Sauce of wonder
By Rowley Leigh
Published: April 29 2011 22:23 | Last updated: April 29 2011 22:23
It might seem odd to give a recipe for ragu, or Bolognese sauce, as we have always called it in Britain. However, the difference between the briefly stewed beef mince with tomato that often passes for a Bolognese sauce and a true ragu is so vast that I think it is merited. When you eat the real thing in Emilia Romagna you realise that the two concoctions inhabit separate universes. The ingredients are different – we will come to that – but it is the difference in texture that is so startling. A proper ragu consists of light friable meat that almost floats in an emulsion of tomato and animal fat. Very little is needed to lubricate a large amount of pasta. When made properly, there is never an imbalance of dry pasta and not enough sauce, or a plate of sauce and nothing to scoop it up.
The first essential ingredient in a good ragu is time. This is slow food, a concept which may jar with devotees of the quick and easy, 30-minute school of cooking. Mince may seem a convenience food – and grinding meat can make it more palatable – but it still needs a long cooking time to break down the tough fibres that have not been eliminated by mincing but merely made a lot smaller. Needless to say, long cooking times do require patience.
The second, perhaps unfamiliar point about a ragu is that lean beef needs help. A ragu can be made with all sorts of meat, including most types of game, but a good proportion of pork will help to enrich and moisten the mixture. Whether making ragu with wild boar, venison, lamb or beef, I like to combine it in equal ratio with really quite fatty pork.
Thirdly, and even more strangely, I add milk to the sauce. I cannot recall where I picked this up from and I have to admit milk does not feature in many recipes for ragu. The combination also breaks traditional taboos, specifically Jewish ones, regarding the preparation of food. However, there is a precedent for this with maiale al latte, the classic dish from the Veneto, in which a piece of pork is braised in milk. Adding milk to a Bolognese sauce may sound peculiar but I assure you that it does not curdle and serves to make the sauce even more unctuous.
I have one last prescription that I believe to be extremely useful. When grinding the meat, I try very hard to keep it loose and not to compact it after it has gone through the mincer. As a result, the meat does not “cake” into lumps that have to be broken down during the cooking process. I dare say you will ask your butcher, quite rightly, to do the mincing of the meat for you: if you can ask him not to compact it afterwards, so much the better. 6
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Rowley’s drinking choice
Light fruit-driven reds are probably best here. Hard to beat a really good Valpolicella which is probably the nearest thing to the vin de pays.
Tagliatelle al ragu
250g unsmoked pancetta
750g lean beef
750g belly pork
2 large carrots
4 celery stalks
2 cloves garlic
300g tomato passata
70g tomato purée
400g tinned and peeled plum tomatoes
3 bay leaves
A few sprigs of thyme
1 litre milk
● Cut all the meat into long strips. Mince the pancetta first on the medium blade of the mincer and put to one side. Mix the remaining meat and pass that through the machine.
● Heat a heavy saucepan with a tablespoon of olive oil and add the pancetta. Let it sweat for 10 minutes so that the fat renders out and the meat is fried to a nice friable texture. Add the rest of the minced meat and stir well with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook on a high heat for 20 minutes, stirring it regularly and then continue cooking, still stirring occasionally, on a moderate heat for another 20 minutes.
● While the meat cooks, peel and cut the vegetables into fine dice. In another pan, stew them together in two tablespoons of olive oil until very soft. Add all three types of tomato with a dessertspoon of sugar and then add the herbs, a good grating of nutmeg, a teaspoon of salt and plenty of milled pepper. Simmer for a few minutes and then add to the meat after it has been cooking for 40 minutes. Bring the mix to a gentle simmer and then pour in the milk. Stir well and simmer for another two hours on a very gentle heat, stirring now and then and making sure the sauce does not catch on the bottom of the pan.
● Drop the tagliatelle into a large pot of salted water. As soon as it is cooked – cooking times on the packet are usually accurate – lift out into a saucepan and add three tablespoons of ragu per person. Adding a little of the cooking water, gently fold the sauce through the pasta. When it is mixed well, decant on to plates with a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.