Ragu’. When you are abroad, is one of the staples for fake Italian food. It is a meat and tomato sauce.
And believe me, literally anything can go under this description.
I have come to the conclusion that most people who don’t like Italian food have just tried ragu’, or Bolognese sauce, as it is known worldwide (actually there is a brand in the UK with a giant RAGU on the label, it is hilarious!), and they have come to the fully justified conclusion that Italian cooking is heavy and disgusting and rough.
Now, also in Italy you can find a bad ragu’. It is an everyday food with a hint of ‘special’, extremely traditional, and there are as many varieties as families, and not each and every family can cook well of course. But when you find a good one, and that you will usually find at home, well, you understand why Italian cooking is the best in the entire world. You will understand a lot of things about what makes Italian food special – ingredients, time, quantities, all goes ‘ad occhio’ – you see it; your ragu’ is good only because you have been making it for years and years, you grew up with your granny cooking ragu’ every sunday morning. As always with Italian cooking, you are going to need top quality ingredients – however for ragu’ this does not mean expensive ones, indeed it is a popular and relatively cheap dish, invented to make a little meat go a long way.
I told you there exist many varieties of ragu’. However, they can be broadly grouped in two large families – the one from the North, made with little tomato and minced meat, and the one from the South, made with a lot of tomato and whole chunks of meat. The two reference ones are probably the one from Bologna for the North and the one from Napoli for the South. My family’s ragu belongs to the Northern variety. I’ll give you the recipe sooner or later: don’t mean to be immodest, but I can make it with my eyes closed. Incidentally this is also the variety that started the hellish ‘bolognese’ thing – but it does not have much in common with the infamous sauce. Ragu’ requires a long preparation but I find it a real staple when you want to impress and don’t have much time – you need about 15 minutes of your active time, and then a stir or two while you make everything else. Also you can take shortcuts with a pressure cooker, and nobody will ever know, provided you follow a trick or two.
I never had the occasion to prepare a southern one. I tried it for the end of the old year: I wanted to try sartu, a typical savoury rice dish from Naples. The sartu’ was ok, if maybe a bit too much effort for the final result (and my recipe needs improvement) – but the ragu’, Neapolitan style, was a revelation. So good, so easy. The secret – together with a lot of ‘occhio’, but maybe not that much, given that my first try was super yummy – is time. My ragu’ cooked for six solid hours over the tiniest flame in a terracotta pot. And ingredients: I was lucky enough to have a spectacular home made passata made with real, sun kissed tomatoes, sweet and juicy red onions from Calabria, and top quality olive oil.
So go there and buy the best Italian tin tomatoes on the market – they are worth it (or any sun ripened tomato sauce: the ingredients must read only tomatoes, no herbs or garlic or other). You will need quite a large quantity, and the exact amount will depend on how much water your tomatoes contain: if they are very watery, you might want to add a bit of tomato concentrate for extra flavour, but if your passata is good quality, there is no need to do that.
Then take an afternoon where you plan to stay at home (I actually used half an afternoon plus an evening – the six hours don’t need to be consecutive!), your pot with the thickest bottom, and plenty of juicy onions.
Take meat, a bit greasy, good quality meat that won’t shrink. from outdoor reared animals. Don’t use a lean, expensive cut. You want fat and connective tissue in your meat. Maybe some bones – you will take them out later. The cut choices are quite free- anything with a good flavour will work; you can omit the beef meat and use only pork, or omit pork and use only beef. Traditionally people also include chicken livers, sausages, and other bits and pieces of meat.
I think it is hard to run out of idea on what to do with the final product. It lasts about a week in the fridge, and freezes well. It actually improves with a little rest before use. My personal favourite, and traditional way to enjoy it, is to cook al dente some durum wheat, top quality pasta (paccheri or rigatoni are the best matches for me), mix it generously with ragu’, fresh basil and grated parmesan. You can use it as a basis for more complex dishes, like lasagne, cannelloni, sartu’.. A lot of recipes call for ‘a ladleful of sauce’, and this is the sauce you should be using if you are cooking Italian. Or if you feel hungry and a little greedy, use chunks of crusty bread for dipping.
Ragu’ alla Napoletana
Ingredients (makes a lot of it, but don’t try to make less or you’ll regret it!)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 large red onions
300 gr beef meat, a flavourful cut with some connective tissue, good choices are brisket or flank
300 gr pork meat, a fat cut like pork belly
about a litre and a half of passata, or tinned chopped tomatoes
a glass of dry wine, red or white
Cut the meat in even chunks. Slice the onions, no need to do them thin as they are going to melt anyway.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large pan and quickly sear the meat over high flame, stirring it so that it is browned on all sides. Add half a glass of wine and make all the alcohol evaporate, leaving it to boil for a few minutes over high heat. Pour meat and all its juices in a heavy bottomed wide pot. In the first pan, heat two other tablespoon oil and saute’ the onions until golden over medium-high flame. When they start to brown, add another half glass of wine and let also this one evaporate. Add the onions to the meat, together with the passata. Cook it on the tiniest flame for a few hours – anything from three to six. The heat must me the minimum one for which the ragu’ will simmer, just below boiling point: ‘pippiare’ is the verb in Napoletano, referring to the noise it should do.
Mix it occasionally, making sure it does not stick. When the sauce is thick and the meat breaks easily with a fork, lift any bones or fatty parts, tear the meat in smaller chunks, and the ragu’ is ready. Can be cooled and reheated, a procedure that will actually improve it.