Making a batch of ragù — which by the way, is a kind of pasta sauce, not a brand name — is a great way to get the carnivores in your family drooling.
Well, Ragù is also a brand name, but that’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is a thick, meaty, hearty, pasta sauce that is, well, meaty. Very meaty. And it’s called ragù, which probably translates from Italian as “carnivore’s delight.”
Even if your mama simply called it spaghetti sauce — or pasta sauce if she was fancy — that was a ragù, whether mama knew it or not. But it probably wasn’t as meaty as the one you’re about to make because most mamas back in the day knew how to stretch a dollar.
And as good as that meaty sauce was over pasta, it’s also good over lots of other things if you’ve got some sauce left over. Try it spooned over a baked sweet potato for instant loaded potato, or smothering a roasted butternut squash, maybe even some spaghetti squash if you want to fool yourself into thinking you’re eating spaghetti, some zucchini you’ve run through that spiralizer you got for Christmas, spooned over polenta, or even grits. Maybe even pizza sauce. Add some cheese, you won’t need toppings.
If you’ve got some leftover ragù in the fridge and you’re feeling really lazy, all you have to do is split an English muffin, toast it, and pour some warmed-up ragù over it. Lazy never tasted so good on a cold winter’s night.
The secret is to have enough leftover sauce so that after you’ve eaten it with pasta, you’ve got enough left to get creative with the leftovers. Which technically aren’t leftovers if you’re mixing it up with the stuff you’re using to sop up the sauce. Explain to your leftover-phobic spouse, child, significant other or other dinner partner that ‘same sauce plus different sopper equals brand new meal.’ Insist. Truth is on your side.
So if you’re a family of two, use a recipe that feeds six. If you’re four, use a recipe that feeds 12, or utilize your math skills to double that recipe for six. It just gets better in the fridge as the days go by. Up to a point, of course, and long before that point is reached, you’re going to freeze what your carnivorous family hasn’t chowed down. And then start all over again when you thaw it out.
As far as meat, you’ve got choices. Just because mama always used ground beef doesn’t mean you have to. And it also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use ground beef. But you can also used ground pork, ground lamb, ground turkey or sausage of some kind. Italian sausage is a natural choice, but don’t be afraid to experiment with other kinds of sausage. If you are the kind of person who keeps a stock of ground venison in your freezer, you already know you’re going to be reaching for that. And you already know you’re going to be mixing it with one of the fattier meats to round out the flavor.
In fact, it’s always a good idea to mix it up, no matter what your choice of meat. A mix of ground beef and Italian sausage is much better than either one by itself.
The first recipe to follow is pretty quick and easy, almost quick enough for a weeknight. The last one is a Bolognese that is a Sunday sauce that needs to simmer all day. And don’t forget your slow-cooker is an option. Let your temperament, budget and cooking style be your guide. And stock up on some soppers.
Makes about 6 cups. Quick enough for a weeknight if you don’t get home from work starved, or if you make it on a day off, it would benefit from some extra simmer time.
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds ground meat (beef, lamb, pork, turkey, sausage, etc. or a combination)
Salt and pepper
1 small onion, chopped
1 fat clove garlic, peeled and crushed
2/3 cup dry red wine
2 (28-ounce) cans Italian plum tomatoes, with their juices
1 handful fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaves, etc.)
1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
In a large, heavy saucepan heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. When it just begins to smoke, add the meat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Add a big pinch of salt and some pepper and brown the meat well, stirring frequently. (Make sure to use a big enough saucepan, or the meat will boil instead of browning. If you’re doubling or tripling for a giant batch, you should brown the meat in batches.) When the meat is a good hazelnut brown, lower the heat to medium and add the onion and another pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so, until you start to smell it. Deglaze the pan with the wine, stirring and scraping up all of the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. When the wine has reduced by half, add the tomatoes, crushing them with your fingers as you drop them into the pan. Add the herbs (leave the sprigs whole—you can remove any stems and big leaves later) and the red pepper flakes if you’re using them. Bring the sauce to a boil, lower the heat and partially cover the pan so that the sauce is simmering gently. Let the ragu simmer away for half an hour at minimum, but ideally an hour or two. (Put in a load of laundry, or watch something on Netflix.) The sauce is finished when the meat has become nice and tender, and the tomatoes have broken down, but the more you cook it, the tastier it will get. (If the ragu starts to look dry at any point, just stir in some water.) Remove any herb stems, taste the ragu and add more salt and pepper if necessary. If you like, you can stir in another splash of wine before serving to amp up the flavor. Spoon over pasta, vegetables, polenta, grits, risotto — basically, anything that will sop it up.
Braised Beef Ragù, in a slow cooker
This one uses a chuck roast instead of ground beef, for an even meatier experience. Can be made on stovetop, simmered over very low heat for 4 1/2 hours. You just have to watch it a little bit. Serves 6 plus some leftovers.
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
3 garlic cloves, minced
6 tbsp. tomato paste
2-28 ounce cans of diced tomatoes (juices drained into a large measuring cup)
For a total of about 2 1/2 cups of liquid:
about 1 cup of juices from diced tomatoes
about 1 cup red wine
about 1 cup of beef stock
3 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano leaves or 3 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 beef chuck roast (2-3 pounds, cut into two pieces)
Salt and pepper
2 lbs. of long pasta
Garnish of ricotta cheese, shredded parmesan cheese, and parsley
In a 5-to-6-quart slow cooker, combine diced tomatoes (drained), onion, garlic, tomato paste, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Season roast with salt and pepper and place on top of onion mixture. Add liquid mixture. Cover and cook on high until meat is tender and can easily be smashed/pulled apart with a fork, 4 1/2 hours (or 9 hours on low).
Remove the meat from the slow cooker and cool for 10 minutes, and then shred meat with 2 forks.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and cook pasta such as fettuccine or linguine. Mix the shredded meat back into the sauce and warm through again. Top pasta with sauce, shredded parmesan and a dollop of ricotta cheese before serving.
The real deal when you want to pull out all the stops, and have a whole day to devote to meaty perfection. Serves 8 to 10.
1 quart homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
1 to 1 1/2 ounces powdered gelatin (4 to 6 packets)
1 28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/2 pound finely minced chicken livers
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ground beef chuck (about 20% fat)
1 pound ground pork shoulder (about 20% fat)
1 pound ground lamb shoulder (about 20% fat)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 pound finely diced pancetta
1 large onion, finely minced
2 carrots, finely chopped
4 ribs celery, finely chopped
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup minced fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley leaves, divided
2 cups dry white or red wine
1 cup whole milk
2 bay leaves
1 cup heavy cream
3 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp. Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
To Serve: Dried or fresh pasta, preferably pappardelle, tagliatelle, or penne
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 300°F.
Place stock in a medium bowl or 1-quart liquid measure and sprinkle with gelatin. Set aside. (If you are using a homemade chicken stock with enough gelatin that it gels into a solid mass when refrigerated, you’ll need to use only four packets of gelatin instead of six. To dissolve the gelatin, heat the chicken stock just enough that it liquefies, then whisk the gelatin into the stock and let it rest until completely bloomed.)
Purée tomatoes in the can using an immersion blender or transfer to the bowl of a countertop blender and purée until smooth. Transfer chicken livers to a cup that just fits the head of your immersion blender and purée until smooth.
Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering. Add ground beef, pork, and lamb; season with salt and pepper; and cook, stirring and breaking up with a wooden spoon or potato masher, until no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in puréed chicken livers.
Meanwhile, heat butter and pancetta in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until fat has mostly rendered but butter and pancetta have not yet started to brown — about 8 minutes. Add onion, carrots, celery, garlic, sage, and half of parsley and cook, stirring and tossing, until vegetables are completely softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer mixture to Dutch oven with meat mixture. Return Dutch oven to high heat and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated from the pan, about 10 minutes longer.
Add wine and cook, stirring, until mostly evaporated. Add reserved stock, tomatoes, milk, and bay leaves. Season gently with salt and pepper. Bring sauce to a simmer, then transfer to oven, uncovered. Cook, stirring and scraping down sides of pot occasionally, until liquid has almost completely reduced and sauce is rich and thick underneath a heavy layer of fat, 3 to 4 hours.
If sauce still looks liquid or fat has not separated and formed a thick layer after 4 hours, transfer to stovetop and finish cooking at a brisk simmer, stirring frequently. Carefully skim off most of the fat, leaving behind about 1 cup total. (For more precise measurement, skim completely, then add back 1 cup of fat.) Stir in heavy cream, Parmesan, fish sauce, and remaining parsley. Bring to a boil on stovetop, stirring constantly to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bolognese can be cooled and stored in sealed containers in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
To Serve: Heat sauce in a large pot until just simmering. Set aside. Cook pasta in a large pot of well-salted water until just barely al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot and add just enough sauce to coat, along with some of the cooking liquid. Cook over high heat, tossing and stirring gently, until sauce is thick and pasta is coated, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve immediately, passing Parmesan at the table.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.