I suppose it's true that every Italian has their version of ragu, a long-simmered meat sauce to be tossed with fresh pasta or layered in lasagna. And all of them (us) think their version is the best, the only one worth spending five hours in the kitchen for, the sauce to end all sauces. (Not all Italians actually make this sauce themselves; they wait until they're home for a visit and it gets made in their honor, further elevating ragu into the stratosphere of heaven-sent manna.) Some people have had their recipes passed down in the family, from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother and so on. But others, like me, got their recipe through other means, like abject begging.
You see, my mother and grandmother, well, they aren't/weren't big cooks. I don't have any recipes in my arsenal that came from my grandmother (unless you count a simple tomato sauce made with onions and carrots that is still the subject of ample controversy between my mother and father. My father insists that my grandmother taught him how to make it; my mother says he's crazy for thinking my grandmother could have ever taught anyone any recipe, ever.). And my mother is so uninterested in what happens in the kitchen that it's probably still a marvel to her that I have ostensibly made my career around the subject.
So when the time came for me to start making my own ragu (sometime in college, this was. Yes, I know, some people spend those years getting high and finding themselves; I started building my recipe arsenal.), I turned outside the family to our dear friend, Gabriella. Gabriella is from Bologna and is possibly, besides my Sicilian uncle, the best cook I know. (You should have yourself invited over to her place sometime when she's making an all-fish dinner. Or a Marchigianian meal. Or, frankly, even just stuffed tomatoes. Good lord.) One summer evening in Torre, I sat next to her and took notes as she carefully told me how to make her meat sauce. And then I went back to the States and proceeded to make it - over and over and over again - until I committed it to memory.
It's "my" sauce now and I love it. It reminds me of my family and Gabriella's and our summers together and my childhood. It makes Ben smile with his mouth full and my friends clamor for the recipe and generally, it's one of the things I know how to make that I'm proudest of.
But you know this post isn't about that sauce. This post is about someone else's sauce. I'll be honest, I'm not really in the market for a new meat sauce. I'm pretty happy with the one I've got. But then I went and read about Marco Canora (he of the addictive red cabbage) and his grandmother's sauce and the fact that it ends up the consistency of pudding (the mind boggles) and before I knew it, there was a little kernel of curiosity planted within me. Plus, I had explicit plans to do nothing but stay home and nest on Saturday. This would give me something to do.
And, boy, did it ever.
Getting the sauce to the point where you just let it simmer for three hours takes more than an hour. You slowly, carefully build layers of flavor - soffritto, minced garlic, diced pancetta, then beef. There's tomato paste and canned tomatoes, red wine and whole milk, even meat stock. It's quite impressive. The sauce gets thicker and richer with each stir. But what puzzled me was the complete lack of herbs: no parsley, no bay leaf. So I decided to add one bay leaf to the pot. After two hours, I felt guilty about it and took it out again. This was Marco's grandmother's sauce, after all, and I wasn't supposed to be messing with it.
The sauce does indeed become quite pudding-y. It practically quivers. It's very rich, and thick with meat. Someone remarked that it tasted like meat sauce made with pot roast and there is something to that. It's as if the sauce took apart the meat, altered the flavor molecules, and then stitched it back together again. It's darn good, I have to say, and makes an impressive amount, which is a relief because then at least you have some leftovers of your hard labor to put in the freezer.
But it almost doesn't matter than this sauce was as tasty as could be. I missed "my" sauce. I missed the minced parsley and the bay leaf. I didn't like the gaminess of the pancetta or the addition of minced garlic. Nothing against Marco or his grandmother, but I think these things end up being more than just a matter of taste, don't you think? They're about family and memory and love and tradition and other intangibles.
I know it's absolutely cruel to leave you hanging without a recipe for my meat sauce. I promise I'll write a post on it soon, maybe even combine it with a post about lasagna (in which I shall rail against the forces of evil who made millions of Americans think it's supposed to be made with part-skim ricotta or some such travesty). In the meantime, try Marco's sauce. And try Marcella's. Fiddle with them a bit until what you've got is your very own. Make that sauce so often that it becomes a tradition. Someone's favorite recipe. Something you pass on to your children or your children's children, or the daughter of a friend who always likes sitting near you when you cook, being watchful and quiet, absorbing every little thing you do.
You might realize, then, that food, in a way, immortalizes you.
Serves 6 with leftover sauce
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups finely chopped onions
¾ cup finely chopped celery
¾ cup finely chopped carrots
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef
1/3 pound pancetta, finely chopped
1 1/3 cups tomato paste
1 ½ cups whole milk
2 cups red wine
2 2/3 cups whole canned tomatoes, drained of juices and torn
2 cups meat stock
Pappardelle, cooked al dente
1. Combine the butter and olive oil in a large, heavy pot set over medium heat. When hot, add the onions, celery and carrots, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables start to brighten in color, about 20 minutes.
2. Add the garlic, and just before it starts to brown, add the beef and pancetta. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is thoroughly browned, about 25 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes. Add the milk and cook at a lively simmer until the milk is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until the pan is almost dry.
3. Stir in the tomatoes and the stock, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Skim the fat off the surface. Toss with al dente pappardelle and serve with grated Parmesan.