Dad’s Ragu

Just about everyone (We have a notable exception in our family.) likes pasta sauce with meat and tomato. I love it. I’ve made it many times and tried various recipes, mostly called ragu or Bolognese. Ragu in Italian means tasty or savory, or it refers to the meaty, tomatoey, stewy dish itself. It (the word and the recipe) are derived, apparently, from the French ragoût. OK, so much for technicalities.

Remember, this recipe is all about using what you have on hand, although doing exactly what I did should be great. This is a wonderful dish for expanding your horizons without taking the time to add any skills. Just add imagination.

I had a friend who gave me his mom’s Bolognese sauce recipe and I’ve made that for years. But, the other day I had a hankering for pasta with meat sauce and thought I had all the ingredients unlike I actually started checking. No carrot, no celery. Now, what?

In the end, and it was a happy ending, I took everything I figured I knew about making flavor and created the best ragu I’ve ever made. Along the way, I figured I’d share my method for anyone else faced with a Bolognese imperative but lacking a few of the basics.

First off, I’ve structured this recipe around phases and not the usual “Ingredients” followed by “Instructions.” My hope is that this will show that there is more than one way to a great ragu when you add a little intelligent innovation.

Phase One: Build the base.

In a typical Bolognese recipe, you start with a “trinity”: onion, celery, and carrot. Fine, but I didn’t have any celery or carrot. Turns out it didn’t matter. I diced a large yellow onion and sautéed it with diced bacon (four-slices-worth) left over from breakfast. I added a little olive oil because there wasn’t quite enough grease from the bacon to avoid sticking. I let this cook five minutes over medium heat in a 12″ fry pan. I added one pound of crumbled up, mild Italian sausage. Remove the casings if your sausage is in links. Mixed the sausage very well with the onion and cook until all the pink is gone from the meat. I added about a heaping tablespoon of minced garlic out of a jar (I suppose this was about four or five cloves), stirred well, and cooked a good minute. That’s it for the base. I transferred the mixture to a Dutch oven and began plotting my strategy for Phase Two.

Phase Two: Build the flavor.

Here’s the fun part, where you develop the flavors and flavor profile you want, limited by what’s on hand. I’m thinking umami. I scrounged the pantry shelves and gathered a collection of flavor candidates:

  • Diced, roasted red peppers out of a jar. Remember how I didn’t have any celery or carrot? I wanted more veggies — and color — so I decided to “get a Mezzetta.” These peppers are so good and versatile, too. I used half a 16 oz jar and this seemed like the right proportion for one pound of sausage.
  • Italian seasoning. A blend of basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary will do just great, but there’s a lot of latitude here. Getting the right proportions are probably really important to some. Search “homemade Italian seasoning” for ideas. Or use Italian Seasoning in a jar from the store, which is what I did.
  • Mushrooms. I decided to max out on umami (meaty flavor) — and not to amp up the tomato — when I found an old packet of dried porcini mushrooms. This was about 2 oz or so dry. When I say “old,” I mean old. Can’t remember when I bought them, but these are mushrooms, right. Didn’t seem to matter. I followed the package instructions and soaked the mushrooms in boiling water for 20 minutes. Then I drained off the mushroom juice and diced them finely before adding them to the sauce.
  • Worcestershire. About a teaspoon or two.
  • Marinara sauce: A 24 oz bottle of grocery-store pasta sauce. This turned out to be a great way to get the tomato flavor and bulk that I wanted without dealing with fresh or canned tomatoes, tomato paste, etc.
  • White wine. About a cup. White was all I had. Would have preferred red, probably a chianti.
  • Milk. A cup. This is a standard feature of Bolognese. I used 2% cow’s milk. Again, it’s what I had.
  • And finally, 2 tablespoons of sugar. I’ve read so many stories of grandmas whose “secret ingredient”—what made their pasta sauce or stew or whatever so great — turned out to be sugar. These grandmas knew a thing or two and would laugh at our fear of the real-deal sweet stuff.

Phase Three: Let it find itself.

The sauce needs to find out who it is. Stir the ingredients thoroughly, lower the heat to simmer once everything is at a slow boil, cover the pot, and cook for an hour, checking after 30 minutes to make sure you haven’t set the heat too high. Re-stir, re-cover, and simmer for another hour. Uncover, stir, taste to see if you have enough salt and pepper, and you’re almost done.

Phase Four: Finish and enjoy.

I have a good deal of finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano left over from a bag I got at Costco, the large-quantity specialists. I’d stop buying the large quantity P-R, but Costco’s is of a really fine quality, better than I can get at Local Supermarket Inc. I added about half-a-cup to the sauce. This added one last flavor layer and body to the multi-layered dish the sauce had become in those two hours of cooking.

What about the pasta, right? I had a leftover half-box (8 oz) of bow-tie pasta and used that. I added it to the sauce right near the end, cooked the mix for about ten minutes, and I was done. Over time, the pasta soaked up some of the sauce and added bulk and body to the dish.

Bonus Tips

  • Use any kind of pasta you have, long or short, cut or not. I had only the 8 ounces to work with, but the volume of sauce I had certainly would have supported up to a pound of pasta. Next time, I think I’ll use fettucine cut into 1-2″ pieces. Or bucatini — I love bucatini.
  • Dad’s Ragu tastes even better the second and third days. I froze half the sauce to enjoy in a few months. There are only two of us and our appetites aren’t what they used to be.
  • Just before serving, and if you’re feeling like there must be more to do, sprinkle some parsley on top, drizzle a little olive oil, or even add some butter. All this is unnecessary, but like I said, some times it’s hard to stop when you’ve been making things up as you go.
  • This is a mild sauce as I have described it. To spice it up:
    • Start with spicy sausage instead of mild.
    • Add some chili pepper flakes or some Cayenne pepper during the last hour of cooking. Careful!
  • An finally, if you want to top it off with a basil leaf or sprinkle some extra cheese, go for it. No one’s stopping you.
    And that’s the best part.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: