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Whenever the term ragu appears on menus throughout the world, confusion reigns supreme, starting from its name: should it be spelt ragoût or ragu? Both forms are correct, so long as no acute accent is added, because they refer to two different dishes: in fact, the Italian term ragu derives from the French word ragoûter, in its meaning of "restoring the appetite".
Ragu sauce, famous for pasta and other dishes, is generally made from minced meat. If, on the other hand, we wish to slow cook any meat or fish-based dish in liquid for many hours, we can call it ragoût. Oddly enough, in his bible, Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery, Auguste Escoffier, who is considered to be the greatest chef of all times, provides only one recipe in this category, compared with 97 different types of sauces: mutton ragoût with rice. Italian cuisine offers a great number of variations on this theme, but the term ragu covers two main categories: one made from minced meat and another prepared with a single cut of meat. What they both have in common is the cooking method which must always be done very slowly on a low heat.
The ragu Bolognese recipe
Bolognese ragu sauce recipe would merit an important chapter apart: it is the most imitated sauce of all, and consequently the most misrepresented. Exacting gourmets claim that nothing but minced meat taken from the animal’s diaphragm should be used. After gently frying the ingredients and dutifully sprinkling with wine that is left to evaporate, the Emilia regional recipe calls for the addition of milk which makes the final result very creamy. Massimo Bottura, who is often questioned on the subject, claims that the piece of meat should be cooked whole, with just a few herbs, no garlic and, would you believe it, no tomatoes, which he believes to be an ingredient that is too “modern” for inclusion in such a traditional recipe. For this three Michelin-starred chef from Modena, egg pasta is ideal for a perfectly creamy result topped by an essential sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
In the region of Liguria it goes under the name of “u tuccu” and requires a whole piece of meat and the inevitable dried mushrooms. In central Italy, ragu sauces made from game, lamb and wild boar are very common. In the South, the making of a ragu sauce will start from a whole piece of meat or slices of meat that are stuffed and rolled before being cooked in sauce. The “Genovese“ is a Neapolitan version of ragu sauce, ideal for those with a strong stomach: it actually calls for onions in the same quantity as the meat being used. It owes its name to the fact that, under Aragon rule (XV century), many taverns in the port of Naples were run by Genoese cooks.
How to make the best ragu sauce
No matter how it is prepared and enjoyed, the primary ingredient of ragu sauce continues to be one alone: time. Hence the reason why Neapolitans will tell you that the best ragu is that of the concierge who is able to coddle it all day long. The purists of long cooking times, at least 4/5 hours, say our sense of smell should warn against the risk of burning on the bottom of the pan. If this is true of home cooking, new contemporary cuisine tends to reduce cooking times as much as possible and to adopt the term ragout also for vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Here are some hints to warn you against what could turn out to be a very poor ragu sauce:
- Watery liquid on the bottom of the plate and an excessively “red” tomato sauce.
- Beware of a dark brown ragu: it will certainly taste bitter from burning.
- It is mandatory to finish cooking the pasta in the frying pan together with its sauce.
- Egg tagliatelle with the right degree of roughness are perfect.