The words “Bolognese sauce” remind me of pre-seasoned tomato purée in glass jars, with labels that flaunt the name of the finished product, to lure those who wish making it took as little as popping a lid. Of lazy cooks who stir-fry beef for ten minutes, shower it in sauce, and think they nailed it. When I read “spag-bol”, I picture a shortcut meal no less saddening than cup-soups and 5-minute microwaveable mac’n’cheese; those who spell “Bolognaise” annoy me even more, nearly as much as those who misuse they’re, their and there. Still, I know no other English words that do the job I need. Perhaps you do, and care to share?
Your Bolognese sauce is called “ragù” to me. Don’t let that accent put you off: it’s just a prompt to say ra-gooh. Easier than pronouncing “prosciutto” or “macchiato”, if you think about it. Don’t confuse it with French ragout, either; that’s a different concept, a slow-cooked main you can make with meat, fish or vegetables. Ragù with the accented “ù” is the mother of all pasta toppings, and a labour of love. A love that demands nothing but patience: let your pot simmer for as long as it takes, just as you’d let a loved one sleep in on a Sunday morning, knowing they’ll get cranky if you wake them one minute too early.
Simple as the recipe is, no two cooks make it in the same way. Every Italian is bound to enjoy different versions of ragù, yet have one unbeatable favourite; mine is my mother’s.
Mum used to work as a teacher, so when I was a teenager, we got home from school at about the same time every day. In Italy, classes last until 1pm, Monday through to Saturday; we’d usually have a late lunch around 2.30, and there was no convincing her to make anything from scratch. Her trick was to cook large batches of ragù on weekends, freeze a few portions, and use them to whip up a quick pasta on weekdays. It was the brightest spot in her range of go-to recipes: while I grew tired of most of those (“ready” meals that took ages to reheat, overcooked and underseasoned chicken steaks, toasties that always got cold too soon), her ragù has a special place in my heart. When Mum asks what I’d like to eat while I’m home for a holiday, my first answer is always “pasta al ragù”. I’ve refused to eat it anywhere else or make my own for years: I’d find it easier to live without it, than to settle for a lacklustre imitation.
You see, no other recipe I know comes close to that balance of flavours I love. I never warmed up to my uncle’s version with herbs, even though the rest of the family raves about it. Feeling particularly bold, I even confessed to my grandmother that I prefer Mum’s ragù to hers, although I couldn’t quite explain why. I thought it was because Mum used a pressure cooker, instead of a normal pot. I wondered if I’d discovered a dish that tasted better when served from frozen (a life hack my housebound nonna never needed). Then I realised the culprit was celery: an essential of classic ragù to most, an unpalatable intruder to me. Nonna won’t admit defeat: how can ragù without celery even exist? How can her daughter’s taste better than hers? How can any pupil’s work surpass the master’s? If her argument was right, Darth Vader would never have obliterated Obi-Wan. Then again, my grandma’s never seen Star Wars.
So, here’s the thing: any Italian will tell you they have a family member who makes the best beef ragù on earth, and you shouldn’t believe them, because my mum makes the best beef ragù on earth. I’ve been trying my hand at it for a few months, and feel I can finally give her a run for her money: the only thing my ragù is missing (and will be missing for a while) is a proud daughter bragging about it to everyone she knows. It should follow that, if you try this recipe, you’ll also be able to master the best homemade beef ragù. Well, I guess that’s up for debate – you might like celery, after all.
The best homemade beef ragù on earth
(makes 5 portions)
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 2tbsp olive oil
- 500g minced beef
- 500g tomato passata
- Salt and pepper, to season
- Water (if needed)
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan. If you have a pressure cooker (as my mum does), you can use that too.
- Add the onion and carrot, and cook on a medium-high heat for around 10 minutes, or until the onion has softened.
- Turn the heat to medium-low. Add the meat, and stir with a wooden spoon for 2 – 3 minutes, breaking it into smaller chunks.
- Pour in the tomato passata, season with salt and pepper and mix well.
- Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, then leave to cook until you’re ready to serve.
Cook’s tip: A little patience goes a long way to make a ragù you’ll remember. The result you’re looking for is the perfect medium between “meat swimming in tomato sauce” and “taco filling”; in my experience, it takes at least 1.5 hours to get there. You can wait even longer if you’d like – my grandmother never settles for less than 2 hours. However, if you’re using a pressure cooker, you might need as little as 45 – 60 minutes (source: Mum, with a soundtrack of nonna tutting loudly).
- Check the pot after the first 30 – 45 minutes, and every 10 – 15 minutes afterwards.
Cook’s tip: If the mixture looks dry, add a glug of water or more passata, and stir to combine before putting the lid back on.
- Taste right before serving, and adjust the seasoning if needed.
- Put any leftovers in an airtight container, and freeze for up to 3 months. I usually store individual portions in separate boxes, so I can defrost them as and when I need, depending on how many people I’m feeding.
Cook’s tip: Take your ragù out of the freezer in the morning: by the time you need it, it will have thawed a bit, so you can re-heat it in a pan while your pasta is cooking. You can defrost it in the microwave at the last minute if you’re in a rush; I’m not a fan, as I find it gets too watery.
Ragù is a glorious seasoning for any type of pasta. I have a soft spot for tagliatelle; you can buy them in store, or make them from scratch while the sauce is simmering away. The best way to enjoy potato gnocchi is with a generous helping of ragù on top, and if you don’t mind spending more time tending to pots and pans (and washing them up afterwards), beef lasagne or cannelloni are also worth making. Those dreary jars of supermarket “Bolognese” have nothing on this stuff.
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