Ragú is the Italian term for long-simmered, mellow meat sauce that dresses pasta or polenta. It varies from region to region, sometimes prepared with large chunks of meat, sometimes with ground, or more properly, finely minced meat.
I’ve sampled ragú of duck, rabbit, mixed meats, and sausages and have never encountered one that failed to satisfy my appetite. Arguably the most renowned of Italian meat sauces is ragú alla bolognese from the storied food city of Bologna. It is classically prepared with a combination of chopped beef, veal, or pork, and, in the good old days, was finished with heavy cream. Milk is now more often used.
Ragú alla bolognese is not as tomatoey as the meat sauces of the south that influenced Italian American sauces. The tomato acidity in a bolognese is balanced by the sweetness of the sautéed aromatic vegetables—the soffrito, or flavor base.
It’s essential to cook the soffrito slowly to lightly caramelize the vegetables without browning them. I like to remove the soffrito from the pot so the meats can brown without the steam created by the veggies.
This recipe is my simplified version of a bolgonese and makes no claim to absolute authenticity. It makes enough to dress 2 pounds of pasta so if you’re not serving that much at one time, just freeze half of the ragú in a plastic freezer container.
Ragú alla bolognese
Makes 8 cups
1 ounce pancetta, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups finely chopped celery
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped carrot
2 pounds combined ground meats (lean beef, veal, chicken, or pork tenderloin)
1 cup dry white Italian wine
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) chicken broth
1 can (15 ounces) unseasoned tomato puree
2 bay leaves
3/4 cup whole milk or half-and-half
1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
In a wide Dutch oven, warm the pancetta and oil over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the pancetta fat renders. Reduce heat if pancetta starts to brown. Add celery, onion and carrot. Stir to coat with the pancetta mixture. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes, or until golden. Reduce the heat if the vegetables start to brown. Remove the vegetables to a tray; set aside.
Crumble just enough (about half) of the ground meat into the pot to cover the bottom. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove with a large spoon to the vegetable tray. Crumble the remaining meat into the pan to cover the bottom. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Add the wine. Cook over high heat about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the mixture no longer smells of alcohol. Add the broth, tomato puree, bay leaves, reserved meat, and vegetables. Heat to almost boiling.
Reduce the heat to low or medium-low so the sauce bubbles gently. Cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Stir in the milk and parsley. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, or until the mixture is thickened. Stir in the salt and pepper. Remove and discard the bay leaves.
To serve the ragú: Have 4 cups heated ragú in a saucepan. Cook 1 pound spaghetti, tagliatelle or fettuccine in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain and return to the cooking pot with 3 cups hot ragú. Toss, adding 1 tablespoon butter if desired. Transfer to pasta bowls. Ladle the remaining sauce over the pasta. Pass grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at the table.
To refrigerate the sauce: Cool to room temperature. Spoon into an airtight container and cover. Refrigerate for up to 4 days. Reheat in a saucepan or in the microwave oven.
To freeze the sauce, cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for several hours. Spoon into plastic freezer containers. Store in the freezer for up to 3 months. To use, thaw for a day in refrigerator. Reheat in a saucepan or in the microwave oven.