Bolognese is something that everybody recognises – and it’s one of the first things I learned to cook. My mother taught me to leave it for a day before eating it – 25 years of being a chef later, I know why she did that. Any kind of stew is better the next day. We do a lot of ragus at home now. I’m a big fan of minced beef, but I like to use pork for my bolognese. It has a slightly lighter flavour, which lends itself to different herbs, sage and mint in particular. Great in spring and summer.
I grew up in Gloucester, in a small semi-detached three-bed house in Abbeydale, on a 1960s or 1970s estate outside the city centre. It was a very normal, single-parent background. My mum wasn’t leftfield – the home was decorated in off-white and beiges, fairly standard.
We were always well looked-after, always comfortable. We ate at the dining table for tea, even if it was just the three of us. She’d make bolognese every Wednesday for Thursday night’s tea.
My mum had two jobs, one during the day, then another at night. So, from the time I was about 14, I’d cook for my brother Sam. Easy things such as fish‑finger sandwiches; nothing creative. We were hungry teenagers.
Sam and I are three years apart. At school we didn’t really hang out, but we were close. We still are. We’d play football together on the back lawn or computer games inside. Every Sunday morning, I’d have rugby training (I played front row – tighthead prop) and lunch after that was always brilliant. Half the team would come back to the house with us, so Mum would have to knock something up. If we were lucky it’d be a joint of meat. More often than not though, money was short so she’d roast a roll of sausage. Either way, there’d be all the veg – carrots, broccoli, peas – not forgetting the gravy and the roast potatoes. If we ever had dessert it would be Viennetta, or occasionally, on a Sunday, Mum would knock up a crumble. These days I’m cutting back on carbs, but I do love a good crumble with any great British fruit – summer berries, pears, rhubarb or apples.
I was approaching my 40th birthday when I realised that I needed to make a big change. I looked at low calorie, low fat and low carb diets, the last of which meant I could still cook food professionally, the same way I always had, without changing my outlook too much. Seeing carbs as simply a vehicle for other things meant I could eliminate them without compromising on flavour. This rich, hearty bolognese recipe is the same as I’ve always done it, but replacing spaghetti for spiralised vegetables makes for a lighter meal that’s packed with vitamins.
This is my low-carb version of my childhood favourite. If possible, make the sauce the day before you want to eat it and it’ll taste even better.
800g minced pork
1kg ripe plum tomatoes, halved
Vegetable oil, for cooking
200g bacon lardons
2 onions, finely diced
6 garlic cloves, grated
1 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp tomato puree
4 celery sticks, tough strings removed, diced
4 bay leaves
2 tbsp dried oregano
300g button mushrooms, stalks removed, caps halved
500ml beef or chicken stock
200ml red wine
A small bunch of sage, tough stems discarded, leaves roughly chopped
Salt and black pepper
4–6 courgettes (about 700–800g)
Parmesan cheese, grated
1 Set the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Season the pork. Put in a roasting tin and cook for 25–30 minutes, until crisp and browned, stirring every 10 minutes or so to ensure it colours evenly.
2 Roast the tomatoes, cut-side up, in another tin alongside the pork for 25 minutes, until they start to colour and shrivel around the edges. Set aside.
3 Warm a little oil in a saucepan over a medium-low heat. Add the lardons, onions and garlic and sweat gently, stirring from time to time, for 10–15 minutes, or until the onions are soft.
4 Add the cumin. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and cook for 3–4 minutes. Add the celery, bay and oregano. Cook, stirring, for 1–2 minutes. Add the pork, tomatoes and mushrooms. Stir, then pour in the stock and wine. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and add some salt and pepper. Simmer very gently, uncovered, for 1–2 hours, until the sauce thickens to a rich ragu, stirring from time to time to make sure it doesn’t stick.
5 Take the pan off the heat. Stir in the sage. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
6 When ready to eat, reheat the ragu. Meanwhile, pass the courgettes through a spiraliser to make thin “spaghetti”. In a saucepan, warm 75ml water with the butter and a little salt and pepper. Add the courgette and heat gently until just warmed through; don’t overcook them.
7 Drain the courgette spaghetti well. Divide between warmed bowls. Spoon on the porky bolognese and scatter over some grated parmesan to serve.