By now you're likely well aware that the word ragù—although perhaps most frequently encountered with its accent symbol flipped over, emblazoned across ten thousand jars of tomato products in your local supermarket—has its own non-commercial definition, other than "bad-tasting Italian-themed ketchup."
This is a thing to be glad for—not that the word ragù has been so effectively bastardized by a corporate brand, but that it originally and still refers to something else. Or anyway, its actual, non-branded meaning is a thing to be glad for, because real, actual ragù—a rich, sticky, intense meat sauce that may contain only a negligible quantity of tomato, if any at all—is one of the very best things about the entire human race.
People make ragù in lots of different ways: the famous Bolognese ragu, which, broadly, is what you're making today, uses finely chopped or ground meat, includes milk and only a small quantity of tomato paste, and in the end has a fairly smooth texture with a bit of gentle granularity from the meat; the meat in a Neapolitan ragù tends to be more like a pot roast that has been braised nearly to dissolving and then pulled apart, and the ragù itself is usually much more tomato-heavy, almost like the Sunday gravy familiar to Italian-American families; your great-grandmother Tinuccia's ragù had friggin' rabbit and pumpkin in it and, you'll be sure to inform us, was The Only Right Way To Make Ragù, Goddammit. And so on.
This is the great virtue of ragù, apart from how goddamn good it tastes: Its nigh-infinite tolerance for variation and creativity. Wanna use white wine instead of red? Fine! The Bolognese do that all the time, and it's tasty. Wanna toss some crisply roasted Brussels sprouts in with the ragù and pasta as you plate them? Grand! That'll add some delicious nuttiness to the finished product. Wanna dump some jarred tomato shit into a pan of frozen ground turkey, cook it for five minutes, and then slop it across some friggin' elbow macaroni on a plate? You go straight to hell, you sonofabitch.
Look. The deliciousness of ragù doesn't come without a cost (um, apart from however much you spend at the grocery store on its relatively modest ingredients). The price of a tasty ragù is that, yeah, it goddamn takes a while to make it. At least a couple of hours, in all likelihood. Ultimately, whether you use ground meat or a whole big unbroken wad of it, whether you use red wine or white, whichever vegetables you include and in whatever proportions you include them, a ragù is a braised meat preparation, and braising takes time, and patience. That hasty last-minute meat-sauce stuff your harried parental figure threw together in the 48 seconds between getting home from work and going to bed when you were a kid: That stuff was tasty, and hearty, and satisfying, and it nourished you into the courageously persisting heap of human dysfunction you've come to be—but, this time you are making a real ragù, and it deserves the investment of time and care you never received, in order to become as wonderful as it can be.
This is to say, none of its ingredients should come from a big jar of tomato sauce.
OK? OK. Let's get started.
The first thing to do is acquire ground meat. Two-and-a-half or three pounds of it. Decide for yourself which particular variety of sweet-eyed innocent creature will be the star of your ragù: regular ol' ground chuck is OK but bland, unless you're buying the grass-fed organic artisanal shit, ooh, aren't you fancy; ground pork is a lot more flavorful and also cheaper, which isn't nonsensical at all; turkey ... [sigh] ... listen, turkey is comparatively great for you, and sacrificing flavor and texture and richness and character in this one particular thing-to-eat is eminently worthwhile in exchange for a longer and healthier life, but your ragù is going to be awfully boring if you use turkey in place of some cuter and more affable and more nutritionally disastrous barnyard animal.
In fact, with this precise and savage calculation in mind, you are hereby advised to go Full Villain and use the following: A pound of either 80/20 ground beef or ground pork; plus a pound of evil, evil ground veal, most adorable and deplorable of all the meats; plus a half-pound or pound of delicious, hilariously unhealthful pancetta ham.
(A note, here, about that ham. Pancetta is typically sold in slices or big hunks, which, I mean, nobody really wants to eat a ragù with with lunchmeat-sized slices of pancetta ham in it. If you happen to know of a butcher who will grind that stuff for you—or if you happen to own a meat grinder because you are the kind of quiet, intense, vaguely disquieting weirdo who owns a meat grinder—that's great for you; avail yourself posthaste, you friggin' psycho. Everyone else will have to figure out a way to get their pancetta into a form suitable for inclusion in a ragù. Cut the pancetta into small cubes; if you own a food processor, dump these cubes into it and food-process them into a paste; if you do not own a food processor, continue chopping those cubes with a big knife until they're as finely minced as you can get them before you consider turning the knife on yourself. That'll have to do—and, truthfully, it'll probably do nicely.)
(Also, bacon is OK if you can't find pancetta. If you're going this route, however, definitely go for no more than a half-pound of bacon, or else your ragù will taste overwhelmingly smoky.)
So you've acquired ground meat. Good. Set it aside for a moment, unless you are standing beside the Grand Canyon, in which case go stand next to a kitchen counter first, and then set your ground meat aside, I mean I would have thought that was pretty obvious, I am not telling you to pitch your ground meat into the Grand Canyon, here. Haul out a dutch oven or a huge, deep-sided skilled or flat-bottomed wok, and cook a hearty pinch of chili flakes in a few tablespoons of olive oil (or olive oil and butter) over low or medium-low heat. If you want to chuck some fennel seeds in there, too, that will be lovely. Keep the heat pretty low: you don't want to burn the stuff that's in there; you're just giving it a chance to heat up and smell good and flavor the oil.
And now, prepare vegetation. One yellow onion, one big carrot, one big stalk of celery, and oh, maybe three or four reasonably-sized cloves of garlic. The very sad news is that all of this stuff must be minced very finely; this will be a fucking drag and you will hate it, and you will experience genuine existential dread at the fleeting moments of your transient life that you are giving to the production of ridiculous goddamn vegetable sand for some stupid fucking meat sauce, fuck fuck fuck at the end of my life I will not be able to say that I created great art or experienced great love or lasered a bunch of space-aliens, but rather only that I spent all my time chopping vegetables into ever smaller pieces of vegetable on the orders of some internet person—but, stick with it. (Or use your food processor. You're gonna braise this shit until it's friggin' pudding; it doesn't need to be perfectly uniform in shape.) A well- and thoroughly-made ragù alla bolognese (which is basically what we're making here, more or less) presents itself as one unified substance, rather than an agglomeration of different things; a fine mince on your vegetation will make a big difference in this regard, by enabling the vegetables to—oh, just fucking do it, OK? Christ.
So your vegetation is prepared; cook your vegetation over low-medium heat in the oil-and-chili-flakes mixture from 32,000 words ago. Salt the veggies generously, toss them with the hot oil, then cook 'em for a while, stirring and turning them every few minutes, until they're softened and the onion is translucent. You're not looking for caramelization, here, just a good thorough sweat, and an acknowledgment by those damn vegetables that you have been merciful to them and deserve their respect.
When the vegetation has softened and the onion is translucent and the contents of the pan or wok or pot smell wonderful, it's time to add the meat to the pan (or pot). But not just the meat! Also: four or five or six anchovy fillets, for depth and richness of flavor and as a sign, if only to yourself, that you are not a weenie. Dump your ground meat in there, bump the heat up just a little bit, and, with a sturdy wooden spoon or rubber spatula or repurposed shoehorn, vigorously toss and turn and stir everything. Beat the hell out of it, really. Like if it was braying at you about Duck Dipshit's first amendment rights.
This vigorous tossing and turning and stirring will serve two purposes. First, the stirring and tossing and turning will mix everything together—the various meats as well as the minced vegetables and the hot oil and the chili flakes (and the fennel seeds, if you added any). Second, and more important, all this action will mash and smush and pulverize the meat, preventing it from cooking into big chewy chunks that will take a long time to break down. You do not want big chewy chunks in your ragù—at least, not in this ragù—even if a lifetime of slapdash meat sauces have taught you otherwise.
So, after a few minutes of this vigorous manhandling of the defenseless ground meat, it'll be all broken up and mixed and, in all likelihood, mostly browned. Time to turn the heat way up, and add some other stuff to the pot. For starters, tomato paste; you can decide for yourself whether to use a small can's worth, or an absurdly small can's worth. In any case, stir that into the contents of the pot and give it a minute to heat up; some of it will likely stick to the bottom of the pan or pot or wok and burn a little, and this is actually a very good thing. Next, red wine. Let's take a second to talk about this.
Now, typically, ragù preparations include both a quantity of wine and a quantity of beef stock, and if that's what you want to do, that's fine. You might find that, in the end, the stock doesn't contribute as much flavor as you were hoping—that it doesn't much amplify the meatiness of the actual meat, so much as it's kind of dwarfed by it. And, since you're going to simmer off most of the liquid in your ragù by the end, you might find yourself feeling as though the beef stock was maybe a little bit of a waste, since all it turns out to have provided was some wetness for the braising. You might find that a bit disappointing.
What I am saying here is that I want you to skip the stock and pour an entire bottle of red wine into your ragù. Yes. Do that.
Now, with your wooden spoon or rubber spatula or shoehorn, get busy. Plunge that implement into the depths of the pan or pot or wok, and scrape away at whatever meat and/or tomato paste has stuck down there. The wine has loosened it, and it will come right up and add deep caramelized flavor to your ragù.
Bring the liquid in your pot to a boil, then lower the heat and settle that liquid into a steady simmer. Now, working in a slow drizzle and stirring the whole time, add a cup of warm whole milk to your ragù. This will contribute to the smoothness of texture you want in the finished product, as well as filling you with the sense of deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that you have missed no opportunities to lay waste to your cardiovascular wellness.
And, that's it. If you want to chuck some herbs or spices or whatever into your ragù, this is a good time to do it, but you should consider that entirely optional. A couple of bay leaves and a sprig or two of thyme are lovely; tie them together with twine so they'll be easy to extract, and chuck 'em in if you want. Grated or ground nutmeg is also splendid. Another thing that's splendid is not worrying about any of that shit.
Clamp a lid on that vessel and braise your ragù over low-medium heat for an hour, breaking in a few times during that hour to give the ragù a stir. The braise is breaking down the meat, softening it and the vegetables, turning it all into a smooth, sticky, velvety sauce: a ragù. After the hour is up, remove the lid, bump the heat up just a tad to maintain the simmer, and braise the ragù uncovered for another hour. Once again, give it a stir every once in a while. You're continuing to break down and soften the ragù's ingredients—but now, you're also simmering off the excess liquid, so that in the end you won't have something watery that drips off of pasta and pools at the bottom of plates, but something thick and rich that clings desperately to pasta for the journey to your gnashing mouth.
Toward the end of this second hour of braising, cook some pasta in generously salted water. Tagliatelle and fettuccine are traditional choices, here; rigatoni and ziti are popular as well. What all these have in common is the heft and sturdiness to stand up to a very thick, incredibly rich meat sauce, and to transport it reliably from a plate or bowl to the inside of your head. Another thing they have in common is that they're not quite as satisfying a pairing for ragù as pappardelle, the long, wide Italian egg noodle you may remember from when we talked about Beef Stroganoff; if you can track this stuff down, it's the best choice, here.
In any case, the way to bring your ragù and your pasta together is: transfer the just-cooked, still scalding-hot pasta to a huge salad bowl (or a separate skillet from the one with all three-plus pounds of ragù in it); add just a few heaping spoonfuls of the hot ragù to this vessel, and toss everything with a pair of tongs or forks until the pasta is evenly coated. Maybe four or five tablespoons' worth of ragù per (sanely-sized) serving of pasta? Yeah, that sounds OK. By God, do not just fucking slop the ragù across some cooked and drained pasta on a plate. That's lazy and unattractive and will involve way too much ragù per plate; your palate will feel like you have assaulted it by the time you finish eating. Toss and toss and toss; then, with the tongs, move servings of the ragù-coated pasta to plates; twist the pasta into sloppily attractive heaps on the plates, and top these with freshly chopped parsley and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan. There. Time to eat.
Serve your ragù with maybe some roasted vegetables or mushrooms, maybe some crusty, butter-slathered bread to raft that stuff to your mouth, and definitely lots and lots of red wine. When you take your first taste of this deep, rich, meaty, red-tasting stuff, a wonderful and surprising thing happens to your tongue: For all the world, it feels like it swells in response—like it flushes in excitement. Your salivary glands explode into activity. Your eyes close, involuntarily. A noise, low and primitive and desperate, erupts from your throat: hhhhuuuuunnhhhhhmmmmmmm. You have created a taste that skips past your evolved human consciousness entirely, to some totally unconscious animal response, like a dog frantically kicking its hind leg when you scratch the side of its neck. Yep. That tasty. And there's still so much of it leftover! What in the world will you do with all that ragù?
Um ... got any jars?
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at email@example.com, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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