I suspect that, in culinary terms, the distinction I am about to make is totally incorrect – but, a ‘ragù’ sauce is not the same as a Bolognese sauce (or at least it shouldn’t be!). A ragù differs in one very important way. (I know, I know – so strictly speaking (and as just confirmed by a quick check of my Larousse), they are exactly the same thing, but bear with me for a second). The Bolognese we all know, love, (and loathe to find on every kiddie menu on the planet), is made by slow cooking mince beef in a tomato sauce, and, outside Italy at least, is usually served over spaghetti. Doesn’t the meatiness, the richness, the sheer ‘Italian-ness’ of the word ‘ragù’ itself though, suggest something just a bit superior, something that feels more ‘authentic,’ or at least something a little more ... luxe?
Thinking about it, it may be partially down to how the word ‘rag’ within ‘ragù’ suggests something torn, or, more precisely, something shredded... the melting deliciousness of large chunks of meat that have been cooked for hours, heat raising only the occasional blip, in a rich, dark sauce, until a quick stir with a fork is all it takes for these to break apart and beautifully thicken up the sauce. The chewy texture of mince can’t hold a candle to it!
While we are talking about words, tagliatelle, (from the Italian ‘tagliare’ – to cut), is the natural accompaniment to a sauce of softly shredded meat. It’s all about getting that sauce to stick, and slick round spaghetti is not going to do the trick. In the same vein, I think fresh pasta is best for this dish. Sometimes, you want an al dente bite, on other occasions something a little more yielding and friendly is just the thing. And don’t forget the Parmesan! Lovely thin curls of it shaved all over the top…
- 50g butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 600g good quality braising steak, cut into large, 3cm chunks
- 1 brown onion – finely chopped
- 2 sticks of celery – very finely chopped
- 1 large carrot – finely chopped
- 1 large clove of garlic - crushed
- 150 mls white wine
- 2 bay leaves
- 200 mls passata
- 200g crushed canned tomatoes
- 200 mls chicken stock - warmed
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 nutmeg
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 100 mls single cream
- Fresh tagliatelle for four
- And a big chunk of Parmesan – the best you can lay hands on – after having spent an entire afternoon cooking this down, you are not going to want to cover it in bad cheese!
This sauce is going to need sit on the cook-top for hours, so an earthenware or heavy cast iron pot will come in handy to diffuse the heat and prevent the sauce from burning.
Heat the olive oil and butter together over high until hot. Season the meat with salt and pepper, then add it to the pan, a few cubes at a time, browning these on all sides, and being careful not to over-crowd the pan. A minute or less on each side is all it should take to achieve a good sear and completely seal the beef.
When all the steak has been browned, set this aside in a warm place to rest.
Add a touch more olive oil to the pan if necessary, turn the heat down to medium, and gently fry the onions, adding the celery and carrot after 3 minutes. Cook together for 10 minutes of so until soft. Turn the heat up a little, and add the chopped garlic, moving this around rapidly so it doesn’t stick.
When the pan has heated up a little more, throw in the wine, de-glazing any bits that have stuck to the bottom. Turn the heat down to medium, add the bay leaves, and cook for two minutes or so longer. Re-introduce the meat, stirring this around briefly, before adding add the passata, crushed tomatoes, warmed chicken stock, and brown sugar. Grate in the nutmeg, add salt and pepper as necessary, and let the mixture come to a boil.
Now, turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting, once the sauce settles down, it should barely just bubble on the low heat. Cover, and cook for 2½ to 3 hours, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. If things are looking a little dry at any point, top up with water.
You’ll know the ragù is almost ready when gentle pressure applied with the back of a fork separates the meat into soft shreds. Give the pot a stir and these should distribute themselves deliciously through the sauce. Add the cream, and continue to cook for another 15-20 minutes or so. Do a final seasoning check, and add as needed. Now is a good time to fish out those bay leaves too.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook the fresh pasta for 3 minutes, before draining well and returning to the pot. Loosen and separate the tagliatelle with a touch of little olive oil if sticky, then pour ¾ of the ragù over the freshly cooked pasta, mixing it through in the pot. Divide across four plates, distributing the remaining ragù on top, and shaving on a generous amount of Parmesan.
I hope that, after tasting this, you'll come to agree that ragù really does deserve to be distinguished from Bolognese after all!