Ragu, the long-simmered meat sauce Italian mothers and grandmothers traditionally serve for Sunday supper, is often called “gravy” by Italian Americans. It’s a simple dish, but minor variations can provoke passionate arguments.
Cooks in every region of Italy make their own type of ragu. Bolognese style is made with ground meats, meat broth, tomatoes or tomato paste and a finishing touch of heavy cream or milk. Roman cooks sometimes add chicken giblets, while in parts of northern Italy’s Veneto region they make ragu with duck. In many places, dried porcini mushrooms add a woodsy flavor.
No matter the region, the individual ingredients are melded into a rich, intense whole. It’s important to keep the sauce at a gentle simmer, never a boil, which would toughen the meat. Low, slow cooking also allows the meat to absorb the flavorful juices of the other ingredients.
Once you’ve made your ragu, all that’s left is to combine it with pasta and top it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Classical partners include tagliatelle, fettuccine or layers of lasagna noodles, but short pastas like rigatoni and fusilli also do a good job of holding the sauce.
Ragu is only better the second time, so make a big batch. Leftovers keep well in the refrigerator for a few days and can be frozen for a couple of months without loss of quality.
The new cookbook “Gourmet Today” uses this sauce with lasagna, but it’s great with rigatoni, too.
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1/4 pound sliced pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon), slices cut into quarters
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork (not lean)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken or beef broth, homemade or low-sodium canned
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 pound dried pasta, such as rigatoni, fusilli or orecchiette
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Heat oil and butter in a heavy, wide 6- to 8-quart pot over moderate heat until butter is melted. Sauté carrot, onion, celery and garlic, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, pulse pancetta in a food processor until finely chopped.
When vegetables are tender, increase heat to high and stir in veal, pork and pancetta. Cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up lumps, until meat is starting to brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste, milk and wine, bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until almost all liquid has evaporated but ragu is still moist, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add the broth as necessary, 1/4 cup at a time to prevent the sauce from becoming dry. Remove from heat and stir in cream, if desired, and salt and pepper.
When the sauce is almost done, cook and drain pasta according to package directions. Immediately toss with sauce. Serve with cheese. Yield: 8 servings.
Nutrition information: per serving: 679 calories (49 percent from fat), 37 grams fat (14 grams saturated, 17 grams monounsaturated), 130 milligrams cholesterol, 32 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 2.55 grams fiber, 697 milligrams sodium.