Amanda & Merrill

Weeknight Ragu

December  1, 2009

- Merrill

About this time every year, I return to one of my favorite cooking rituals: making the weekly ragu. On Saturday I go to my local farmers market and peruse the meat offerings; there's ground pork, lamb and beef, excellent turkey and turkey sausage, as well as more unusual items like pheasant and goat. Each week I aim to pick out a different meat (or combination of meats) for my next ragu.

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When it comes to pasta sauce, I'm a fan of simplicity. There's really no need to make more effort than what's required to execute a rough chop, and once you get a rhythm down, you can have your sauce simmering on the stove, making your kitchen smell like an Italian mama's, in about 20 minutes. A few small details -- well-browned meat, excellent canned tomatoes, wine, fresh herbs -- make all the difference, and if you incorporate them you'll rarely be disappointed.

Even though I'm usually cooking just for two, I always make a big batch of ragu at the beginning of the week. The first night I usually serve it over pasta, but it reappears throughout the week in different guises: meat sauce gets tastier over the course of a few days, and it's delicious spooned over a baked sweet potato, roasted winter squash, soft polenta or even grits. If you're feeling really lazy, you can mound some sauce on two toasted English muffin halves, grate a little parmesan on top and broil the muffins until the cheese starts to bubble.

Weeknight Ragu

Makes about 6 cups

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground meat (beef, lamb, pork, turkey, sausage, etc. or a combination)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 fat clove garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 2/3 cup dry red wine
  • 2 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, with their juices
  • 1 handful fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaves, etc.)
  • Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)

1. In a large, heavy saucepan heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. When it just begins to smoke, add the meat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Add a big pinch of salt and some pepper and brown the meat well, stirring frequently. (Make sure to use a big enough saucepan, or the meat will boil instead of browning.)

2. When the meat is a good hazelnut brown, lower the heat to medium and add the onion and another pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so, until you start to smell it. Deglaze the pan with the wine, stirring and scraping up all of the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.

3. When the wine has reduced by half, add the tomatoes, crushing them with your fingers as you drop them into the pan. Add the herbs (leave the sprigs whole -- you can remove any stems and big leaves later) and the red pepper flakes if you're using them. Bring the sauce to a boil, lower the heat and partially cover the pan so that the sauce is simmering gently. Let the ragu simmer away happily while you do the laundry, clean the bathroom or watch an episode of The Wire (for half an hour at minimum, but ideally an hour or two). The sauce is finished when the meat has become nice and tender, and the tomatoes have broken down, but the more you cook it, the tastier it will get. (If the ragu starts to look dry at any point, just stir in some water.)

4. Remove any herb stems, taste the ragu and add more salt and pepper if necessary. If you like, you can stir in another splash of wine before serving to amp up the flavor. Spoon over pasta, vegetables, polenta, grits, risotto -- pretty much anything that will stand still.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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criindel December 8, 2009
am making this now. sneaked a couple of bites and wow!, it's so delicious. i just followed the recipe above minus the herbs and it still tastes just as good as something i'd get from max soha (the only good pasta place around here). thanks so much for the recipe!, it's definitely going to be used often.
M.Kurtzman December 6, 2009
When time permits,I love to go up to Arthur Ave.[Bronx,N.Y.]and get great hard to find cuts of meat for ragu....Veal tail and neck from Biancardi's are on the stove right now with soffrito,tomato sauce,herbs,white wine-the bones and cartilage in these cuts thicken the ragu nicely over a few days recooking.
Aliwaks December 4, 2009
Just started my ragu for tomorrow night. I followed directions to the simmer stage then popped it in the crock pot to cook overnight...cleaned out my freezer to make room for cookies in this ragu is: ground lamb, some chopped North Carolina style smoked pork (sans sauce) a few Italian sausages I picked up at the farm stand, the end of a prosciutto, and few baby back rib orphans I had in a bag in the back for some reason. Really excited to see how it comes out!!! Thanks for the inspiration!!
Merrill S. December 6, 2009
So funny -- I put mine in the oven to finish it last time to make stovetop space! It worked really well, actually. Hope it turned out deliciously -- you certainly chose great ingredients!
pierino December 3, 2009
Pierino has now added a duck ragù to his contributed recipes. Thought about it for polenta (it works) but we prefer it with pappardelle.
Merrill S. December 6, 2009
dymnyno December 3, 2009
I am sooo happy that I have a quart of lamb ragu that I made last week in my to decide whether to add a little milk and make it bolognese...
Merrill S. December 6, 2009
Why not? I think I'll do that with mine this week, thanks to your comments on this post!
F F. December 3, 2009
Love the idea of "weekly ragu". I just made a rabbit and sausage ragu over creamy polenta that was exceptional!
pierino December 4, 2009
Bring on Thumper! I love rabbit. Because it's so lean it's tricky to get right. But when you do it's delicious---and it does not taste like chicken. Although I do use similar herbs and spices when doing it; rosemary, sage, juniper etc.
Merrill S. December 6, 2009
Sounds fantastic! Such a good idea to combine rabbit (which can be dry because as pierino points out, it is so lean) with sausage. I bet the juniper is a great addition too.
F F. December 6, 2009
I like the juniper idea. I combined the sausage with fennel, which added a lovely freshness to everything. I'll try to recall the recipe and share it for everyone here!
dymnyno December 1, 2009
Is the addition of milk the main difference between ragu and bolognese ?
Merrill S. December 1, 2009
As far as I know, a bolognese typically has milk or cream in it, and a ragu does not. But I'm often somewhat lazy with my terminology and have been known to use the two terms interchangeably. If anyone else has more detailed info on this subject, please share!
pierino December 2, 2009
Bolognese is itself a ragù but one done in the style of Bologna. The milk is added to soften the acid in the tomatoes. It is also typically made with at least two kinds of meat, usually veal and pork. Sometimes you will even find mortadella ground into it. It's a much more delicate ragù than what passes for Bolognese in American restaurants.
pierino December 2, 2009
A little further clarification. The orginal Bolognese was simply called ragù and most likely derives from the French ragout owing to the overlap of the courts of France and northern Italy. Tomatoes didn't come until later---they weren't accepted as food until the mid-eighteenth century. Now the term is widespread throughout Italy and covers a multitude of sins. In Bologna they take this stuff very seriously and have strict rules for what constitutes ragù.
dymnyno December 3, 2009
Thanks for the answers! I love both ragu and bolognese. I find that when using more than one meat (bolognese) if I use lamb , it overpowers the flavors or the other meats.
pierino December 3, 2009
Lamb would never be used in Bologna. Way too strong for their refined palates. But Nancy Harmon Jenkins describes a ragù del pastore which in typical Pugliese style incorporates a generous amount of hot pepper. For me this offsets the gamieness of the lamb. Especially with some local sheeps milk cheese grated over. No milk though.
Merrill S. December 6, 2009
I think red wine also really helps to offset the gaminess of lamb in a ragu. Also, if you pour off most of the fat after you brown the lamb and add some olive oil instead before softening the onion, you cut down on a lot of that heaviness.

Thanks for the Bolognese recap, pierino. It takes me back to when I spent a semester in Italy in college and visited Bologna. You're right, theirs is an extremely refined version of what we think of as Bolognese -- and it's one of the many reasons that Bologna is considered by many to be the culinary capital of Italy.
shayma December 1, 2009
lovely. my roman friend's mum adds carrots to the base- she says it adds a certain sweetness to it. and she feels it should always be served with penne :)
Merrill S. December 1, 2009
AntoniaJames talks about her Italian host mother adding grated carrot to the base (see below). I think it sounds like a great idea for this sauce. When I learned to make a traditional bolognese in Italy, we started with finely chopped carrot.
sashygirl December 1, 2009
The merguez is a great call. Do tell -- have you ever made it with goat?
lastnightsdinner December 1, 2009
We can get goat at our farmers' market - I am totally going to have to try a goat ragu now.
Merrill S. December 1, 2009
I have made it with goat, yes. I find that a little pork (or something with a bit more fat than goat) mixed in is a good idea.
Kelsey B. December 1, 2009
This post really hits the spot - I love ragu in the winter and your version looks fantastic! I like to use fresh sausages from the farmers market, with the casings removed. I've also gone the pancetta route before and liked that too. Thanks goodness I have all those frozen herbs from last summer, now you've put me in the mood to make it this weekend!
Burp_blog December 1, 2009
Love a great ragu -- so simple, and yet the variations are endless.
AntoniaJames December 1, 2009
Mmmm, yum. I would never have thought to put thyme or sage in a ragu . . . . chopped fennel leaves are nice, too, if you have them. When I lived in Florence as a student, my Italian mother would always add a tablespoon or so of finely grated carrot to her sauce. You could not tell really, unless you looked very carefully, that the carrot had been added, but it took the edge off the acidity of the tomatoes. What a great recipe, Merrill. This is definitely in the queue for next week!
lastnightsdinner December 1, 2009
I make a chicken liver ragu with lots of fresh sage. I usually add reconstituted dried porcini mushrooms to that one, too, which gives it a nice depth.

I have also recently started roughly chopping my base vegetables (generally onion and carrot) and then blitzing them in the food processor before adding them to the sizzling oil. By the time the sauce is done they've almost disappeared into it.

It's not even noon and all I want is a big bowl of pasta and meaty ragu!
AntoniaJames December 1, 2009
Well it's not even nine AM as I write this, and your description, LastNightsDinner, of the veggies sizzling in oil and the porcini and freshly chopped herbs has my mouth watering, no, make that, has me drooling all over my desk! Great ideas. I'm inspired. As usual ;o)
Merrill S. December 1, 2009
You've ALL got me drooling! Thanks for the great recommendations.
mariaraynal December 1, 2009
I'm half Italian, and must admit I rarely get my ragu just right. It eludes me. I love this recipe for its simplicity and technique and it will be by my side the next time I attempt ragu.

Love the lamb, pancetta and duck ideas.
pierino December 1, 2009
Merrill I have my own recipe for an "Appenine" style duck ragu that I will be posting shortly. Maybe next week.
Merrill S. December 1, 2009
Sounds divine! I love duck ragu.
blissmamaof3 December 1, 2009
This is a great idea, can't wait to try it this weekend.
eatboutique December 1, 2009
I love to add a little bacon or pancetta into my ragu to compliment whatever additional protein I add. Lamb is my favorite, Jennifer.
Merrill S. December 1, 2009
I make lamb ragu probably the most often as well. Sometimes I throw in a bit of merguez for a bit of kick.
lastnightsdinner December 1, 2009
I made a big batch of lamb ragu on Sunday night and had it over soft polenta. Your version sounds wonderful!