What is comfort food? The answer is simple - and yet too complicated to explain in a few words as the phrase means something different to each of us.
For food to become a comfort it has to evoke happy memories, perhaps of childhood moments when a parent prepared something special for a big event, or a favourite recipe by a loved one. It must have those flavours that take us back to a time when things seemed much more simple.
In recent years, chefs (including myself) have explored the idea of comfort food in depth.
We have prepared a variety of recipes with a refined twist. Macaroni and cheese, for example, made with some of the most expensive cheeses and garnishes (white truffles, caviar) known to the food world. We even played with hamburgers and fries, reaching astronomical prices and making rarely used cuts of meat chic again.
Food has always been an anchor in my life - probably because I have worked in a kitchen for the past 30 years or so! And I have worked with people from all over the world, and through them experienced an impressive variety of comfort foods: noodle soups from the Far East, hot curries from Southeast Asia, sauerkraut and sausages, bangers and mash, shepherd's pie, tourtière ... I could go on forever.
But the thing I realized last time I was in Italy was that in the end I always gravitate toward a Bolognese-style meat sauce. (Although fried eggs on toast and a Milanese cutlet are a close second.) All it takes to put me in the right mood is the aroma of meat sauce: I have such memories of wine and herbs simmering for hours in a light tomato sauce on a wood-burning stove, the scent permeating the kitchen.
So here is the meat sauce I know as ragu alla Bolognese. It is the base for a great lasagna or a dressing for pasta. (I recommend egg noodles.) Or put a few spoonfuls in a risotto or on polenta. This is a favourite at Mistura: It has been on my menu for 11 years and is still the top seller. This is not just a simple ragu; this is a labour of love.
RAGU ALLA BOLOGNESE
What you need
3 cups mixed ground onion, celery and carrots, minced
4 garlic cloves
2 ounces olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 bay leaves
6 ounces ground pancetta (or prosciutto)
1 pound ground beef
1 pound sausage meat, loosened
1 cup white wine
1 cup milk
16 ounces canned chopped tomatoes
3 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
1 dash grated nutmeg
What you do
Sauté the onions, celery, carrots and garlic with the oil and butter. Add the bay leaves and pancetta and sauté until the meat is translucent.
In a separate pan, sauté the beef and sausage meat over high heat; be sure to break up all the lumps. Cooking this meat separately from the vegetables and draining off the fat prevents the sauce from becoming fatty. You can also cool the sauce in the refrigerator to solidify any remaining fat, which can then be scraped away easily.
Add the meat to the vegetable/pancetta mix.
Sprinkle in the wine and let it evaporate. Add the milk and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stock, and season with a little salt and pepper and a dash of nutmeg.
Simmer, covered, for at least two hours. Stir from time to time. Do not let it stick and burn. (One way to prevent the stick-and-burn problem is to cook the sauce in a preheated oven at 425 F for the same amount of time.)
Don't forget to correct the seasoning. If needed, add more salt and pepper.
Massimo Capra is co-owner and chef of Mistura Restaurant and Sopra Upper Lounge in Toronto and guest chef on the show Restaurant Makeover
Beppi's wine matches
To stick with the regional theme, choose a sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna, the region that contains Bologna. Look for "sangiovese di Romagna" on the label. Or look for a high-quality Chianti, such as Frescobaldi Chianti Nipozzano Riserva (about $22; prices vary across the country), and Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico (about $25).