognese sauce: 218 if divided into 6 portions, 327 if divided into 4 portions (depending on appetites). If you're adding chopped tomatoes, this could increase to 8 to 12 portions.
For fast days (if you're doing 5:2) or low calorie days, or if you like it more tomato-y, if you add a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes to a single portion, you can divide it into two further extra skinny portions at 159 calories each (if added to a sixth portion) - or 214 calories (if added to a quarter portion) - you may want to add a little more seasoning once you've done this - taste it when you heat it up. Obviously if you want to cook up a whole batch of it like this (I'd try it on a single portion first, to see if you like it), you need to add 4-6 tins of chopped tomatoes near the end of cooking for a tomato-based pasta sauce and use more seasoning.
Serving suggestions and related calories
If you take a portion of the ragù mixed with chopped tomatoes as above (166 calories), you can serve it with a large courgette / zucchini (230g), julienned into long strips (41 calories), then grate 10g of Parmesan cheese (40 calories) on the top, if you like, giving you a total of only 240 calories for a nice filling dish of ‘Courgetti Bolognese’. You can just stir the 'courgetti' into the hot sauce until heated through, or blanch for a few seconds in boiling water, steam, microwave, or toss in a dry non-stick pan until heated through - don't cook for too long, or the water will come out and you will have more of a soggy courgette mush! Feel free to experiment with other low calorie vegetable alternatives such as spaghetti squash (cook whole, and scrape out the spaghetti-like strands), or shredded white cabbage etc.
I've been asked how you make courgette / zucchini 'spaghetti by a few people. You don't need a special gadget to cut vegetables into fine julienne, but it does require good knife skills, a sharp knife, and takes a little longer. However, if you do want a 'gadget', you have at least three options** - (click on the highlighted text to see a good example) julienne peelers which are like vegetable peelers and the cheapest option, but can be a bit fiddly; vegetable spiralizers which are usually quite bulky, only have the one function and can be expensive; and mandolins which are my personal preference as they are multifunctional and store easily in a drawer - however you need to make sure it has the plates you want for slicing and/or julienne, and also something to hold the food you're slicing (or buy a metal glove!) as those things can be lethal - I have lost many a slice of skin from my knuckles from mine. Mandolins tend to range in price from under £10 to over £100, but you should be able to get a decent one for £20 to £30.
If you want to serve with 'proper' spaghetti (or tagliatelli!), weigh yourself out a portion and calculate the calories according to the nutritional information on the pack - a 60g serving of dried spaghetti would be around 217 calories, or around 210 calories for gluten free.
- 250g extra lean minced beef (5% fat) 
- 250g extra lean minced pork (5% fat - you could use all beef, but the flavour is just not the same) 
- 125g reduced fat, bacon medallions (I like smoked), trimmed of visible fat (if any) and cut into lardons (small, short strips) 
- 15 sprays (3 x 5 sprays) pure olive oil spray (or use 3 x scant 1/2 tsps) 
- 2 medium carrots (c160g, after being peeled and topped/tailed) 
- 2 medium onions (c180g, after being peeled and topped/tailed) 
- 2 small celery sticks (or 1 large, c150g, trimmed) 
- 2 cloves garlic (optional, not authentic) 
- 150ml red wine [64*]
- 250ml passata (sieved tomatoes) 
- 2 tbsp tomato puree (double concentrate) 
- 100ml hot beef stock/boullion, made up double strength (e.g. Touch of Taste, check gluten free if appropriate) 
- 1/2 (level) tbsp dried oregano (optional if you’d like a slightly ‘herbier’ flavour, as not authentic) 
- 1 bay leaf (also optional)
- 125 ml semi-skimmed milk 
- 1/2 tsp cornflour (USA cornstarch) (optional, see method) 
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Optional tinned chopped tomatoes - one can per portion, to double it - see 'Servings and calories' above.
*red wine calories reduced as per these guidelines, to take account of cooking time: ((129-29) x 35%) + 29 = 64.
The onions, carrots, and celery need chopping into a relatively fine dice. I prefer to do this the quick way, chopping into large chunks, and quickly pulsing in a food processor. If you put the celery in with the garlic, you can chop it more finely (so that the celery isn’t stringy, and the garlic is finely chopped). If you want to do it the long way (or don’t have a food processor), crush (or finely chop) the garlic cloves, and then cut the onions, carrots and celery into fine dice by hand.
(Thermomix - drop the carrots onto running blades, Speed 4, and leave for 5 seconds. Scrape down if necessary and give another 5 seconds at Speed 4 or until chopped to your liking. Empty into a bowl, then drop the onions onto running blades, Speed 4, and leave for 5 seconds to chop thoroughly. Empty into the bowl with the carrots. Finally drop the celery and garlic onto running blades Speed 6, then stop and remove and add to carrots and onions, ready to cook. Edit - I've finally perfected my full Thermomix version, with non-mushy meat, and full flavour - the recipe is here if you'd like to switch versions instead of cooking it in a pan - the only drawback: you can't double it up unlike this recipe, as there's not enough room in the TM bowl!)
Heat a large, heavy-based non-stick pan (it’s very important that it’s a good non-stick pan to avoid any sticking or burning due to the reduced amount of oil in this recipe) until it's sizzling hot (flick in a couple of drops of water to check!) and then add 1/3 of the oil (1/2 tsp or 5 sprays pure oil) and carefully add the minced meat in a block without breaking it up and leave the mince sitting there and sizzling for a couple of minutes or as long as you dare, before it’s developed a nice brown-ness on the bottom - think of it like a burger (if you’re using two 250g packs, just lay them next to each other in the pan). Please don’t be tempted to start stirring and breaking up the meat, or you’ll lose the flavour. If you can manage to lift and flip it over all in one piece so that the other side can then brown, that’s brilliant (don't worry if not, you can do it a few large pieces!). This is what will give your meat a real depth of flavour (if you want the science bit, look up the Maillard reaction!). However, you don’t want to burn your meat, as that will make it taste bitter. Once you’ve browned as much as you dare (don't cook it all the way through, it will be raw in the middle), set the meat aside on a plate.
Add another third of the oil, then add the bacon, and fry for a few minutes until just starting to turn golden brown. Push to one side of the pan, add the remainder of the oil, and then add the vegetables. Stir/toss the bacon into the vegetables, and keep it moving, stirring or tossing (if stirring, two spoons is easier!) for 5-10 minutes, until the vegetables have softened, and the onions have turned translucent and no longer smell raw. Scrape up any lovely browned juices from the meat and the bacon as you go.
Push the bacon and vegetables to one side, and add the browned meat back to the pan, and start breaking it up (I find two flat wooden spoons, with straight ends are brilliant for breaking up the meat, using the flat ends), turning and cooking for about 5 minutes, stirring through the vegetables. Add the wine, continuing to stir for about 5 minutes, until it has reduced right down then add the beef stock, passata, tomato puree, oregano, bay leaf and milk and stir in thoroughly.
Bring to a simmer, turn the heat down, cover, and then leave to simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally to make sure it is not catching on the bottom. After half an hour you should have a ragu which has reduced down to a nice thick consistency (photo on the right, above).
At this point, I add ½ tsp cornflour (mixed thoroughly with a couple of tsps of cold water first to avoid lumps) and stir in quickly then allow to simmer for another couple of minutes to cook out the flour (this is to stop any watery tomato juices seeping out of the ragu onto your plate when you serve it, whether with pasta, or in a lasagne. You won’t really notice a difference in the consistency or flavour from such a small amount, you just won’t have watery juices seeping out onto your plate). You could also add tinned chopped tomatoes if desired at this point, if you wanted to and bring back to a simmer before seasoning and serving.
Now add salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste (you might want to taste before you add, as it already contains stock - I add up to 1 tsp of fine sea salt, but this might be too much for certain people, so go easy until you're happy with the flavour - you'll need more if you've added chopped tomatoes). Stir in thoroughly, simmering for another minute and then taste again. Remove the bay leaf.
At this point, your ragu is now ready, and you can serve it as a Bolognese sauce with pasta, or ‘courgetti’ topped with parmesan; use it to layer up a lasagne (recipes to follow, including pasta free); or cool, portion into sandwich bags (adding optional chopped tomatoes, if desired) and chill or freeze (it will keep in the fridge for a good 2 or 3 days, and last in the freezer for at least 3 months - in this house, many more!). Enjoy!
**This post contains Amazon affiliate links for the equipment I've given examples of to cut vegetables into julienne. Clicking on the links will simply take you to view the product on Amazon, and not cost you anything whatsoever. Should you decide to purchase the product from the link above, you will not pay a penny extra, but I may get a minute percentage of the proceeds from Amazon. Essentially, it makes no difference to you at all, but go Google them too if you're interested in buying them, to see what the best deal is for you! I only include the links, as I'd be giving you a link to Amazon anyway, as it's the easiest place to find things which are reviewed and make sure I'm not giving examples or recommendations which customers have found unsatisfactory :)