How to make your ragu sing like Pavarotti

| June 20, 2009 | 10 Comments
  • 10 Comments

mostaccioli with pork shoulder ragu
Mostaccioli with pork shoulder ragu

I’ve been making meat sauces for years, but only now — after two months as an apprentice at Oliveto — have I learned some of the secrets behind a superlative ragu.

A ragu is a basic meat sauce for pasta. The first authentic version I tried was years ago, in Emilia-Romagna, the region of Italy that invented the classic Bolognese sauce.

That first ragu was bold and brooding — much like a Pavarotti opera. The sauce was entangled in a nest of perfectly cooked tagliatelle, with the flavor infused into the noodle.

Numerous cookbooks offer suggestions on making a Bolognese sauce and other forms of ragu. Yet nearly all of these recipes, in my opinion, are flawed. Most suggest cooking a mixture of diced onion, carrots and celery before adding your meat to brown it. The sauce that results tends to be lifeless or, even worse, infused with chunks of burnt vegetables.

Vegetables sweating on top of meat as the meat brown
Vegetables sweating on top of meat as the meat brown

At Oliveto, the chefs have reversed the sequence. First they brown the meat and then allow the vegetables to steam, or “sweat,” on top of the meat. This process produces a dark layer of caramelized meat solids at the bottom of the pan — a foundation of flavor. This foundation, or “fond” as the chefs call it, is then deglazed by the natural juices of the vegetables when added on top. This is allowed to cook down so the fond is rebuilt and deglazed two or three times.

Paul Bertolli, the former head chef at Oliveto, describes the technique in his 2003 book, “Cooking By Hand.” Bertolli’s successor, Paul Canales, who had a role in developing this technique, has continued to refine and perfect it since becoming executive chef.

Cooking a ragu in this manner is not difficult, but it cannot be whipped out in an hour or two. A ragu is truly slow food — time-tested and refined by Italian grandmothers over many centuries.

Ragu ready for a long simmer, after broth and tomato paste have been added
Ragu ready for a long simmer, after broth and tomato paste have been added

Ragu for pasta

Makes: 8-10 servings of sauce

Ingredients:
2 pounds ground meat (Beef, pork or equal amounts of both. For beef, try ground chuck or get adventurous with ground hanger steak, beef cheeks, etc. For the pig, try ground pork shoulder.)
4 medium yellow onions
5 stalks celery
5 carrots
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano
6 cups dark chicken or veal stock
½ cup white wine
½ cup high-quality tomato paste
1 cup cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

1. Dice the onions, celery and carrots into a mirepoix — cubes smaller than 1/4 inch in size. As you are dicing the vegetables and mincing the fresh herbs, start cooking your meat. Use a heavy bottomed Dutch oven or stew pot. This is essential. The bottom of the pan has to be thick and heavy enough to brown the meat, without scorching it.

2. Use high heat to start your browning process. But keep an eye on it, and adjust the flame accordingly. It’s okay for the meat to stick and brown, but you don’t want it to blacken or burn.

3. After you have built an even layer of fond on the bottom, toss your vegetables on top of the meat. Leave them there for at least 15 minutes, allowing them to release their juices to the bottom of the pan.

4. Give your meat and vegetable a rigorous stir with a wooden spoon, and scrape up the fond layer that has now been deglazed by the vegetables.

5. Turn up heat slightly, and allow this to cook down and brown again, then add a shot of wine — no more than a cup. Stir and scrape.

6. Allow this to cook down again. When browned, add a cup of stock. Repeat the process and add your tomato paste, diluted with a half cup of stock.

7. Watch your ragu carefully at this point. The addition of tomato paste could lead to scorching. Keep the heat up, but stir it regularly as the fond starts to reform. When it is nice and brown, but not scorched, add two or three cups of stock — enough to make it slightly more soupy than you’d want for a sauce.

8. At this point, your ragu should have a lovely, brownish-red color. Bring it to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Allow it to simmer for two to four hours, stirring occasionally and adding more stock, if necessary.

9. Before serving, you have the option of adding cream — as much or as little as you want. Too much cream will dilute the intensity of the sauce, so be judicious at first.

10. You can take this basic sauce in many different directions. Add minced porcini mushrooms early in the cooking for an earthier flavor, or cinnamon or nutmeg to give it a spicy edge. Use different combinations of fresh herbs.

11. The final step, of course, is marrying the ragu with the pasta. Don’t just ladle it on top. Cook your pasta just short of al dente, then mix it thoroughly in a skillet with an appropriate amount of sauce and then serve it immediately. Sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on top, and you will be ready to sing.

ragu
This is what ragu should look like when finished

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About the Author ()

I am a veteran newspaper reporter who has transcended to the life of a kitchen slave. In April, I took a leave from The Sacramento Bee, where I work as a columnist and editorial writer, to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland. Until at least September, I will be working five days a week at the restaurant, learning basic culinary skills and helping Oliveto prepare its nightly dishes. What will happen at the end of my sabbatical? Who knows? At the very least, I'll be a far better chef than when I started. I've been a dedicated home cook for more than 20 years, largely because of the inspiration of my wife, Micaela Massimino. Mickie and I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively in Italy, France, the Deep South, New Mexico, Vietnam and Japan, and we enjoy cooking food from all of those places. I also have some experience in writing about food -- particularly the environmental consequences of food production. In the 1990s, I covered the rise of industrial hog farming in North Carolina, while working at the Raleigh News & Observer. Since moving back to California in 1999 and joining The Bee, I've specialized in coverage of water issues and threats to the state's fisheries. When I am not cooking, eating or writing, I like to take long rides on my various bicycles, which helps build an appetite for more cooking, eating and writing.
  • http://piequeen.blogspot.com Stephanie Rosenbaum

    Yum! I, too, learned to love ragu while living in Bologna. As for browning the meat, do you add oil to the pan first, or do you just rely on the natural fat already in the meat?

  • http://www.sacbee.com/chefapprentice Chef Apprentice

    Excellent question. I would try starting the meat without any oil, and rely on that natural fat. If it seems to be sticking too much, or browning too fast, then add some oil. Also make sure you season the meat early in the process, so the meat and “fond” has full flavor.

  • Barry Lendall

    This looks like it makes a lot. Can I keep leftover sauce in the fridge? For how long? How about freezing it?

  • http://sacbee.com Richard

    Looks wonderful – rich and full of flavor. I will be trying this very soon. Thank you, I appreciate getting new ideas on how to cook. I’ve made many sauces but not using this method. I enjoy learning about and trying new ways to make food and create flavor.

  • http://www.sacbee.com/chefapprentice Chef Apprentice

    Barry, you can definitely freeze it. I wouldn’t do so for a long time, but two weeks? No problem. Freshen it up with a little cream or butter and you should be good to go.

  • Andrew Chee

    Thanks for the tip. I tried your suggestion this weekend to both disastrous and great results.

    I followed your original technique at first of browning the meat first and then putting the vegetables on top to sweat. As I saw the fond forming on the bottom, I put the vegetables on top. I left it untouched at a med-low heat for about ten minutes and I went to check on it. What I found was that the bottom of the pan had blackened and the vegetables had not given off enough liquid to deglaze the pan. I had to throw out that batch.

    I decided to try again. But this time, I softened the vegetables first but then removed them from the pot. I then put the meat in to brown until the fond formed and I did the first deglaze with wine after which I put the vegetables back in and followed the rest of your recipe. The flavors of the resulting dish were definitely much deeper than ragus I’ve made in the past.

    Anyways, if you have any ideas as to why my meat burned, that would be great. Overall though, I think the suggestion of deglazing the sauce a few times really does add a lot to the overall flavor of the dish.

  • http://www.sacbee.com/chefapprentice Chef Apprentice

    Andrew,

    Making ragus is a high art form. Through trial and error, you are one step closer to Pavarotti.

    Success with browning meat in this fashion depends on several factors: The type of pan used, the flame setting and the amount of moisture and fat in the meat.

    Unsure of all those variables in your case, I’ll venture a guess: Your meat was lean and lacking moisture, in which case you needed to stir it sooner than you did on your first try. Or possibly your pan wasn’t thick enough to handle this technique.

    But I’m glad you had success in your second try. I’m sure your third will be even better.

    Just be prepared for some variability. Some meats I’ve purchased are heavy in moisture, and they take a long time to brown, even with high heat. You have to keep an eye on the browning, but not mess with it too much. Only stir and scrape when the browning reaches a danger point.

    Keep trying. And feel free to experiment with the spice and the final heart-stopping question: Whether or not to add cream.

  • http://postbop.com bbebop

    tried this recipe today and very pleased with the results. used pork shoulder, added porcini mushrooms, and served with tagliatelli (are you sure that’s Mostaccioli in the top photo?? looks like rigatoni…)

  • http://www.sacbee.com/chefapprentice Chef Apprentice

    bbebop, glad the technique worked for you. Is it mostaccioli? You bet. I know because the chefs always make an extra effort to spell it correctly when it is on the menu.

    Be aware that Oliveto makes all of its pasta in-house, so their version of “mosta” may be closer in size to rigatoni you see in stores. I haven’t done a comparison, but you have sparked my curiosity. Cheers, Stu.

  • Quattro stelle

    I too like ragus that don’t rely on fonds, that deliver a lighter, sweeter flavor (I’m thinking of Marcela Hazan’s).

    Also, the pasta in the photo is most certainly not mostaccioli, which is a thinner tube pasta with biased ends and is smooth, not ridged (also referred to as penne lisce, smooth penne). Your pasta best resembles rigatoni (greater tube diameter, square ends, and “rigati” – ridged).