Marco’s mom makes a killer ragu. It’s a recipe that has been in her family for literally no one knows how long. His grandmother made the recipe that was her grandmothers and so on and so forth for as many generations as anyone can count. To me, it’s perfect. Rich, savory, naturally perfectly sweet and oh so good on everything from polenta to tagliatelle.
Before we begin let me just say as a disclaimer that pretty much every nonna in Italy has their own variation of ragu. That doesn’t make one better or worse than another, it’s just a matter of preference. I prefer this one, you might prefer another, and that’s OK! But, in my humble opinion, this is a solid basic that will not let you down. This recipe makes about 6-8 portions and it’s delicious frozen and reheated too.
500 grams (about 1lb) of ground beef (some people use ground beef and ground pork half and half – up to you)
1 – 800 gram (about one 28oz) can of whole peeled roma tomatoes (yes whole, yes Roma!)
150g of soffritto (soffritto is easy, it’s just an equal parts finely chopped mix of: celery, white onion, carrot (left uncooked)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Before you begin, make sure you have a pan that’s deep enough that all ingredients remain in the same pot. You don’t want to switch pots mid-cooking because lots of the flavors will be in the bottom of the pot and come up during the boiling down of the sauce.
To begin, add oil liberally to the bottom of the pan. I would say about 2-3 tablespoons to get started. Heat it up on medium heat and then add the soffritto and beef together. I cooked mine on a level 6 on my induction stovetop, so a medium/medium-high heat. Stir the mix to coat it in oil and then let it sit for a few seconds between stirrings. The idea is to brown the beef. You can cook it at a higher temperature and less time to brown it up, or slower cooking, lower temperature and stirring less. The important thing is that the meat becomes not just cooked or boiled in its juices but actually browned – so think crispy bits.
Note: Marco grandma used to do this step until ALL the beef was browned and crispy, but Marco’s mom does it until it’s about half browned. The reason is because now they say browned meat is bad for you, but its up to you what you prefer.
Once the beef is browned to your liking, add the can of whole tomatoes in their juice. Press them with a fork to break them up a bit and stir them in. Then add one, to one and a half, cans of water.
Stir well, breaking up the tomatoes. Bring to a strong boil, then immediately turn down to a low boil and let simmer. Stir it fairly frequently at the beginning to keep it from sticking and be sure to scratch up the yummy meat and soffritto that was browned to the bottom of the pan. Then let it simmer slowly for 2-2.5 hours (always uncovered). The sauce will reduce and naturally sweeten in this time. Around the 2 hour mark, when the sauce is substantially reduced, add salt to taste, stir and let it cook a bit longer.
This is one of those recipes that you just have to get to know intimately. My mother-in-law measures absolutely nothing – it’s all based on instinct so feel free to do the same. How do you know when It’s done? When the consistency is what you prefer. Italians like their ragu thick, so it doesn’t slide off the spaghetti thick. But, that’s up to you. We reduce ours to about 1/3 of the total sauce there was, when we added the water and tomatoes.
Serve hot on a steaming plate of polenta, on your favorite pasta, hell it’s even good on sliced toasted bread. Add a liberal sprinkling of parmigiano on top and you’ve got a dinner almost as good as a trip to Italy! Buon appetito!