Bolognese Rustica (or How to Eat Well in the Desert)

Bolognese Rustica | Girl and Apron

This Independence Day marked the first time in seven years I spent my holiday somewhere other than a newsroom. In a word, it was magnificent. Instead of trying to cobble together a decent newscast from fifteen parades, one charity golf tournament, and a warning about undercooked meat, we hit the road with two friends, bound for Big Bend National Park.

We packed a lot into a three-day trip—especially one that included about 22 hours of driving. We visited the artsy-hipster mountain town of Marfa, hiked two trails at Big Bend, went to the Star Party at McDonald Observatory, and watched fireworks over the Chisos Mountains. I’ve never been described as “outdoorsy,” so our companions were kind enough to alter their original plans to camp in favor of an air-conditioned cabin.

“I’m expecting something on the slightly-uncomfortable side of rustic,” I admitted as we drove west on I-20. When we finally arrived (at nearly two in the morning) we were met instead with a deserted complex of motels and cabins on the slightly-murderous side of terrifying.


Seriously more scary at night.


We kept the car running while the boys checked our bubblegum-hued trailer for saw-wielding psychopaths. Luckily they found none. And since the cabin was on the dirt cheap-side of affordable, we decided to stay.

To further limit our spending, we also decided to make most of our meals. I was in charge of pasta night. We would have happily downed SpaghettiOs after 7+ miles of hiking. But sitting down to a homemade Bolognese elevated that dinner from a mere meal into a memory. Which, I would argue, is a pretty good argument for cooking your own dinner anywhere.


One of the stunning views from Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park


Bolognese Rustica | Serves 4-6

  • 1 lb. Italian sausage (or 1 lb. regular sausage + 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds + 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup red wine (or 1/4 cup water)
  • 1 (28 oz.) can tomato puree
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar + more to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste


Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sausage (plus fennel seeds and red pepper flakes, if using) and cook until sausage begins to caramelize and brown bits begin to stick to the bottom of the pan. Remove sausage and drain of excess fat.

Return pan to stove and lower heat to medium. Add olive oil and warm for 30 seconds, then add tomato paste and garlic. Cook until garlic begins to soften and paste becomes fragrant. (If the tomato paste sticks to the bottom of the pan, don’t worry.) Before anything starts to smell burnt, add the wine or water to the pan and scrape off any browned bits that are sticking to your pan. (If your added liquid erupts into a steamy boil the moment you add it to the pan, you’re doing it right. If not, bring the liquid to a boil momentarily before proceeding.)

Add remaining ingredients, including the drained sausage, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook at least 30 minutes (an hour is better and longer won’t hurt) until the flavors meld. Taste and adjust seasonings. Since canned tomatoes can vary so widely in their particular flavor profiles, your sauce will most likely taste different than mine. Here’s a quick troubleshooting guide if you don’t like your end product:

  • Too acidic/biting = add a pinch of sugar
  • Too sweet/cloying = add a few drops of lemon juice or red wine vinegar
  • Tastes boring/flat = add a few shakes of salt
  • Too thick = add a small amount of water
  • Not thick enough = keep cooking, uncovered, for another 15 minutes.
  • Still needs…something = add a pinch of black pepper, fennel seeds, or red pepper flakes

Once you’re happy with the sauce, spoon it over your favorite pasta and serve with Parmesan cheese.


3 thoughts on “Bolognese Rustica (or How to Eat Well in the Desert)

  1. Pingback: Cherry Balsamic Pork Chops with Gorgonzola Mashed Potatoes | Girl and Apron

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