Friday, 22 August 2014

Thermomix Chunky Ragù alla Bolognese - with skinny option, and no more mushy meat sauce!

Ragù alla bolognese is a versatile Italian classic, delicious with pasta, or in a lasagne - and here is how to make it using your Thermomix with all of the flavours from perfectly browned meat, and no sloppy disappointing mush - so if you've been disappointed so far, don't give up yet!

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 (alla) 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. Honestly? I only learnt that a few years ago, and it was news to me too (as well as the milk thing!) and I've been making it for a couple of decades!

Thermomix spaghetti bolognese
Non-authentic serving suggestion on top of spaghetti! Or stir into tagliatelli to avoid offence.

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 (just like 'Mummy' used to make it. Or Dad in my case, who was the main cook). Here is my Thermomix 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!

Don't get me wrong, I haven't even tried any of the Thermomix bolognese sauce recipes out there, so I can't comment on them, and this is no reflection on anyone else's recipe. It never occurred to me to do so because it's something which I've been cooking for around twenty years that I'm perfectly happy with flavour-wise (if it's not broke, why fix it, as the saying goes) and a brief look around at a few available (there are so many!) showed ingredients that I don't use in mine, or vice versa - it was just a question of getting mine right in the Thermomix. Mushy, sloppy meat sauce is something I've noticed many Thermomix users complaining of time and time again, and with my first attempts at cooking it in the Thermomix, I could certainly see why. It took a few attempts to get it 'right', and every time I changed the way I cooked the sauce and the meat, the order, the method, but with pretty much the same ingredients each time, and a 'control' batch on the hob going at the same time, to taste it against. On the last attempt (this one), which I swore *was* the last attempt, I finally got it how I wanted it. Phew!

Now, two important points.

Firstly, you will need a pan as well as your Thermomix. Preferably a heavy-based one with a non-stick surface. Just to quickly brown the meat in, in one large piece (as if it was a large rectangular burger - you don't cook it through, just literally brown on one side, flip and brown the other side, then set aside. It will be raw inside.). Shouldn't be a big deal - you can do it while you're preparing the vegetables, or even while they're cooking in the Thermomix, and put it onto a plate when it's browned and set to one side. Well, you didn't want flavourless meat-mush, did you? This took a few different experiments to get right, so I'm really hoping you'll enjoy it as much as we do, and no-one will ever know you cooked it in anything but an authentic manner!

Even less authentic serving suggestion - on top of 'courgetti' / 'zoodles'! Skinny-style. Heinous!

Secondly, you have choices here. Three to be precise, being (a) full-fat, (b) skinny and (c) with extra tomatoes added near the end to give a more tomato-y flavour, and simultaneously cut down the red meat you're eating, cut the calories, and stretch the dish out further (you'll end up with 2 litres of tasty pasta sauce - not bad for 500g mince!). It's far less complicated than it sounds, basically it boils down to: (a) choosing to make a full fat, authentic-tasting ragù, in which case you substitute full fat minced beef and pork (or veal), lubricate with olive oil to your tastes, and if you're using bacon or pancetta, just choose the full fat streaky variety, rather than the low fat options, and minimal oil I've given in the recipe. You don't need me to put those in as options, or calorie count them, because you're not counting! Just use the same weights. Or (b) you can follow the recipe recommendations for lower fat meat and measured oil, and you have a low fat ragù with all the authentic flavours and far fewer calories, that is incredibly tasty and guilt-free. Finally, (c) if the sauce is too 'meaty' for you, or you want to stretch it out to feed more people or have some chunks of tomato in it, you just add one or two tins of chopped tomatoes at the end and cook for a few extra minutes as per the method. This is also the lowest calorie option (from 154 calories).

So a fantastic family favourite, that can keep the healthy-eaters happy too!

Stretching your sauce further and reducing the red meat content and calorie count

Having authentic origins (but erring on the healthy side if you want to) 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 for the family, frequently 'dilute' a single portion for me with some chopped tomatoes 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, they go down! 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). If you want to stretch it even further / reduce the red meat content further, you could also add or substitute rinsed and drained tinned (or cooked) green lentils.

Servings and calories

Serves 4-6 (depending on appetites, and how much sauce you like with your pasta), or 8-10 (see below).

If you're counting calories, and using the low fat minced meat and bacon, with the suggested quantities of oil, it's 334 calories per quarter portion for the ragù sauce. It's 223 if divided into 6 portions. If you're adding the 2 tins of chopped tomatoes at the end (see method), you'll have about 2 litres of meat sauce, so this could increase to 8 to 10 portions. (192 calories for an eighth serving, 154 calories for a tenth).

Serving suggestions and related calories, for those counting

zoodles zuchini noodlesIf you take a tenth portion of the ragù with extra tomatoes as above (154 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 235 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. My recommendation is to go to somewhere like TKMaxx, which sells off quality stock at a reduced price and have a look around their kitchenware department - I've got some incredible stuff from there in the past (OK, maybe I haven't used all of it yet, but you never know when it will come in handy)!

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.

If you'd like to double up the recipe, and have a large pan to do so (unfortunately the TM is not big enough to fit a double quantity), instructions are here which includes instructions to chop the vegetables in the Thermomix.

[Calories in square brackets]

(use full fat meat and pancetta / streaky bacon if you're not counting calories or cutting down on saturated fat, as well as a more generous splash of olive oil. Liquid measures are in ml and g depending on whether you like to measure by volume or weigh into the bowl)

  • 250g extra lean minced beef (5% fat) [305 calories]
  • 250g extra lean minced pork (5% fat - you could use all beef, but the flavour is just not the same, or use minced veal) [400]
  • 130g reduced fat, bacon medallions (I like smoked - use pancetta or streaky bacon if not counting calories), trimmed of visible fat (if any) and cut into lardons (small, short strips) [156]
  • 2 tsp olive oil (not extra virgin) [80]
  • 2 medium carrots (c160g, after being peeled and topped/tailed) [42]
  • 2 medium onions (c180g, after being peeled and topped/tailed) [74]
  • 2 small celery sticks (or 1 large, c150g, trimmed) [15]
  • 2 cloves garlic (optional, not authentic - but tasty!) [12]
  • 150g/ml red wine [64*]
  • 250g/ml passata (sieved tomatoes, also known as sugo) [75]
  • 2 x 15ml tbsp tomato puree (double concentrate) [30]
  • Beef bouillon/stock concentrate/paste or stock cube, sufficient to make up 200ml stock (e.g. about 1/2 a beef stock cube although I don't recommend OXO as I remember them to be quite salty, 1/2 tbsp stock paste, or I use 2 tsp Knorr Touch of Taste beef boullion concentrate, check gluten free if appropriate) [8]
  • 1/2 (level) tbsp dried oregano (optional if you’d like a slightly ‘herbier’ flavour, as not authentic) [5]
  • 1/2 tsp golden caster sugar (to taste, optional) [8]
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • 100g/ml semi-skimmed milk [50]
  • 1 tsp cornflour (aka cornstarch) (optional, see method) [12]
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Optional tinned chopped tomatoes up to 2 x 400g tins for a more tomato-y meat sauce [up to 200]

*red wine calories reduced as per these guidelines, to take account of cooking time: ((129-29) x 35%) + 29 = 64.


Depending on how much of a 'multi-tasker' you are, you can either brown the meat while you prepare the vegetables, or do it before or after, or while the vegetables are cooking to make the sauce in the TM - it really doesn't matter, it just cuts down on a few minutes of your time if you do two things at once. If you're forgetful like me, and potentially likely to burn it, do it separately!

Browned beef & pork - a double batch
as I tend to cook a 'control' batch in a
pan when converting things like this!
To brown the meat heat a large, heavy-based non-stick pan on a high heat until it's sizzling hot (flick in a couple of drops of water to check it's sizzling, if you're not sure!) and then add a tsp oil, swirl it around and carefully add the minced meat in its block form 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, caramelised brown-ness on the bottom - think of it like a couple of rectangular burgers. Please don’t be tempted to start stirring and breaking up the meat, or you’ll lose the flavour and the texture and this won't work. 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 it breaks, 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 should still be very raw in the middle), set the meat aside on a plate. There, that's the only part not using the Thermomix.

To chop the vegetables, 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 - I recommend chunky. 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.

Give the bowl a rinse out with cold water, and empty, but don't dry the bowl out (you'll hear the oil sizzling when it gets hot, and it will prevent the oil potentially burning in the bowl). Add 1 tsp oil to the wet bowl, and heat up 1 minute / Varoma temperature / Speed Spoon / MC off until sizzling. Add the diced bacon, and cook 9 minutes / Varoma temperature / Reverse / Speed Spoon / MC off until there is a little colour. Don't worry if the bowl has a little colour on the bottom, it's all flavour, and the moisture from the chopped vegetables etc. will lift it off.

Add all of the chopped vegetables and cook for 5 minutes / Varoma temp / Reverse / Speed 1 / MC off. Add the wine, and cook for 3 minutes / Varoma temp / Reverse / Speed 1 / MC off, then add the beef stock concentrate/cube (crumble if using half a cube), 250g passata, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 1/2 x 15ml tbsp oregano, bay leaf and 100g milk. Cook 3 minutes / Varoma temp / Reverse / Speed 1 / MC off. This is to bring all the other ingredients up to temperature so that when you add the browned meat, it cooks through quickly, retaining its form and doesn't disintegrate into mush. 

Take your browned meat, slide it gently into the sauce intact, and gently push it under the sauce so it's submerged. Things will look a bit like this, once you've pushed it under the sauce. Don't break it up yet. Cook 15 minutes / 100C / Reverse / Speed Spoon / MC on at an angle to let the steam out but stop it splattering.

Take the lid off, and use a plastic spatula or flat wooden spoon to quickly break the meat up into chunks against the side of the bowl (you should find it is cooked through, but still in large blocks - if you find it easier you could fish it out and break up on a chopping board or plate then return to the bowl). It will look a bit 'rustic', and have a thin but chunky sauce at this point.

In a ramekin or small dish, stir the 1 tsp cornflour into 2 tsp cold water, thoroughly, then tip into the bowl, and give a quick stir into the sauce with the spatula (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).

Then cook for a further 15 minutes / 100C / Reverse / Speed Spoon / MC on at an angle.

At this point you should have a delicious, thick and chunky ragù. Remove the bay leaf, have a taste, and add freshly ground black pepper and extra salt if you think it needs it until you're happy with the flavour.

At this point, if you want to increase the tomato content, and stretch the sauce out further, you can add up to two 400g tins of chopped tomatoes (try not to go above the 2 litre mark, it will be around there if you add both tins), insert the butterfly whisk (important to stir it thoroughly now it is so full), and cook for a final 5 minutes / 100C / Reverse / Speed Spoon / MC on (you will need extra seasoning if you add extra tomatoes). 

Taste, season again if necessary, and serve 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 up 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!

5:2 spaghetti bolognese

**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 :)

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