Classic Ragu Sauce (Ragu alla Bolognese)
The ragu alla Bolognese and its many variations are a near-sacred institution in the province of Emilia-Romagna. In fact, its so well-known that it’s spread well beyond Bologna and its provinces and into restaurants and households all of northern Italy, and from there into homes and restaurants all over the world.
Ask any Italian cook for his family’s recipe for a ragu sauce, and he’ll proudly tell you all his grandmother’s own spin on the hearty meat sauce, with her own secret ingredients and jealously-guarded techniques.
Ask a group of Italians what they think a good ragu sauce should consist of, and get ready for an impassioned six-way argument, with each arguer sustaining that his or her grandmother made the best ragu sauce in the world, and anyone who makes it differently is un pazzo furioso.
At its heart, however, a ragu sauce is a hearty, slow-cooked meat sauce with a mirepoix base and a mix of ground or hand-minced meats, which usually consist of some combination of beef, pork, and veal. Most of the time, a little bacon comes into play for flavor and depth. Sometimes, the sauce is finished with a swirl of cream. And, of course, we can never forget the parmesan.
Whatever the secret ingredients or special spins, and whether it’s tossed with gnocchi di patate or tagliatelle or any store bought pasta that comes to hand, a ragu sauce is always hearty, homey, and richly satisfying.
Ragu alla Me
My own version of a ragu sauce was taught to me by my partner's mother, who in turn learned it from her own mother-in-law, a native of Milan.
In it, I add a hint of spice, a little herbal kick with rosemary and bay leaf, bacon for the smokiness and meaty flavor, tomato paste for depth without acidity, and white wine for brightness.
And, of course, I cook it, and cook it, and cook it, because the best ragu sauce is one that’s been simmered slowly over the course of an afternoon, allowing the meat to become crumbly and tender and all of the flavors to meld together harmoniously.
This is not a labor intensive recipe, but it is time intensive, best suited for a weekend afternon.
So, some Sunday evening not far from now, uncork a bottle of red wine, invite your friends and family over to help chop vegetables and stir the pot, and relax. With a little patience and some good company, dinner will practically take care of itself.
A Note on Meats and Methods
In this recipe I use a 50/50 mix of beef and pork. I’ve found that fresh-ground is best, since it guarantees freshness, limits the potential for e. coli contamination, and gives you a lot of control of the quality of meat and the percentage of fat in the mix.
If you have a meat grinder at home, buy a well-marbled chuck roast and grind it yourself. Likewise, a chunk of boneless pork shoulder is your best bet porkwise, since this is a flavorful, well-marbled cut that’s tough if undercooked but becomes meltingly tender when slow-cooked over several hours.
If you don’t have a meat grinder at home but do have access to a good butcher, select the cuts and ask him to grind the meat for you.
If you have neither, don’t worry. Just look for 80% lean ground chuck and the freshest ground pork you can find.
Whatever meat you use, bear in mind that you do want a certain amount of fat, because fat will keep the meat moist over the long cooking process. Leaner cuts of meat tend to become unpleasantly dry and rubbery.
As for the bacon, if you can’t find slab, just chop 4 oz of sliced bacon into roughly half inch squares.
Finally, the best pot for this is a heavy, enameled cast iron pot like the ones from Le Creuset. These keep a nice, even heat, making them perfect for slow cooking.
Pasta al Ragu
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
4 oz slab bacon, diced
1 large or 2 medium ribs of celery, finely chopped
1 large or 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
1 large or 2 medium white onions, finely chopped
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp minced fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
¼ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup milk
2 tbsp heavy cream
½ cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1 lb pasta, preferably fresh egg tagliatelle but really whatever you prefer
1. Cook the bacon over medium-low heat in a heavy large pot until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp and browned. Remove the bacon and drain it on a double layer of paper towels.
2. Pour all but 1 tsp of fat out of the pot and add half of the meat. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently and breaking up any clumps of meat with a wooden spoon, until evenly browned and crumbly in texture.
3. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the first batch of meat from the pot to a clean plate or bowl. Scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to remove any browned bits. (Protip: Though you want those lovely browned bits for flavor, it can be easy to turn them into black and yucky bits. To avoid that, you can deglaze the pot with a splash of your wine or even chicken stock.) Add the second batch of meat to the pot and brown as with the first batch.
4. If you used a slotted spoon, you should have some fat in the pot from the meat. Add the vegetables and cook them over medium heat until softened, about five minutes.
5. Add the cloves, rosemary, bay leaf, nutmeg, and tomato paste to the vegetables and cook until the spices become fragrant, about thirty seconds.
6. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and simmer for two minutes until slightly reduced.
7. Add the browned meat back to the pot along with the bacon, then slowly drizzle in the milk a little at a time, stirring constantly until absorbed.
8. Simmer the sauce on the lowest fire possible for at least four hours, adding milk as necessary to keep it from going dry or, god forbid, burning.
9. Three quarters of an hour to half an hour before dinnertime, put a large pot of salted water on the fire. Heat it to a rolling boil.
10. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box. Duh.
11. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and toss it with the cooked ragu sauce, cream, and half of the parmigiano-reggiano until well-mixed and the sauce has turned paler and creamier. (Serve the rest of the cheese at the table for those who want extra.) Oh, and remember to fish out the bay leaf.
12. Serve, preferably with a bottle of red wine, a crusty loaf of Italian bread, and maybe a salad on the side.
Serves 6 as a main course.