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White bolognese sauce

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The Runaway Spoon

(Read caption) Your pasta may be feeling a bit lonely without fresh tomatoes this time of year. Try a white bolognese sauce instead.

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It is that time. My stock of frozen sauce made from summer’s freshest tomatoes is dwindling, and I am hoarding those last little bags. Hey, I do like a sauce made from quality canned tomatoes as well (my standard Bolognese uses them), but after a steady diet of the fresh stuff, it’s hard to switch over. 

That’s where this comes in. A bridge Bolognese if you like, between the deep cold of the winter and the tomatoes of summer. This sauce is hearty and warming, but somehow brighter than a rich, deep red Bolognese.

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And this recipe represents what I think home cooking is all about. Blending and creating and combining until you find the taste that suits you. I first saw white Bolognese on a menu at an Italian restaurant, but I couldn’t picture what that meant, so I didn’t order it. But a friend at the table did, and ate every bite. That made me curious.

So I researched and read a lot of recipes and figured out this version that features the flavors I like; the combination of veal and fennel-laced Italian sausage, mild leeks and the punch of fresh fennel. White wine instead of red gives the characteristic zing. I shy away from traditional Bolognese ingredients; this doesn’t need onion or garlic or carrots, basil, or oregano. This is not some kind of substitute for red sauce, but a creation all to itself. What this lacks in looks, it more than makes up for with punchy, bright flavors.

White bolognese sauce
Serves 4 

1 pound ground veal (or pork)

1 pound Italian sausage meat

1 medium fennel bulb

2 stalks celery

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1 leek, white and light green part only

1/4 cup olive oil

1 bottle (750-ml) dry white wine (may substitute cooking wine)

4 cups chicken broth

6 large fresh sage leaves

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed

1/2 cup heavy cream

Crumble the veal and sausage meat into a large Dutch oven and cook over medium high heat until cooked through, but not deep brown. Break up the pieces into small bits as you cook. Pour the meat into a colander and drain off the fat and juices. Wipe any brown bits from the bottom of the pot.

While the meat is cooking, cut the vegetables. Cut stalks of the fennel and set aside, then cut the fennel bulb in half and cut out the hard core. Dice into very small pieces. String the celery and cut into very small pieces. Cut the leeks into quarters, rinse thoroughly and cut into small pieces. The key here is that no bite is overwhelmed with a huge piece of any one flavor.

Put the oil into the pan, add the vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft, and wilted, and translucent. Add 1 cup of the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine is evaporated. Put the meat back in the pot with the vegetables and stir to combine. Add the remaining wine and cook until it has all evaporated, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Finely chop the sage leaves and a small handful of the feathery fronds from the fennel. Add the chicken broth, sage and fennel fronds to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken broth has evaporated, a good 20 minutes. Give it a good stir a few times. When the broth is almost all gone, stir in the fennel seeds.

When the broth is evaporated, stir in 1 cup of milk and the nutmeg and bring to a nice bubble. Cook until the milk has reduced slightly and just coats the meat.

The sauce can be made several hours ahead and kept covered in the fridge. Reheat gently over medium-low heat.

Before serving (after keeping or if serving immediately), stir in the heavy cream until heated through. Spoon over pasta.