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Monday 21 November 2011

Dolmio Days

(AKA: Spag Bol - It Had To Happen Eventually!)

It has been my impression for many years that Spaghetti Bolognese is basically the staple food of single men. Many a time, at work, I'd overhear guys discussing their plans for dinner (at home) after work and, when it wasn't takeaway (Chinese/Indian predominately), it always seemed to be 'Spag Bol'.

It's also something I grew up enjoying fairly regularly (up until the previously mentioned BSE scare) and so, when beef returned to my personal menu, it seemed inevitable that I'd have to try my hand at Spag Bol myself... But I figured that baby steps were in order, and elected to try some of the ready-made sauces available these days.

Of course, the funniest thing about Spag Bol - and particularly Dolmio's 'Italian Muppets' advertising, asking "when's-a your Dolmio Day?" - is that Spaghetti Bolognese as we know it in the UK is about as far from traditional Italian food as you can get while still using ingredients often found in traditional Italian food. Outside Italy, 'Bolognese sauce' tends to be tomato-based, and usually served with minced beef. Proper Bolognese sauce is meat-based... and more often served with tagliatelle, or in a lasagne, while Spaghetti tends to be served with meatballs rather than mince.

So... Where to begin this pseudo-Italiana?

  • Spaghetti (approx 75g per person seems to be the norm, but amazing, high-tech measuring devices are available, just Google 'spaghetti measure', or go here)
  • Dolmio Spaghetti Sauce (1 jar is enough for anywhere between 2-4 people, and they have a range of options)
  • Minced Beef (approx 300g is recommended by the instructions on the Dolmio jars. Fresh is always preferable, but I've tended to use frozen, from Iceland)
  • Salt (just a pinch, for the water in which the spaghetti is boiled).
Preparation Time: About 15 minutes!

Tools Required:
  • 2 Medium-sized Saucepans (or 1 Saucepan for the spaghetti, 1 Frying Pan for the Bolognese)
  • 2 Stirring Implements (because you really don't want to use one for both pans!)
  • Sieve
  • 2 Burners on your Hob!
The Process:
OK, confession time: The first time I attempted to make spaghetti bolognese like this, I got the timing all wrong. I thought the spaghetti would be really quick and the bolognese quite slow, so I started out with the meat, added the sauce, and only then made a start on the spaghetti. The end result was the the sauce was all but boiled away by the time the spaghetti was ready. So... here's how you should do it:

Half fill your saucepan with water, add a little salt and bring to the boil on the hob. Dump the spaghetti into the saucepan and keep it moving. Eventually it'll be flexible enough that the whole of it can be submerged. Meanwhile, brown your beef in the frying pan/2nd saucepan and on a high heat. No extra oil should be necessary, as there tends to be quite enough fat in minced beef. This should only take about five minutes, even from frozen. Once the meat is thoroughly browned, turn down the hob to a medium heat, tip in the contents of the sauce jar, stir it in, and keep it moving. It should be bubbling away nicely within about five minutes.

By this time, the spaghetti should be almost done, so make ready with the seive. Turn off the hob (both burners!), drain the spaghetti through the sieve and serve. Serve out the sauce over the top and lo, your Spag Bol is ready!

The Results:
As previously mentioned, the first attempt turned out rather drier than anticipated, but still quite good, all things considered. The 'Original' sauce is a very rich, tomato-based affair and, in it's standard form, I found it rather too sweet for my palette. It's worth noting at this point that sugar is listed as an ingredient, further proving how far this is from traditional Italian cooking.

For my second attempt, I chose Dolmio's 'Extra Onion & Garlic' version (others include 'Extra Mushroom', 'Extra Spicy', 'Low Fat', etc.), which seemed to me to offer a better, more rounded flavour.

That said, it needs to be pointed out that Dolmio's sauces all include a range of herbs which are not present in a traditional Bolognese sauce, and that most Italians would balk at the mere suggestion of garlic in a Bolognese sauce, let alone 'extra'.

Still, to my uneducated, insensitive English palette, both sauces were quite nice (other than the excessive sweetness of the 'Original' flavour), and the convenience of having a plate of Spag Bol in about 15 minutes cannot be overstated. Making one's own sauce is always going to be preferable but, if this blog has a message, it's all about not overlooking the quick-and-dirty option.

Adding to the convenience is that, once cooked, these 'bolognese sauces' (deliberate use of a lower-case 'B', there) store very well. They can easily survive in the fridge for a few days, and be served with minimal reheating, or be frozen for more long-term storage. Quite handy if you tend to be cooking for one.

Also, by the by, since I'm terrible at doing my washing up, I found that the remnants of the 'Extra Onion & Garlic' sauce grew a fine collection of salt crystals while sitting in my 'to do' pile. The website reckons 1.2g of salt per 125g serving (which the makers equate to a 'single' serving). Other sauces go up to 1.4g, and each jar contains 500g of sauce (enough to serve 4 by their reckoning).

I'm honestly not sure if this says anything about the quantities of salt hidden in everyday foodstuffs, or if it's just a damning indictment of my lazy-arse attitude to washing up after a meal.


  1. Re the timing of your pasta cooking – fresh pasta probably cooks in 3-5 minutes, dried pasta in 10-15 minutes, depending on type, maker, etc. Strangely, most chefs agree that there’s not much difference other than the cooking times, and how long it will last in the cupboard. Always use as much water as you can get in the pan so the temperature of the boiling water doesn’t drop too much when you dump the pasta in.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Fascinating that chefs reckon there's little difference between dried and fresh pasta. Theoretically, their opinions are pretty reliable, and one would tend to expect them to favour fresh... Then again, hey, it's only pasta...