Sometimes, listening to the pundits and ponderers, I get the feeling that cooking is my duty. It’s good for the environment; it’s good for my health; it’s good for society; it’s good for my family; it’s good for the small farmers and food producers who depend on my business.
But though all of those things are doubtless true, the one reason for cooking I rarely hear mentioned is that it’s just plain fun.
Granted, that’s not always true. Tuesday at 8 p.m. after I’ve gotten off the Blue Line hungry and tired from a long day at work, stove-time does not seem remotely recreational, even for me.
But other times it certainly does. Of course there’s the pleasure that comes from feeding family and friends. But there’s also the joy that comes with immersing yourself in a project. My brother-in-law works on cars for fun and my brother builds furniture. Me? I cook.
And there are few dishes that are more pleasurable to make than ragu. Make no mistake: As wonderful as ragu is to eat, it’s just as much fun to fix.
This is fall food at its best: slow cooking that develops deep, harmonic flavors. It’s the perfect project for a lazy weekend day when you don’t have much else planned. Cook a little. Go out to the garden and pull a weed. Come back in and give things a stir. Head for the couch and catch up on the game and your nap. This can go on all day.
Ragu is sometimes misunderstood. Most simply, it is a meat-based pasta sauce. But the definition goes deeper than that. Many sauces have meat in them, but ragus are based on meat. The juices of the meat that has cooked in them are fundamental to the sauce. That’s the reason old-time East Coast Italians refer to ragus as “gravy.”
They’re not necessarily tomato-based sauces, either. In fact, the most classical version of the best-known ragu, the one from Bologna, can be made with either no tomato or very little. Very delicate, it is, with milk and veal.
Building a dish
“Delicate” is not exactly a word I would choose to describe my favorite ragu -- based very loosely on a recipe by Jeanne Carola-Francesconi in her classic “La Cucina Napoletana.” This is a powerful, deeply flavored sauce built on long, slow cooking. Oh, and four types of pork.
Dishes like this are constructed more than they are cooked. No slap-dash sizzle-and-deglaze here. Each step must be given the time it deserves. But at the end it all comes together with an almost orchestral power.
Start by sauteing the soffrito -- a chopped paste of pancetta, prosciutto, onions, parsley and garlic. Add a big chunk of pork. Loin is traditional but I think the loins we get in this country are just too lean for braising -- you’re better off with a hunk of pork shoulder or butt. If it comes with the bone, remove it and tie the roast into a uniform shape. I’ve also made this with meaty pork country-style ribs and though they cook a bit more quickly, they’re really good.
Brown the meat slowly. It’ll take an hour to an hour and a half. Add about a half-bottle of red wine and continue to cook, turning the meat whenever you have the energy. The meat will slowly braise and the wine will reduce to a thin, intensely flavored syrup. Count on another hour to an hour and a half.
Now it’s time for the tomato paste. This is a key step and not to be ignored because of silly prejudice. Too often, tomato paste is regarded as a bad cook’s crutch, but when it is handled correctly, it adds real depth to a ragu. The trick is to add it slowly, stirring it into the sauce and letting it caramelize and brown thoroughly. The color should be brick, not bright red.
A tender roast
Add more tomatoes and keep stewing until a carving fork slides easily into the meat. You want the roast to be almost shreddable. This can take a couple of hours, and remember that the meat won’t become tender all over at the same time -- check in several places to make sure it’s thoroughly done.
When the roast is cooked, remove it from the sauce and set it aside. In Italy, a ragu made this way is usually served in separate courses -- pasta with sauce first, then the meat as a main course, usually served simply with some kind of complementary vegetable dish (I’ve always loved the term contorni -- loosely translated, a vegetable dish that fits the flavor contours of the main course). You want something a little bitter to offset the richness of the meat, maybe braised broccoli rabe, or mustard or dandelion greens?
But wait, the sauce isn’t done cooking. There’s still one more pork to go. Crumble some good fennel-flavored Italian sausages into the sauce. Slit and remove the skins and squeeze small chunks between your thumb and forefingers to flatten them slightly. After this has cooked slowly for about an hour, the dish should be deep, dark and ready to serve.
Or not. At this point you can also refrigerate it and reheat it gently when you want. Maybe after the game. Or after your nap. Whichever comes first. Relax, it’s fall and this is supposed to be fun.
Total time: About 6 hours
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: The pork butt cooked in this recipe is not part of the final dish; it flavors the sauce as it cooks and is to be served separately.
2 pounds boneless pork butt, in 1 piece
2 teaspoons salt, divided, more to taste
2 tablespoons finely minced parsley
1 pound onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic
1/3 cup chopped pancetta
1/4 cup chopped prosciutto
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups dry red wine
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 cup crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
1/2 pound Italian sausage, crumbled
1 pound dried pasta, such as rigatoni, penne or fusilli
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more on the side
1. Season the pork all over with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste.
2. In a food processor, chop together parsley, onions, garlic, pancetta and prosciutto to make a very coarse paste.
3. Heat the olive oil in a casserole over medium-low heat. Add the seasoning paste and another teaspoon of salt and cook until the paste is fragrant and no more liquid appears when it is stirred, about 7 minutes.
4. Add the pork roast, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook, turning every 15 minutes, until the meat is lightly browned and the onions have begun to color, about 1 hour.
5. Add the red wine, loosely cover and continue cooking until the wine reduces to a thick sauce, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. If, after 1 hour and 15 minutes, the wine has not reduced sufficiently, remove the roast to a plate, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook the sauce until it thickens.
6. Over low heat, stir in the tomato paste, 2 or 3 tablespoons at a time, stirring in each addition until it mixes into the sauce and darkens to a brick color. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, return the roast to the pan if previously removed, and cover and continue to cook, turning the meat every 30 minutes and stirring the sauce until the meat is tender enough to be easily pierced with a meat fork, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. If the sauce dries out too much and the meat begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, stir in a tablespoon or two of water.
7. Remove the roast to a plate and keep warm until ready to serve. Crumble the Italian sausage into the sauce and cook until the sauce is extremely dark, unctuous, shiny and thick, stirring occasionally, about another hour. (The dish can be prepared to this point and refrigerated overnight.)
8. Cook the pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling, heavily salted water. Warm the sauce if it has been refrigerated.
9. When the pasta is cooked but still slightly chewy, drain it and toss it in a bowl with the butter. Spoon over half of the sauce and toss just to coat lightly. Transfer to a serving bowl and spoon more sauce over top. Sprinkle over the Parmigiano-Reggiano and pass more on the side.
Each of 8 servings, not including the pork butt: 472 calories; 17 grams protein; 56 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 24 mg. cholesterol; 7 grams sugar; 980 mg. sodium.