Originating from Bologna in Italy, traditional bolognese is a slow cooked meat sauce made with beef or a combination of beef and pork (and sometimes veal). Since I'm a dietitian, I always look for ways to make recipes healthier and steer away from beef whenever possible. I save beef consumption for special meals (like an all-beef chili or a filet mignon) and will only use grass-fed beef in these preparations. Grass-fed beef tends to be pricier than grain-fed beef, especially if you live in the Midwest, like me, making it a special occasion treat for us.
So, when it comes to making a slow-cooked meat sauce to serve over pasta, I had to find ways to make it just as hearty and tasty as the traditional recipe. The secret: Mushrooms. Mushrooms contain a flavor profile called "umami," which is a savory taste, almost meat-like. MSG (monosodium glutamate) contains the "umami" flavor, along with soy sauce, both of which add depth of flavor to dishes. Mushrooms are the ultimate umami flavor enhancer in recipes when you want to forego beef and pork. By adding mushrooms to the recipe, you add that savory, meat-like flavor that beef provides but with way less calories and fat. Chicken thighs are added as a meat component in this recipe. To chop the chicken thighs, you don't need a meat grinder but rather, use your food processor. In fact, use your food processor for all the chopping of the vegetables, too.
As with the traditional recipe, this recipe needs to cook for 2-3 hours to develop in flavor. You will also need wine - both for the recipe and for drinking as the sauce cooks (of course!). Choose an Italian wine like a Chianti or Sangiovese (or even a Barolo or Barbaresco if you want to go that route).
Chicken and Mushroom Bolognese
Put the chicken thighs into the bowl of a food processor, pulse several times until the chicken is finely ground. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the ground chicken to the oil and begin to brown. Chop the onions and garlic in the food processor until chopped fine, about 15-20 pulses. Add the onions and garlic to the meat. Sauté for 3-5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Finely chop the mushrooms in the food processor. Add the mushrooms to the meat mixture. Sauté for another 3-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste; cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the red wine, tomatoes, and bay leaf. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 3 hours.
Taste the sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. About 30 minutes before the sauce is done, cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and add about a 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the sauce. Add the pasta to the sauce; toss to coat well.
Serve the pasta with crusty bread and grated Parmesan cheese.
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