Ground beef, 1/4 lb
Ground bison, 1/4 lb (for purists, substitute 1/2 lb ground beef)
Ground pork, 1/4 lb (if you have extra time on your hands, you can braise and finely shred pork shoulder)
Ground lamb, 1/4 lb (but yes, you can substitute veal if you are a purist)
Carrots, minced (I usually use a mini food processor)
Yellow onion, minced
Celery stalks, minced, 2 (in practice, I leave these out, but they are traditional)
Garlic, crushed (releases flavor better) and minced
Crushed tomatoes, 28 oz
Basil, chopped, 1/4 cup (technically "against the rules" but I love basil)
Olive oil, 4 tbsp, divided
Butter, 1 tbsp
Dry red wine, 1/2 cup
Balsamic vinegar, 2 tbsp
Crushed red pepper flakes or paprika, 1/2 tsp
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
The right shape and kind of pasta - tagliatelle or pappardelle are my favorites but bucatini or garganelli would also work well

Serves: 6-8 people

1. Mix the different types of ground meat together, seasoned with salt, pepper, and balsamic vinegar.
2. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil and 1 tbsp butter in a large Dutch oven or saucière over medium heat. Make a soffritto by sautéing garlic, onion, carrots and celery (if using) until softened and fragrant. Set aside.
3. Using the same pan, add 2 more tbsp of olive oil. Brown meat thoroughly, then set aside.
4. Again, in the same pan, add crushed tomatoes, red wine, and basil. Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Bring to a simmer.
5. Stir in soffritto and ground meat.
6. Simmer on low-medium heat for 2-3 hours.
7. Serve over pasta (though, in a pinch, you can eat it plain, like an Italian chili - which is also the way I fed it to my son when he was eight months old).

The story:
Several months after I moved to Atlanta in 2003, I discovered La Tavola Trattoria. Though I was surprised to find much good Italian food so far south of the Mason-Dixon Line, La Tavola had a lot going for it - walking distance from my Virginia-Highland apartment, a good wine list, a nice balcony seating area in back, which was absolutely lovely in the fall and spring, and a reliably superb tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese. Sometime later, my friend Lauren introduced me to the Dekalb Farmers Market, which had an expansive and mouthwatering butcher section, as well as the ability to grind pretty much any and every cut and type of meat, on the spot. Though vaguely aware that pork, beef and veal were the more traditional components of a bolognese, I decided that pork, beef and lamb would create a more interesting and complex taste. I borrowed the use of balsamic vinegar from a really great pizza that Lauren made with tomatoes marinated in balsamic, after practicing on some innocent steaks. Then, after making my sauce a few times, I discovered that the farmers market made their own bolognese in-house and convenience won that round.

I moved across the Atlantic and back, spent some time in Philadelphia, where I started to think of bolognese as the ultimate one-dish meal (lots of protein, veggies, and carbohydrates in the pasta) and eventually wound my way out west, where I gave a bison a chance. My skepticism was unfounded, derived from some disappointing experiences with elk and reindeer. I ordered an elk steak whilst skiing in Snowbird, Utah, in 2002 - it was unremarkable and I mainly remember my friend Mitch commenting, "There's just nothing like cow, is there?" The reindeer appeared on my father's plate at an otherwise lovely restaurant in Helsinki the following year.

Seven years later, I was intrigued by the omnipresence of bison in Colorado grocery stores, especially because it had seemed to me, over the years, that very little about grocery store chains was regional anymore. When I first moved away, I discovered that even the best grocery store in my college town carried very few of the Italian staples and imported ingredients that were readily available at home. Now, even Whole Foods (and definitely places like Marczyk and Di Bruno) carries brands that I remember from childhood trips to Italy. But bison seemed to be the exception! I'm fairly certain the Atlanta and Philadelphia Whole Foods, and Wegman's of 2008 did not carry bison - yet every store in Denver did.

You're probably wondering how this relates to the bolognese. I had been leaning toward eating grass-fed, and between 2007 and 2009, I read several things that persuaded me that this was something I needed to be strict about, akin to being vegan, for instance, rather than a weak food preference, like preferring linguine to spaghetti (only me!). These included Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and this article from the New York Times. But once I was committed, I discovered just how hard it is to exclusively buy grass-fed beef (and let's not even discuss grass-fed and grass-finished beef). Due to the vagaries of history and contemporary market pressures, bison appeared to be a better and more readily available choice. In fact, my first real hamburger (unless we're counting that camelburger in Morocco) was actually a bison burger. So when I first set out to make bolognese in Colorado, it was an easy decision to include ground bison.

What, no family stories? My grandmother didn't make "meat sauces" as they would recognizable to most Americans, though she often added whole sausage links, cubed pork shoulder and meatballs to her sauces.
Gross Reservoir Dam, Boulder, Colorado, August 2012

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