What's a <i>ragù</i>? The easy answer is "Italian comfort food."
Most English speakers, pitifully, probably know this Italian dish primarily because of the adoption of its name by multinational Unilever Corp. for prepared spaghetti sauces sold in jars. Unilever, idiosyncratically flipping the accent over the "u" from grave to acute, declares its Ragú brand "America's favorite pasta sauce," which may help us understand Mencken's famous remark about nobody ever going broke by underestimating the taste of the American public.
Italian <i>ragù</i> bears more of a phonetic and etymological resemblance than culinary kinship to the French "<i>ragoût</i>." The words are pronounced similarly - "rah-goo," in English - and both come down to us from Latin roots meaning "restore the appetite." French <i>ragoût</i> is a stew-like dish, though, while Italian ragù is a thick, hearty and comforting meat sauce for pasta.
Which came first, the <i>ragoût</i> or the <i>ragù</i>? I'm betting on the Italians, although in fairness, <i>ragoût</i> was adopted into English as early as the 1650s, while <i>ragù</i>, outside Italian immigrant communities, anyway, had to wait for Unilever's attention in the 1930s.
Marcella Hazan's <I>Ragù Bolognese</I>" (<I>ragù</i> in the style of Bologna) is a long-time favorite, limited in its usefulness only in that it takes four or five hours to make it in the traditional way; I offered a not too badly compromised one-hour version in the Oct. 17, 2002 <i>FoodLetter</i>
Thanks to Hazan's influence, I've always assumed that ragù is strictly a dish of Emilia-Romagna, so I was a little surprised - and inordinately pleased - to find it hugely popular in Tuscany as well. I ran into it at least three times, in variations featuring duck, beef and wild hare, all essentially similar: Meat long-simmered with a <i>soffrito</i> or <i>battuto</i> of finely chopped vegetables and a scant but perceptible touch of tomato until the sauce is thick, dark and intense, served over long, wide pasta shapes such as fettuccine, pappardelle and the Tuscan <i>pici</i>, a hand-rolled fresh pasta about the size of bucatini.
My Tuscan friends were quick to assure me that this <i>ragù</i> was in no way Bolognese but Tuscan. Whatever the geographical adjective, though, it was good, and I came home intent on re-creating the recipe as soon as I could. Based on notes from my Siena dining diaries, hints from the chefs over there, and a quick peek at a basic rendition in the English edition of the Italian Silver Spoon cookbook
, I came up with this easily adaptible version the other night. It tasted a lot like Tuscany to me.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
12-16 ounces (1/3 to 1/2 kilo) beef, duck, game, etc.
1 medium carrot
1 stalk celery
1/2 small sweet onion
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil (or 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon chopped pancetta)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup (240ml) beef broth or chicken broth
2 tablespoons (30g) tomato paste
1. Cut the meat into small dice and set aside.
2. Peel the carrot and trim the celery; peel the onion and the garlic. Chop all the vegetables very fine (you may want to process them in a food processor with the steel blade) and put them all in a bowl. You should end up with about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of chopped veggies.
3. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a good-size saute pan. (If you're using the oil and pancetta option, cook the pancetta in the oil until it starts to brown.) Then put in the vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 or 20 minutes or until the veggies are thoroughly wilted and starting to caramelize and turn brown. If they show signs of sticking, you can put in a little water or broth, although if you didn't skimp on oil and stir frequently, this shouldn't be a problem.
4. If you're using raw meat, stir it in at this point and cook until it loses its raw color. (I made a ragù recently with leftover cooked steak and held it until the last minute, however, just cooking it long enough to warm through so it wouldn't lose its rare tenderness and color.)
5. Add the wine, stirring to deglaze the pan and incorporate any browned bits; then add the broth, using beef broth if you've chosen a meat that calls for a darker, richer color and flavor, chicken broth if a lighter liquid seems appropriate. As soon as it comes back to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and stir in the tomato paste. Add a little salt and pepper to taste; you may not need much if your broth was salted.
6. Cook over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes until the liquid reduces and thickens somewhat. If it dries up too much, add a little water or broth, but remember that at the end you want a fairly thick, meaty pasta sauce.
7. Check seasoning, and if you're using cooked meat, add it toward the end of the process, cooking only long enough to warm through. Serve over long pasta - wider shapes like fettuccine or pappardelle work well - and pass grated Pecorino Romano cheese for topping.
I wanted a Tuscan red to go with this dish that I learned in Siena, but alas, the Toscana "mini-Super Tuscan" that I chose was corked, so I quickly grabbed an earthy, tannic 2004 Dolcetto d'Alba instead, and it worked fine. I can hardly imagine having anything but a dry Italian red with this hearty Italian pasta dish, although I can't say a Southern French or Spanish Grenache, Syrah or Mourvedre or a blend wouldn't work.