Text by Domenica Marchetti, Special to The Washington Post
It's such a simple word: just four letters. And, yet, defining it is not so simple. What, exactly, is ragu? Is it a tomato sauce? A meat sauce? A brand name?
The quickest answer is yes. But the true answer, like the sauce itself, is more complex. True ragu is not something you pour out of a jar. It cannot be thrown together with ground beef and tomatoes on a Tuesday night. Making ragu is an artful, deliberate exercise that takes hours. It is among the most iconic Italian dishes, and it is not an exaggeration to say that throughout Italy it is the measure of a good home cook.
"In some ways, it represents the essence of the way we cook; simple to make, but only if the ingredients have been carefully selected, and as long as you take the required amount of time to make it," says Angela Frenda, food editor at the Milan-based newspaper Corriere della Sera. "No shortcuts are accepted, Instant Pot or otherwise."
At its most basic, ragu can be defined as a range of slow-cooked meat sauces typically paired with pasta. The most famous iterations are Bolognese ragu, the rich ground-meat sauce enhanced with milk and cream from the Emilia-Romagna region; and Neapolitan ragu, made by braising large pieces of pork, beef or a mix in tomato puree. Really, the two could not be more different.
Neapolitan ragu is a robust tomato sauce infused with the flavor and fat of braised meat, and usually served with short, sturdy pasta. Bolognese-style ragu is dense, almost spoonable, delicately flavored and with a minimal amount of tomato. It is typically served in lasagne or with fresh egg tagliatelle. But never spaghetti. Why? Because, for the most part, people in Bologna eat tagliatelle. Indeed, the mayor of Bologna, Virginio Merola, recently launched a social media campaign to inform people that the dish known in many parts of the world as "spaghetti Bolognese" does not exist. He calls it "fake news."
The word "ragu" can be traced back to French ragout, a slow-cooked stew made with meat or fish and vegetables, or vegetables alone. It is believed to have made its way to Italy sometime after Napoleon's invasion and occupation in the late 18th century. It wasn't until decades later that slow-cooked meat and pasta came together. There is a recipe for maccheroni alla Bolognese in Pellegrino Artusi's 1891 cookbook "La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiar Bene" (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well). The sauce he describes is, essentially, a prototype for traditional Bolognese ragu, featuring slowly sauteed vegetables and veal, plus broth and nutmeg, but no tomato. Tomatoes came later, but only sparingly, as a way of deepening the flavour.
But I was pleasantly surprised by a Bolognese sauce I made from "Instant Pot Italian," by Ivy Manning. The recipe had many of the same ingredients as my Bolognese but with more tomatoes - a certain amount of liquid is necessary to create steam pressure - and a pinch of baking soda to help soften the vegetables. It took just 1 hour and 15 minutes, and though it lacked the complexity of a true Bolognese (my daughter commented that it tasted more like tomato sauce with meat added to it), my family thought it tasted good tossed with pasta.
So by all means, use your multicooker to make ragu. But don't deprive yourself of learning how to do it the traditional way. Participating in the creation of this iconic dish and watching the process unfold, says Frenda, is not only satisfying, it will make you a better cook. "Ragu, like good bread, is a labour of love and of life. Time is its best friend."
Here are eight tips for successful ragu:
1. Use a heavy-bottomed pot, such as enameled cast-iron, so the ragu can cook for hours without scorching.
2. Choose the best ingredients you can afford. Ragu generally calls for cheaper cuts of meat, but be sure the quality is superior; well-marbled heritage pork will yield a more flavorful ragu than leaner mass-produced pork, whose texture leans toward sawdust with long cooking. Look for unseasoned tomato puree and paste that tastes bright rather than aggressive.
3. Most ragus start with sauteing aromatic vegetables - a soffrito. Chop these finely and uniformly, preferably by hand (a food processor tends to shred vegetables, which can prevent them from cooking evenly).
4. Brown ground meat for Bolognese sauce slowly, over medium-low heat. The aim is to gradually bring out the rich caramel flavor without making the meat tough or dry. For southern Italian-style ragu, season the meat before browning over medium-high heat to create a good sear. This will help to flavor the ragu.
5. Deglaze the pan with a good-quality, inexpensive wine and allow it to bubble off, leaving a pleasant acidity.
6. For ragus that call for broth, especially beef, use homemade. Most commercial beef broth is harsh and tastes more of onions. Homemade broth contributes to the rich umami flavor and gives the sauce a silkiness that helps it to cling to pasta.
7. Take note of how your ragu changes as it cooks. The vegetables will soften and sweeten and eventually become one with the sauce. Tomatoes will mellow, and their color will deepen to terra-cotta. The meat will give up its fat to further enrich the sauce and improve its texture.
8. Even when your ragu is done, it's not yet finished. Let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate it overnight. This final act truly unifies the sauce. Reheat it gently on the stove top, stirring in a little water if necessary to loosen it.
RAGU ALLA BOLOGNESE
You may be tempted to cut down on the browning time for the meat. Don't give in. Slow, gentle browning is what gives this iconic ragu its depth.
Egg or spinach tagliatelle; or wide noodles such as pappardelle are good pasta choices for this sauce.
MAKE AHEAD: This sauce, like all ragus, benefits from an overnight rest in the refrigerator. Let it cool to room temperature, then transfer it to a container with a tight-fitting lid. It can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months.
Mortadella is available at Italian delis and at some Trader Joe's stores.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large carrot, scrubbed well and finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped, including any leaves attached
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons plain tomato paste
2 cups beef broth, preferably homemade
1 cup plain tomato sauce or puree (passata, such as Pomi brand)
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 ounces mortadella, cut into thin strips
Heat the butter and oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium heat. Once the melted butter begins to sizzle, stir in the carrot, celery and onion. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 15 minutes, stirring often, or until the vegetables are soft and golden.
Mix in the beef and pork, using a wooden spoon or spatula to break up the large pieces of meat. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the meat has turned a rich brown colour and is crumbly but still tender. This will take longer than you think - about 1 hour.
Once the meat is ready, increase the heat to medium-high; add the wine and stir for a minute or two until it is absorbed. Return the heat to medium-low and season with the salt and nutmeg. Stir in the milk; cook for about 3 minutes, gently, until it has been mostly absorbed.
Dilute the tomato paste in 1 cup of the broth, and then add it to the pot. Stir in the tomato puree. Partially cover, reduce the heat to low and let the sauce cook ever so gently for 2 hours, until it is dense and brick-colored.
Stir in the remaining cup of broth; cook for an additional hour or so, until the sauce has thickened again and all the vegetables have more or less melted into it.
Stir in the cream and mortadella; cover partially and cook (low heat) for about 20 minutes, until the cream has been completely absorbed and the sauce is once again a rich brick colour.
Feature Image: Tom McCorkle, The Washington Post