y time in Naples has led me to believe that the greatest test of a woman’s kitchen prowess is how she makes her ragù, the slow-cooked tomato-and-meat sauce generally prepared on Sunday.
For a long time I didn’t tackle ragù. I assumed my version wouldn’t impress my Italian friends, who were (naturally) partial to their mother or wife’s version. It didn’t help that my Italian acquaintances had once chided me for adding fennel seeds to my spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), making me wary of experimenting with Italian recipes.
It took a Neapolitan friend sharing her ragù recipe to boost my confidence. I could now assure myself my efforts refrained from blasphemous alterations.
To start with, I bought more pork at once than I had cumulatively in my life. The recipe required four to five Italian pork sausages and four to five tracchia di maiale, or pork ribs. I’ve never cooked a rib in the United States, but Italian ribs are immense. Store variety ribs are often six inches thick and at least a foot long. I had no idea so much meat and fat could sit on so small a bone. I stared at the pile of pork in awe.
But I followed the recipe dutifully and loved the result. The sauce was great in lasagna or pasta. I also liked that you could pull out the cooked sausage and ribs and serve them as a separate meat course. I suddenly understood how Italian women could make enough pasta for 10 and then produce vast amounts of meat in a flash, while still finding time to entertain their guests. Ragù was two courses at once — genius.
It was so good, in fact, that I found myself wanting to make it every Sunday, just as Italians do. The recipe contained enough sauce that I could save some and use it whenever I wanted to for a quick pasta dinner.
But the pork bothered me. The fat content became clear when I refrigerated it and returned to find the meat covered by a congealed, centimeter-thick layer. Since I’d be eating this sauce (with pieces of leftover meat) over the course of the week, I decided to cut down on the grease.
I found a Neapolitan cookbook with an alternate recipe that recommended a leaner cut of veal or beef (along with a few pieces of pork). It also called for 50 grams of lardo, cured pork fat, to help offset using the leaner cuts of meat.
I diligently bought the ingredients, but once home I found I just couldn’t add the lardo. Italian cured pork fat may be delicious in sandwiches, but I still unconsciously associate it with the vats of rendered lard used in old-fashioned American cooking.
I also found myself more comfortable mixing in just one giant Italian pork rib and one or two sausages, as opposed to four to five of each. These more limited ingredients, when I see them all before me, seem far more wholesome for weeklong consumption. I now substitute additional beef in place of much of the pork.
My primarily beef- or veal-based ragù has proved a winner and a standby. The consensus among Italians seems be that ragù can include your meat of choice, so long as you cook it for a good five hours (which is why Sunday is the preferred day). Though between three and four hours seems to suffice in my version, I tell my Italian friends I cook it for five to avoid chiding.
In coming up with my own ragù recipe I feel I have passed some sort Neapolitan rite of passage. Now, when people begin talking about cooking this classic dish, I can say, “Well, this is how I make it,” and stick to my guns.
Melissa’s Neapolitan ragù (Serves up to 6 — or fewer if you want lots of leftover ragù)
- 500 grams (1 pound) muscolo di vitello or beef tenderloin.
- 1 to 2 Italian sausages (about 200 to 300 grams, or 1/2 pound to 2/3 pound).
- 1 tracchia di maiale or Italian-style pork rib (about 200 to 300 grams, or 1/2 pound to 2/3 pound).
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped.
- 4 to 5 liters (135 ounces) of passata di pomodoro, or canned tomatoes passed through a mill.*
- 1 1/2 cups red wine.
- 1 sprigs of basil, washed and leaves detached.
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil.
- Up to 1 pound maccheroni, or short, tubular pasta such as rigatoni.**
* Passata di pomodoro is available in 700ML or 1L bottles in any Italian supermarket but is harder to find in American stores. If passata is not available, you can buy canned whole tomatoes and pass them through a food mill or food processor to puree them. Five large 32-ounce cans of whole-peeled tomatoes should make about five liters that you can use in place of the passata. (I sometimes prefer to use half whole, peeled tomatoes and half passata.)
Note: You may need to use only four liters of passata if you don’t have a big enough pot to hold five liters along with all the meat required to make the sauce.
** Plan for about 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of pasta per person. If you plan to serve only three people and want leftover ragù, cook only 300 grams (10.5 ounces) of pasta. If you want to serve five to six people, cook the full pound of pasta.
— In a large stockpot, sauté the onions in the olive oil. While they are cooking, finely chop the basil. When the onions have turned blond, add the cuts of meat and cook them until they are browned on all sides. Then, add the wine and cook until the liquid has mostly evaporated. At this point, add the tomato passata (or pureed whole tomatoes) and the basil. Cover and cook for at least three hours until very thick. When the sauce is ready, remove the pieces of meat and set aside. You can serve these either with the pasta or as a second course afterward.
— In a large pot, boil water for the pasta along with lots of salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, then strain. Toss the cooked pasta with the ragù and serve, either with pieces of meat or without. (Instead of serving the meat with the pasta, you can serve the meat a second course to follow the pasta if you wish.)
The meat and sauce tastes even better when reheated after a day in the fridge, so having leftovers is ideal. For this reason, you can make the sauce and meat a day in advance, then store them in the fridge to reheat and serve with freshly cooked pasta the next day.