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.
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.
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.