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Archive for October 15th, 2009

The most well known Ragu takes its name from the Italian town of Bologna.  This rich sauce can be served on a bed of cooked pasta: spaghetti, tagliatelle or one of the many shapes.  It can also be cooked as part of the layered pasta dish Lasagne al Forno (literally lasagne cooked in the oven) or spooned as a filling into canelloni: tube shaped pasta.  Pasta is available dried or fresh in the supermarket, but if possible use home made.  Delicious!

This version is my own which has developed over the years as I have discovered ‘improvements’ in recipe books, from dining out and from TV cooks.  I use minced beef (some people prefer diced beef).  Once, having eaten a delicious version in a restaurant who included diced bacon, this has become a regular addition.  I cannot remember where I first heard about starting the recipe by frying the onion, carrot and celery mixture together, but it adds a wonderful flavour.  The Italian word for this ‘trinity’ of vegetables, when it is fried in a small amount of oil, is soffritto: in French the same mixture is called mirepoix.  Heston Blumenthal, the experimental chef, used soffritto when he made Ragu, but added a crushed star anise, more commonly used in Oriental cuisine, as it is a flavour enhancer.  I was not sure about all the additions he made to the dish – there seemed rather too many complex flavours – but the star anise sounded worth trying, though I have yet to sample it. Food writer Sue Kreitzman, always wanting to make dishes a bit healthier by reducing the red meat content per head, suggests the addition of finely diced aubergine, which cooks down to become invisible.  This is a good tip if you are trying to make your meat go a bit further too. The addition of red wine gives an extra special richness to the ragu, but you can leave it out, especially if you are feeding those who do not want the alcohol – even though, of course, the alcohol content will be long gone just leaving the richness of flavour. I always add wine if I have some to hand. Part bottles of wine that have been left over after a dinner can be frozen in plastic containers: it is perfect for adding to recipes, as long as the food will be cooked. The alcohol content means that the wine will not solidify completely and the frozen mush can be conveniently spooned out and used as and when required.

Ragu Bolognaise
(Serves 6)

1 large carrot, finely diced
1 large onion, finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
125g/4ozs diced bacon, smoked or unsmoked
1 small crushed star anise (optional and untried!)
125g/4ozs button mushrooms, quartered (or larger ones, sliced)
1 medium Aubergine, diced (optional)
15ml/1tbsp Italian herbs
500g/1lb minced beef steak
30ml/2tbsp tomato purée
1 x 400g tin tomatoes, chopped
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 small wineglass of red wine (about 125ml/¼pt)
15ml/1tbsp olive oil

1.  If using Aubergine it is usual to sprinkle it with salt, place it in a colander, cover it with a plate and place a weight on top of it for at least 30minutes, to let the juices can run out.  You can cut out this step if you are short of time: I have never noticed much difference in taste.

2.  Cook the finely chopped carrot, onion and celery mixture in olive oil until it is softened.  Add the crushed garlic, the bacon with the crushed star anise (if using) and continue to cook for a further 5 minutes. Drain and rinse the aubergine (if using) and stir in with the chopped mushrooms and herbs. Cover the pan and continue to cook for a further 5 minutes.

3.  Stir in the minced beef  and cook slowing, turning from time to time, until it is brown.  Mix in the tomato purée.  Chop and stir in the tin of tomatoes.  Cut the peppers into small dice and stir into the mixture.  Stir in the red wine.  Cover the pan and simmer the mixture for at least 30 minutes longer, but more if possible especially if it is being served as a sauce rather than being made into a dish that will be given extra cooking time when baked in the oven.  It is quite common to cook the meat mixture for several hours during which time it the flavours develop as the sauce reduces.  I think that 1hour cooking time is the minimum required for a good and tasty sauce.

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