The soulful simmer
About 15 years ago, traveling along the Italian Riviera, I’d had all I could take of the brave new Italian foods I had just discovered: walnut cream sauce and sun-dried tomatoes and gnocchi and fresh mozzarella. (Well, they were new to me, anyway.) I wanted something hearty. So as I sat one evening in a cafe in Genoa, I chucked any notions I had of being a culinary sophisticate and asked the waiter if, per favore, I might have a bowl of pasta alla Bolognese.
That was it. “You-a in Genoa!” the man screamed, arms flailing in the air. “In Genoa, you getta pasta Genovese. You want pasta Bolognese, you go to Bologna!”
What I wanted, of course, was meat sauce. But what I didn’t know is that the word for meat sauce in Italy is ragu. Bolognese, the proper name of which is ragu alla Bolognese, means ragu of Bologna. Regional pride being what it is in Italy, the request I’d made was a bit like going to a friend’s house for dinner and asking the mother to please make her meatloaf like my mother’s.
The word ragu comes from the French word for stew -- ragout -- which in turn comes from the verb ragouter, meaning to stimulate the appetite. And indeed it does. Ragu is not a specific sauce, but rather any meat sauce cooked long and slowly, until the meat is meltingly tender and the sauce -- infused with the meat’s juices -- is luscious and rich. You use it to sauce pasta, gnocchi, polenta -- or even risotto.
And every region has its version. In Trieste, ground beef ragu is redolent of fresh thyme and marjoram. In Abruzzi, ragu is often made with lamb, and on the island of Sardinia, wild boar is the standard meat used for a tomato-based ragu. Did you think ragu was just a brand of sauce in a jar? There is one that sort of looks like that: ragu alla Napoletana. In this version, large chunks of meat -- beef, pork, veal or a combination -- are cooked in tomato sauce and, traditionally, removed from the sauce and served as a second course.
Even if I had gone to Bologna for my meat sauce, as the waiter suggested, I wouldn’t have recognized the Bolognese I would have been served there. While “Bolognese” is undoubtedly the most popular ragu in this country, it is also the most misunderstood. The ragu you get by that name is usually a characterless tomato sauce with pea-like bits of ground beef floating in it, bearing little resemblance to anything you’d find in Bologna. And not, in any sense, a ragu.
True ragu alla Bolognese contains no tomato sauce -- just enough fresh or canned tomato to add a hint of sweetness and another layer of flavor to a subtle, complex mix. Like all ragus, Bolognese is characterized by its long, slow cooking, which in this case starts with simmering the meat in milk (to mellow the acidity of the raw tomatoes added later) and wine (some use white, others red), after which the tomatoes are added. The whole lot is cooked together for about two hours, at what Marcella Hazan calls “the laziest of simmers” in her book “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”
How L.A. does it
There are a number of delicious ragus at restaurants here that call themselves “Bolognese.” At Valentino, chef Steven Samson makes one with hand-chopped beef. At Campanile, chef Mark Peel makes his with richly marbled prime rib cap braised like short ribs, then shredded and tossed with crispy fried trenne pasta. While these ragus are certainly complex and deeply flavored and altogether compelling, according to Hazan -- America’s ambassador of Italian cuisine and herself a Bolognese -- when it comes to ragu alla Bolognese, “The meat used is ground beef. Period.”
For ragu in the broader sense, it’s any meat goes. Depending on the region or the season, it can be made with beef, pork, wild boar, veal, venison, duck, squab, even seafood. Or as Gino Angelini, chef at Angelini Osteria and La Terza, says: “Whatever you have on the farm.” Angelini comes from Rimini, a city in Emilia-Romagna, the region of which Bologna happens to be the capital.
Angelini serves some kind of ragu at his eponymous restaurant every day, so when I wanted to make a duck ragu, I enlisted his help. The chef instructed me to start with a soffritto, in this case a mixture of chopped celery, carrot and onion, sauteed in olive oil.
Soffritto, which can also include other ingredients, such as garlic, herbs or pancetta, is the base upon which any ragu is built.
In a separate frying pan over blazing heat, he had me fry my quartered whole duck, rendering off the fat and leaving me with a nice, crisp skin. I combined the duck and soffritto, added wine, tomatoes and vegetable broth to the pan, put a lid on it and let the duck simmer, virtually undisturbed, for the next two hours. I then pulled the duck meat from the bones, chopped it and returned it -- along with its chopped liver for added richness -- to the pot, where it cooked still more to marry the sauce and the meat.
The long cooking necessary for making a great ragu shouldn’t be off-putting; it’s part of its appeal. There’s something so satisfying, especially as the days grow colder and the nights fall earlier, about a house filled with delicious, savory cooking smells, not to mention the anticipation of a meal with the kind of richness that only slow simmering provides. You’ll find yourself checking on the pot more than you actually need to, because it’s so wonderful to see and smell and taste the progress as the soffritto and stock begin to meld and turn into a rich, creamy gravy.
The genesis of this kind of cooking is obvious in the context of Italian history and culture. “It’s an economy deal,” says Joyce Goldstein, author of “Italian Slow and Savory.” “It’s making meat do two things.” In Italy before World War II, meat was a delicacy, too costly for most families to enjoy on anything but special occasions. Even today, ragu such as Bolognese is not for everyday pasta, but something to be savored on a Sunday afternoon with friends.
Cooking ragu allowed earlier generations to stretch their meat, as it would be used first to infuse the sauce with its fat and flavors, and then, for many ragus, removed from the sauce and served separately either as the second course or at a different meal altogether. Also, the cuts of meat that work best are the least expensive, such as shoulder and butt, whose marbling makes them ideal for long, slow cooking. What’s more, by using the sauce to dress pasta, it naturally went even further.
Today, the meat for a ragu like Napoletana is, especially in this country, often chopped or shredded and added back to the sauce, a practice that invites speculation as to the origin of the sauce Americans call Bolognese.
Many of the first Italian immigrants to this country were from Naples. For these immigrants, according to Goldstein, eating or serving meat with pasta was a sign of their newfound prosperity. Meatballs went from a size just bigger than a golf ball, and something eaten by themselves as a second course, to tennis ball-size monstrosities served -- an anomaly to any Italian -- atop a mountain of spaghetti.
As these Neapolitan immigrants became more prosperous (and found meat in the United States decidedly less expensive than in the old country), perhaps they began to add it back to their traditional tomato sauce and then gave it the name for Italy’s most famous such sauce: Bolognese.
On top of spaghetti?
In Italy, Bolognese is traditionally tossed with handmade tagliatelle (which comes from the word tagliare, meaning “to cut,” referring to the fact that the ribbons are hand-cut, with scissors, from the sheets of rolled-out dough). Or it may be layered with bechamel and spinach lasagna, a perfectly executed version of which is served at Angelini, topped with leaves of fried basil.
Hazan finds it curious that Bolognese has become popular in the United States, England and other countries outside Italy -- always served over spaghetti. In Bologna, she points out, this would never happen. “Bolognese’s message becomes muted,” says Hazan, “when it is served over spaghetti.”
Any ragu needs to be tossed with pasta shapes that stand up to the heft and richness of the sauce: rigatoni, conchiglie or fusilli. Pappardelle is also a popular choice, especially for ragus made with game. The richness of the egg pasta is able to bear the weight of the dish.
Besides being tossed with pasta or gnocchi, ragu is often served atop creamy polenta or stirred into a risotto. This last suggestion may sound strange, but in fact, it’s a great way to use up a small amount of leftover ragu. Since all the work of layering ingredients and cooking up a soffritto has been done, you skip that stage of risotto making. Instead, you simply stir the ragu into the rice after it has been toasted, then add broth in stages, as in any risotto, until you have a rich, hearty, goulashy kind of dish that is delicious when you have a craving that nothing but meat sauce will satisfy.
Which is what I experienced that memorable evening on the Italian Riviera. What I really wanted was meat sauce, however it happened to be made. Had I said “ragu” instead of “Bolognese,” rather than the pasta with pesto and potatoes that the waiter set down without any further input from me, I might have been served a bowlful alla Genovese: long ribbon-like pasta dressed with a sauce of tender chunks of beef and porcini mushrooms. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.
Ragu alla Napoletana
Total time: 45 minutes, plus
2 1/2 hours simmering time
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Adapted from “Italian Slow and Savory” by Joyce Goldstein
1/3 cup olive oil
1 1/2 pounds beef brisket or chuck, cut into 3 equal pieces
1/2 pound boneless veal shoulder, in one piece
1/2 pound boneless pork shoulder, in one piece
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 (28-ounce) cans plum tomatoes with juices, chopped or pulsed in a food processor
Pinch of chile pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ziti
Grated pecorino cheese
1. In a large Dutch oven or deep skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat. Add the beef, veal and pork and sprinkle with salt. Cook for about 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden and the meats are browned on all sides, about 15 minutes more.
2. Add the wine and cook until it evaporates, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chile pepper flakes and simmer, stirring often, for 2 1/2 hours, or until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and the meat is tender.
3. Use a slotted spoon to remove the meat from the sauce. Reserve for another dish, serve the meat separately as a second course or chop the meat and return it to the sauce. Season with salt and pepper and toss the pasta with the sauce. Top with grated cheese and pass more cheese at the table.
Each of 8 servings (with pasta and meat): 553 calories; 40 grams protein; 55 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber;
18 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 100 mg. cholesterol; 369 mg. sodium.
Ragu alla Bolognese
Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes plus 3 hours simmering time
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Adapted from “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter plus
1 tablespoon for tossing the pasta
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
3/4 pound ground chuck
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, with juices, chopped
3/4 pound fresh tagliatelle or 1/2 pound dried rigatoni, conchiglie or fusilli
1. Heat the oil, 3 tablespoons butter and the onion in a large high-sided skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring often, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the celery and carrots and cook for about 2 minutes more, stirring to coat the vegetables with the butter.
2. Add the ground beef, a pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper and cook, crumbling the meat with a fork, until it has lost its raw, red color. Add the milk and simmer it gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely, about 15 minutes.
3. Add the nutmeg and stir. Add the wine and let it simmer until it has evaporated, about 25 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all the ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down to cook the sauce at the laziest of simmers, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. You will need to add water to the pan occasionally to prevent the meat from sticking.
4. Taste for salt and toss with cooked, drained pasta and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the table.
Each of 8 servings (including pasta): 319 calories; 15 grams protein;
23 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 133 mg. cholesterol; 136 mg. sodium.
Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes plus 2 hours simmering
Servings: 6 to 8
4 carrots: 1 cut into large pieces; 3 diced,
3 stalks celery: 1 cut into large pieces; 2 diced, trimmings reserved,
1 yellow onion, diced, trimmings reserved
2 fresh bay leaves,
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
1 (5- to 6-pound) whole duck
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup Marsala (or white wine)
1 (10-ounce) can peeled
Italian-style tomatoes, with juices
1 pound fresh pappardelle
1/2 cup freshly grated
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1. Place the large pieces of carrot and celery and the carrot, celery and onion trimmings in a medium saucepan with 1 bay leaf and the peppercorns. Add 8 cups of water and one-half teaspoon salt, bring to a boil and reduce the heat. Simmer while you prepare the duck.
2. Use kitchen shears to cut the duck into 4 pieces (breasts and thighs). Reserve the liver. Cut the breasts in half crosswise if that will make them fit in the pan more easily or make it easier to have all the skin touching the pan.
3. Season the duck with salt and pepper and place the pieces skin side down in a large frying pan over high heat. You want all the skin touching the surface of the pan, so you may want to use two pans. Sear the duck skin for a few minutes until it begins to give off some fat. Add the garlic cloves and thyme sprigs to the pan and continue to cook the duck until the skin is crispy and brown, 10 to 12 minutes total. Drain off the excess fat, turn the duck pieces over and cook the flesh side just to sear, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain off all the fat and set aside.
4. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the diced carrots, celery and onion and sweat until the onion is tender and translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Add the duck pieces and the Marsala and cook until most of the wine has evaporated, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes to the pan and break them up around the duck. (At this point, discard the garlic and thyme sprigs left in the bottom of the pan you cooked the duck in.) Add the juices from the tomatoes and simmer for about 5 minutes to cook off the rawness.
6. Add 4 to 6 cups of the simmering stock, pouring it through a strainer, until the duck is almost covered. Add the remaining bay leaf. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, reduce the heat, and cook the duck in the liquid at a low simmer for about
7. Remove the duck pieces from the sauce and remove and discard the bay leaf. Skim off the fat and set aside one-half cup of it. Any remaining fat can be reserved for another use.
8. Pass the sauce through a food mill or strainer, pressing the solids through, and return it to a clean pan. Pull the duck meat off the bones. You want to keep all the duck meat you can, as well as the nice clean slabs of duck skin from the breasts. Chop the duck meat and skin and add them to the pan with the sauce. Finely chop the liver and add it to the sauce as well.
9. Cook the meat in the sauce for about 20 minutes, until the sauce is thick and gravy-like. Stir in the reserved duck fat. Season with salt and pepper and toss with pappardelle. Top with grated cheese and parsley and serve while the pasta is still steaming.
Each serving (including pasta):
761 calories; 36 grams protein;
33 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 50 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 238 mg. cholesterol; 444 mg. sodium.
Total time: 1 hour
Servings: 6 to 8 (makes about 1 pound)
Note: Adapted from “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan
2 cups unbleached flour
4 large eggs
1. Pour the flour onto a work surface, shape it into a mound and scoop out a deep hollow in its center. Break the eggs into the hollow. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork for about 1 minute. Draw some of the flour over the eggs with the fork, mixing it in with the eggs until the eggs are no longer runny. Draw the sides of the mound together with your hands, pushing a bit of the flour to the side and reserving it.
2. Work the eggs and flour together, using your fingers and the palms of your hands, until you have a smooth dough. If it is still moist and sticky, work in more flour. To test the dough to see whether it has enough flour, rinse your hands and dry them, then press your thumb deep into the center of the dough mass. If it comes out clean, no more flour is needed. If it comes out sticky, add more flour from the reserved portion.
3. Knead the dough in a pasta maker or by hand, using the heel of your palm to press down on the dough, then turning and repeating the motion until you have kneaded the dough for 8 minutes and it is very smooth.
4. Cut the dough ball into 12 equal parts and run through a pasta machine set to the desired thickness. Proceed according to manufacturer’s instructions, or cut by hand. For tagliatelle, the ribbons should be about one-fourth inch wide; for pappardelle, three-fourths inch wide. When the thinned strips of pasta are dry enough to cut but still soft enough to bend without cracking, fold them up loosely along their length, making a flat roll about 3 inches wide at its sides. With a cleaver or similar knife, cut the roll into ribbons. Cut parallel to the original length of the pasta strip so the tagliatelle will be the full length of the strip.
5. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt and the pasta and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, until tender but still slightly firm to the bite. Drain and toss with sauce.
Each of 8 servings: 139 calories;
6 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber;
3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 106 mg. cholesterol; 31 mg. sodium.