I’m not Italian. There is no Italian in my background that I’m aware of. But I’m obsessed with all things Italian, especially food. Several years ago, I traveled to Italy and fell in love. Not with a single person, but the country as a whole. As odd as it may sound, I felt like I was home.
I arrived in Rome and posed on the Spanish Steps. I imagined lions and bloody battles at the Coliseum. I tossed coins into the Trevi Fountain hoping my wishes would come true. I was blessed by the Pope in the Vatican City. I rode a Gondola through the canals of Venice. I basked in the silent worship at the basilicas in Ravenna. I held up the tower in Pisa. I quenched my thirst with freshly squeezed blood orange juice while overlooking the cliffs of the Amalfi coast. I crept through the crypts in the Catacombs. I prayed with the monks at St. Francis of Assisi. I got lost in Florence. My mouth dropped in awe at the art and architecture in Padua. I admired the statue of David. I wept in the Sistine Chapel.
Suffice it to say, my heart was lost to Italy and it has never ceased that love. It inspired my paintings, my drawings, my cooking, my love of life. There is a sense of relaxed pleasure, a life is so full and ripe that to draw one more breath would burst one to overflowing. I wax romantic when it comes to Italy as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Oh! And the coffee! And the food! Just remembering it makes my mouth water. The Olive Gardens and whatnot don’t compare here in the States. After eating real Italian food, it’s hard to stomach the Americanized versions.
Italian food is simple. Uncomplicated. Rich. Full of enough flavor and texture to make you swoon. One of my absolute favorite Italian dishes is ragù or Bolognese. Any Italian will tell that there are hundred of variations of ragù. The recipes are passed down from generation to generation, beloved and secret. They are often not written down, but intuited with a pinch of this, a dash of that. You just know what it needs. To learn to make ragù is to observe, watch, and assist an Italian veteran in making it. You learn by osmosis.
Ragùs are many and varied. In the northern Italian regions, a ragù is typically a sauce of meat, often minced, chopped, or ground, and cooked with sautéed vegetables in a liquid. The meats are varied and may include separately or in mixtures of beef, chicken, pork, duck, goose, lamb, mutton, veal, or game, as well as offal from any of the same. The liquids can be broth, stock, water, wine, milk, cream, or tomato, and often includes combinations of these. If tomatoes are included, they are usually limited in quantity relative to the meat. It’s not a tomato sauce. It’s a meat sauce.
In southern Italian regions, ragùs are often prepared from substantial quantities of large whole cuts of beef and pork, and possibly regional sausages, cooked with vegetables and tomatoes. After a long braise (or simmer), the meats are then removed and may be served as a separate course without pasta.
I have tried, unsuccessfully, to find a ragù recipe that I loved until now. Thank God for Luisa Weiss, blogger of The Wednesday Chef and author of her new book, My Berlin Kitchen. Her ragù is what I have been searching for all this time. It’s rich, velvety, and the flavor lingers on the back of your tongue. I stopped just short of licking my bowl. But with the genius of crusty bread, I could sop up the remaining juices.
Keep in mind, making a ragù takes a lot of time. And I mean a lot. But it’s so incredibly worth it. Don’t believe the recipes you read for ragù that say you can cook it in 30 minutes and it tastes the same. It won’t and it doesn’t. The quick recipes are tomato sauces without a complexity of flavor and the fullness you get from a true ragù. It’s best to heed Luisa’s advice: Seven hours or more would be wonderful, 5 hours is pretty good, but any less than 3 and you’re really missing out.
When serving ragù, it’s best to use tagliatelle or some other tubular form of pasta like penne or rigatoni. It doesn’t work well on spaghetti or long noodles because the sauce slides right off. You need a pasta that’s thick with ridges to hold that divine ragù. It makes a significant amount of sauce, but that’s okay! It freezes wonderfully and perfect for an actual quick ragù another day. All you have to do is heat it up in a thick pot then serve over pasta. It’s even better a day or two later.
So, God bless Luisa Weiss. I have her to thank for this perfect ragù.
Do you have a special ragù that you make? Where did the recipe come from? If not, do you have any other recipe that’s been passed down through your family? I’d love to know your story!
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 large yellow onion, finely minced
- 2 large carrots, finely minced (you want roughly equal amounts of minced onion and carrot)
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- ½ cup red wine (open a fresh bottle and drink the rest with dinner)
- 1 28-ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- Put the oil and butter in a large cast-iron pot over medium heat, to melt the butter. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, until the onion is well cooked. Do not let it take on any color. Add the minced carrots and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring now and then.
- Add the ground meat to the pot, and using a wooden spoon, stir and chop up the meat so that it cooks and breaks down into uniformly tiny pieces. Raise the heat to medium-high or even high as you do this. It takes a good amount of elbow grease and a little bit of time. Continue to stir and cook until the meat is no longer pink (at no point, however, should the meat be browning). There will be liquid at the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until that liquid has mostly evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Add the wine and stir well to combine. Simmer until the wine has mostly evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the pureed tomatoes and the salt, and stir well to combine. The sauce will come to a simmer almost instantly. Lower the heat to the lowest possible setting, put the lid on the pot, and let the sauce simmer for as long as you can, stirring it occasionally. Seven hours would be wonderful, 5 hours is pretty good, but any less than 3 and you’re really missing out. The longer you cook the sauce, the richer and more flavorful it will get. At some point in the cooking process, the fat will separate from the sauce and float at the top, so just give the sauce a good stir every so often to reincorporate the fat.
- At the end of the cooking time, taste for seasoning and add more salt, if needed. Then serve tossed with pasta or use in a classic lasagne (this recipe makes enough for a 9×13-inch pan). If you plan on freezing the sauce, let it cool completely before putting it into freezer bags or other plastic containers.