Tomato-based cooking, from pizza to marinara sauce to pasta al pomodoro, the tomato is the building block around which meals grow. It’s a popular piece of trivia to note the fact that the tomato is, technically, a fruit, not a vegetable. Still fewer people realize that those gorgeous, plump red tomatoes were once thought to be poisonous, the red color a warning, not an invitation. The Latin binomial nomenclature, Lycopersicon esculentum, translates as “wolf peach.” No one wanted to try eating these fine-looking wolf peaches since the Greek historian, Galen, writing in the 3rd century, wrote of this delectable-looking fruit that was laid out for wayward wolves, who would consume them and perish from the poison. Whatever Galen wrote about, it surely was not the tomatoes we have come to know and love—these plants are native to South and Central America, not Europe.
The word “tomato” that we use today is actually derived from an Aztec word, tomato, which first appeared in print in 1595. A yellow variant of the fruits were imported by Cortez, who found them growing in the gardens of Montezuma. Cortez brought them back to Europe for their scientific interest, not with the intention that they should be eaten. In Spain and Italy these yellow tomatoes were called pomi d’oro, or golden apples, while in France they were called pommes d’amour, love apples, thought to have aphrodisiacal properties. They were first cultivated as a farmed consumable in southern Italy, and there they entered the vernacular cuisine, used in just about any way you can imagine.
Of the myriad uses, my favorite is a classic southern Italian ragu, a feature of the Amalfi Coast region of Italy. Ragu is the general term for a sauce cooked with meat (though for Americans it brings to mind the bottled sauce company). The key to a good ragu is braising a variety of meats, low and slow, in the crushed tomatoes—never using a premade sauce. It’s surprisingly easy to make a not-so-great ragu. I learned the hard way what not to do. Don’t boil the tomatoes, but simmer them at a low temperature. Don’t add the tomatoes too early—let the other ingredients meld first. Don’t use a premade sauce (it’s awfully tempting, and doesn’t taste bad, but it’s at a different level from the authentic, homemade nectar we’ll be preparing. Don’t use only ground beef (hamburger). You want multiple cuts of meat, for diverse flavors, and you want whole cuts, not ground. Ground meat is the base for Bolognese, the meat sauce from Bologna—this is also excellent, but is a different creature entirely, and is not tomato-based!
My best ragu, after many attempts, combines cuts of meat from cows and pigs. The mix doesn’t particularly matter, but keep in mind that tougher cuts usually have more flavor, as well as cuts adjacent to bones, and since you’re braising this meat for many hours, it will become fall-apart soft anyway. This means you’re welcome to buy inexpensive meat. I like to include some type of sausage, a cut of beef on the bone, and pork or lamb to add complexity to the flavors. Begin by dicing onions, carrots, and garlic and sautéing them in olive oil. Add the meats and brown them on all sides on a high heat in a deep pan (to minimize spraying oil). Add bay leaves, salt, pepper, optional chili flakes, and red wine (any will do, you needn’t use anything fancy) until the meat is submerged, and braise on the stovetop, covered, for about two hours, or until the meat begins to soften. Add in either passata (pureed tomatoes), crushed whole tomatoes, or chopped fresh tomatoes that have been largely drained of water—any of these will work, or a combination, if you enjoy a more textured sauce. Continue to braise for a further 2-4 hours, until the meat falls apart when brushed with the edge of a fork. The longer you braise at a low temperature, the more the flavors meld and expand. Just be sure that the sauce remains saucy, not drying out or reducing to the point that it burns.
Now here’s the fun part. You get two meals for the effort of one. The sauce itself, without pieces of meat but richly flavored by them, goes over your pasta, along with fresh, torn pieces of basil, resulting in a first course, a primo piatto. The chunks of mixed meats can be separated and eaten as a second course, a secondo piatto, with crusty bread for chasing the sauce around the plate (or as they call it in Italy, fare la scarpetta, “to make a little shoe”). If a two-course meal is more than you need, then set aside the meat for the next day—braised meats are often even better the second day, when the flavors have settled and reheating brings them back to life. If you really want to transform yourself into an Amalfitana grandmother, make the pasta from scratch—we’ll save that lesson for another installment.