Ragú. The word has been part of the American food lexicon since 1969. (The brand was started by a cheese importer Giovanni Cantisano and his wife Assunta in 1937 in New York. They sold the brand to Chesebrough-Ponds in 1969 for $43.8M.) Most people know it as the original sauce in a jar (other than Chef Boyardee). It has, admittedly, been the lifesaver of many a harried mom trying to put a hot meal on the table, college students looking for a cheap meal, and a quick substitute for pizza sauce.
However, I’m here to tell you, that isn’t real ragú. A real ragú, as any prideful Italian will tell you, is a meat sauce that originated in the Emilia-Romanga region of Italy. It’s not a brand name.
There are literally thousands of written recipes now for ragú. In fact, since the original recipe was never written down, no one can say for sure that they know what the original recipe even was. It comes in many variations that are specific to the region where the recipe is developed (a very common thing still in Italy). Recipes can be with or without tomatoes, include all different types of meats or poultry, contain offal, and be made with or without wine and/or milk.
According to culinary historians, Ragù alla Bolognese follows the origin of ragús in Italian cuisine. The first known reference to ragù as a pasta sauce dates to the late 18th century, and originated in Imola, near to the city of Bologna. The first recipe for a meat sauce characterized as being Bolognese came from Pellegrino Artusi and was included in his cookbook published in 1891. Artusi’s recipe, Maccheroni alla bolognese, is believed to have originated from the middle 19th century when he spent considerable time in Bologna.
Artusi’s sauce called for predominantly lean veal filet along with pancetta, butter, onion, and carrot. The meats and vegetables were to be finely minced, cooked with butter until the meats browned, then covered and cooked with broth. Artusi added the sauce could be enhanced by adding dried mushrooms, truffle slices, or finely chopped chicken liver. He further added that when the sauce was completely done you could add as a final touch half a glass of cream to make an even more delicate dish.
In the century-plus since Artusi wrote and published his recipe for Maccheroni alla Bolognese (maccheroni being a catch-all word for pasta in Artusi’s time), what is now ragù alla bolognese has evolved with the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region. Most notable is the preferred choice of pasta, which today is widely accepted as fresh tagliatelle (a wide, flat pasta). Another reflection of the evolution of the cuisine over the past 150 years is the addition of tomato, either as a puree or as a concentrated paste, or both, to the original mix of ingredients. Similarly, both wine and milk appear today in the list of ingredients in many of the contemporary recipes, and beef has mostly replaced veal as the preferred protein.
While the number of recipe and ingredient variations are significant, there are characteristic commonalities. Garlic is absent from all of the recipes. So are herbs other than the limited use of Bay leaves in some recipes. Seasoning is limited to salt, pepper and the occasional addition of nutmeg. In all of the recipes meat is the principal ingredient, and while tomatoes are included they are only used as an enhancement to the meat.
(Some historical information from www.wikipedia.org; and The Food Chronology, James Trager, Owl Books, 1995)
Now, to the recipe.
Ragú is actually quite easy to make. It is a sauce that requires patience, however. From start to finish, this sauce takes about 3 – 3 1/2 hours to prepare. So, it’s not something you can start when you get home from work. Nor would I recommend it for the crock pot. However, you can make extra over the weekend or your days off. It freezes beautifully.
This particular ragú recipe that I’m using is an adaptation of a recipe I love from Fine Cooking Magazine’s Real Italian Collection (Taunton Press, 2010).
3 tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 lb. Prosciutto, thick cut, diced (keep the fat cap on. It adds a lot of flavor to the final dish)
1 sm. onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 lb. ground pork
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 c. dry white wine
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (or to taste)
28 oz can crushed tomatoes (I like Muir Glen Fire Roasted)
1 c. beef or chicken broth
Salt & Pepper to taste
1/2 c. whole milk or half & half
1 lb. Pappardelle, Tagliatelle, or other flat, wide pasta
1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring frequently, to crisp the prosciutto slightly and to help render the fat.
2. Add the onion, carrot, and celery.
Saute the vegetables with the prosciutto until they are soft and slightly browned. About 8 – 10 minutes. Stir frequently.
3. Add the ground pork. Cook until the pork is no longer pink. it doesn’t need to be browned. Just have the pink cooked out.
4. Add in the tomato paste, white wine, and pepper flakes. Cook until the paste has been mixed in and the most of the wine has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
5. Add the crushed tomatoes, beef or chicken broth, and some salt & pepper.
**Take care not to add too much salt. The prosciutto and the broth (if you’re using commercially made) will already have salt. If you want to omit it until later in the cooking process, go ahead. You can always add more in later, but you can’t take it out.
Cover the saucepan or Dutch oven and bring the sauce to a boil. Then, uncover, turn the heat to low, and simmer the sauce for 2 hours. Stirring occasionally. The flavors will mellow and mesh together as the sauce cooks.
6. Add the milk or half & half. Mix in and continue cooking the sauce for a further 30 minutes. Stir frequently.
7. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Use a pot large enough to cook the pasta properly (i.e. keep it from sticking together in the pot) and use salted water. Cook the pasta according to the package directions to al dente (“to the teeth”). Drain and set aside.
(I generally don’t rinse my pasta. I think the starch is important to helping the sauce stick to the pasta. Plus, rinsing pasta loses some of the flavor. If you want to rinse your pasta, please don’t tell me about it.)
8. After the final 30 minutes of cooking, remove the ragú from the heat and taste for seasoning one more time. Serve with the pasta. If you want to have some Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano as well, go ahead. I generally don’t.