How to make ragu

Throughout Italy, there are many variations of ragu; it is the one from Bologna that is praised as a national dish.|

A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a dust-up in Italy when a chef put pineapple on a pizza.

The horror!

I’m with the Italians on this. I do not want fruit on my pizza and, yes, I am aware that the tomato is a fruit.

Italians take their traditional foods seriously, but with a light touch, or, perhaps, a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

A new official recipe for ragu alla Bolognese, considered the national dish of Italy, was released last year, with both approved additions, as well as variations that are strictly forbidden.

The new recipe omits the heavy cream that was part of the official recipe in 1982, the last time the recipe was revised, and represents changes in how we eat: cream was in vogue at the time, we are told, and now it isn’t.

Although beef is the most common meat used, it is okay, officially, to use 60% beef and 40% pork.

Ragu should never be made with all pork or with pork and veal, nor should smoked pancetta, bacon, herbs, brandy, or flour ever be used, though chicken livers, pork sausage, porcini mushrooms, and blanched peas are acceptable additions. Wine can be red or white.

Both ragu and Bolognese — which indicates a dish is from Bologna, a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy — are misunderstood, especially in the U.S., where “ragu” is a brand of tomato sauces.

A true ragu is a meat-based sauce, not a tomato-based sauce with meat added. Throughout Italy, there are many variations of ragu; it is the one from Bologna that is praised as a national dish.

The history of ragu alla Bolognese goes back to 1891, when Pellegrino Artusi, acknowledged as the father of Italian cuisine, included it in his cookbook, which was the first in Italy.

His “Ten Commandments of Italian Cuisine” read like how many of us strive to eat today. Respect natural ingredients, he urged, aim for high quality, seasonality, and simplicity, and approach your cooking with care, passion, precision, practice, and patience. Variety is fine, he advised, as long as territory and seasonality are respected.

Good rules to live by, don’t you think?

Lamb Ragu

Makes about 8 servings

I have always cooked with lamb and have loved it since I was a little girl. For best results, use lamb shoulder that you cut by hand. And for a truly voluptuous dish, pair the ragu with homemade pappardelle.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, cut into small dice

Kosher salt

3 small carrots, peeled and minced (about 1 cup)

3 celery stalks, minced (about 1 cup)

6 ounces pancetta, diced

2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into small dice, or ground lamb

Black pepper in a mill

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Whole nutmeg

1 ½ cups dry white wine

1 cup whole milk

1 28-ounce can diced or chopped tomatoes, preferably Muir Glen, Pomi, or Cento brand

½ cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Chunk of Vella Dry Jack, Valley Ford Estero Gold or similar cheese

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep saucepan set over medium-low heat, add the onion, and sauté until it is limp, about 10 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Add the carrots and celery and sauté until the vegetables are very soft, about 20 to 25 minutes; do not let them brown. Season lightly with salt. Add the pancetta and cook for about 7 to 8 minutes more, until the pancetta is translucent.

Add the lamb, increase the heat to medium, and sauté, stirring continuously with a fork, until it looses its pink color; do not let it brown. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the cinnamon and add several turns or gratings of nutmeg.

Add the wine and simmer until it is nearly completely evaporated, about 15 minutes. Add the milk and simmer until it is nearly completely evaporated, about 10 minutes more.

Stir in the tomatoes, decrease the heat to very low and cook slowly for 4 to 5 hours, stirring now and then. After the sauce has been cooking for about 3 hours, use a large spoon to skim off and discard any excess fat, which will have collected on top of the sauce. Continue to cook until the sauce is very thick and very rich.

(The sauce can be prepared up to this point a day or two in advance of serving. To do so, cool the sauce, transfer to a container, cover. and refrigerate. Remove it from the refrigerator one hour before reheating.)

Thirty minutes before serving, warm the bolognese as needed and stir in the heavy cream. Taste and correct for salt and pepper.

Serving and storing suggestions

–To serve right away, cook a pound of pasta — I prefer spaghettini, sometimes called thin spaghetti, bucatini, or pappardelle — in salted water until it is just done. Drain, tip into a large bowl, and add about half the sauce. Use a pasta fork or two dinner forks to lift and drop the pasta until it is evenly coated with sauce. Divide among individual soup plates or pasta dishes, top with some of the remaining sauce, scatter a bit of parsley on top, and enjoy right away, with the cheese and a grater alongside.

–To freeze, divide into your preferred portions and store in freezer bags or jars for up to 3 months. To thaw, transfer from the freezer to the refrigerator a day before serving.

Spaghetti Squash with Mushroom Ragu

Makes 6-8 servings

If you do not eat gluten or simply want more vegetables in your diet, using spaghetti squash in place of pasta is an easy and delicious option. The first time I made this ragu, I used red wine, but I do not recommend it. I prefer white wine, which provides the right burst of acidity without the flavors that red wine contributes. The results are brighter, with the flavor of the individual ingredients shining through.

1 medium spaghetti squash, steamed and shredded (see note below*)

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

Hot water

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion, cut into small dice

3 carrots, peeled and cut into small dice

2 celery stalks, cut into small dice

3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a mill

1 pound cremini mushrooms, trimmed and cut into small dice

2 cups dry white wine

2 cups mushroom stock or beef stock

1 cup half-and-half

3 tablespoons double-concentrated tomato paste

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons dried oregano

½ cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Vella Dry Jack or other grating cheese, in one piece

Prepare the spaghetti squash and, while it cooks, put the porcini into a small bowl, cover with about ½ cup hot water, and let it steep for 30 minutes. Strain the liquid through a small strainer or coffee filter into a clean bowl; set aside. Chop the mushrooms and set them aside, too.

Put the olive oil into a large heavy skillet set over medium-low heat, add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook until very soft and fragrant, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and stir in the chopped porcini. Add the creminis, increase the heat, and add the wine.

Cover and cook until the mushrooms soften, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Uncover, stir, and cook until the wine is nearly completely reduced. Add the stock and cook until it is reduced by about a third.

Add the half-and-half, stir in the tomato paste, add the bay leaves and oregano, reduce the heat, and simmer gently until fairly thick, about 30 to 40 minutes, stirring now and then so that it does not scorch.

Pour in the reserved porcini liquid, taste, correct for salt and pepper, and simmer very gently for about 15 minutes. Stir in the cream and parsley and remove from the heat.

Cover and keep hot.

To finish, reheat the squash as needed and transfer to a wide shallow bowl. Add about a cup of the sauce and toss gently but thoroughly. Divide among individual soup plates, top with sauce, grate a little cheese on top, and serve right away, with the remaining cheese alongside.

*Note: To steam spaghetti squash, cut the squash into several wedges, set in a large steamer basket over simmering water, cover and cook until the squash is tender but not mushy, about 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool and scrape out the seeds. Use a fork to separate the flesh in long, even strokes.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “Pasta Classics.” Email her at

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