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Italian ragu is about as varied as Italian everything: It varies from north to south, from region to region, from village to village, and, really, from kitchen to kitchen. That’s the truly exasperating and yet also fascinating and exhilarating part of Italian food: Just when you think you have a read on it and know how something is made, you watch someone else cook it and see that they have some technique or addition that makes you realize that what makes Italian food Italian is that everyone puts heart into what they make.
From Nonna cooking all day over the stove, to single male men living outside of the family, everyone seems to automatically know that a pinch of heart in the dish is as important as a pinch of salt.
That pinch of heart is what winds up being everyone’s individual stamp, and it’s usually subservient to the regional parameters of the dish. Now, no one is going to take the classic meat ragu of their region and swap meat for tofu or some such craziness, but what will vary is what the vegetables are, and whether they’re seared or sweated gently; and what the seasonings, from basic as parsley and onion to elaborate carrots, celery, onion, garlic, parsley, rosemary, sage, and chili,, and whether those are sweated or fried with rendered pork fat; and, of course, what meat is used as the base and how it, too, is prepared.
Ragu Bolognese is a globally famous and frequently bastardized dish meat ragu. But while all Ragu Bolognese is meat ragu, not all meat ragu is Bolognese—which begins to explain how varied ragu truly is. Bolognese is the regional ragu from the city of Bologna in Emilia Romagna in northern Italy, and you would think that would be enough to distinguish and define it. But ask a bunch of Bolognese people how the true ragu should be made and some will say it’s made with veal, some will say it's not; some will say it’s made with milk, some will say that’s never the case.
With all this discussion over ragu and how it’s made, I have come to a few of my own decisions and standards over the years. One of the greatest differences between various ragus is the use of ground meat versus shredded meat. With ground meat, you cook the meat with the aromatic vegetables, wine, and tomatoes over time, all together. With a braised meat ragu, however, you braise the meat, then take it off the bone (if it’s not already off to begin with), shred it, and fold it into an already well-cooked base of aromatic vegetables and tomato.
Two ragus, above, that start with ground or finely chopped meat.
Most often the choice is made for you: Lamb, pork, beef and veal—the most common meats used in a ragu—are all very easy to find ground. Rabbit and duck, on the other hand, are a little harder to track down ground, so you’ll most likely braise those first. (I have been known, however, to make my restaurant prep cooks debone a duck and run it through the industrial meat grinder for a fabulous ground duck meat ragu. But when I’m cooking without prep cooks and meat grinders, I find that braising duck legs, then picking the meat off and putting it into the vegetable base is just as good.)
And with oxtail, there is no point in doing anything other than braising the meat on the bone before shredding it.
The two ragus above start with large hunks of meat (not ground).
With these ragu recipes, I offer up two different techniques. The first is a ground meat ragu that’s often called the “butcher’s ragu,” as a butcher’s family would traditionally take the little bits and scraps left over from the shop and cook them all out together to make a rich, deeply layered ragu fit for a king. The gentle sweating of the aromatics, which are softened even further by cooking them out in water, and the gentle poaching of the ground meat among the vegetable base are, to me, hallmarks of a central Italian ragu. San Marzano tomatoes, which I use here, are a relatively modern ingredient; some would even suggest that its addition is more southern than northern, but I think they add a nice layer of flavor, especially when cooked long and slow so that they meld with the meat and the aromatics.
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 small Spanish onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 2 celery stalks, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 bunch flat-leaf Italian parsley
- 2 sprigs rosemary, sage, thyme, or a combination
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 to 4 1/2 pounds mixed ground meat, such as 2 pounds beef, 1 pound pork, and 1 pound veal
- 1 tablespoon Italian double concentrate tomato paste
- One 35-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
- Salt and pepper
The oxtail ragu, on the other hand, is dependent on cooking the meat first, low and slow, with the same aromatic vegetables that will go into the base. The meat is then shredded, folded in, and cooked just long enough to amalgamate.
- 3 to 4 pounds oxtail, cut into 1-inch pieces
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons
- 2 small onions, divided
- 6 carrots, divided
- 6 celery stalks, divided
- 2 tablespoons Italian double concentrate tomato paste, divided
- 1 head garlic, sliced in half horizontally
- 1 bottle red wine
- One 35-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
- 2 sprigs thyme, rosemary, or savory
- 1/2 bunch parsley
- 1 bay leaf
As for pasta pairings, I find ground meat ragu goes well with almost any pasta shape, from tagliatelle to bucatini to pappardelle to rigatoni or gnocchi. Most Italian pasta sauces are very specific as to what shape to which they’re best suited, but I personally find that there is almost no shape that does not pair well with a ground meat ragu. For a shredded meat ragu, however, I find big pasta shapes—think pappardelle, gnocchi, big chunky shells, or rigatoni—are best.
Now that I think about it, I might have to write a book on ragu: I could spend days talking about the difference between adding anchovy or pancetta to the base… and whether one sears the meat off or slow braises it… and when to add the milk or cream or butter in the ragu, or not at all.
When you think of ragu, what do you think of? Tell us in the comments below.