Sometimes, listening to the pundits and ponderers, I get the feeling that cooking is my duty. It's good for the environment; it's good for my health; it's good for society; it's good for my family; it's good for the small farmers and food producers who depend on my business.
But though all of those things are doubtless true, the one reason for cooking I rarely hear mentioned is that it's just plain fun.
Granted, that's not always true. Tuesday at 8 p.m. after I've gotten off the Blue Line hungry and tired from a long day at work, stove-time does not seem remotely recreational, even for me.
But other times it certainly does. Of course there's the pleasure that comes from feeding family and friends. But there's also the joy that comes with immersing yourself in a project. My brother-in-law works on cars for fun and my brother builds furniture. Me? I cook.
And there are few dishes that are more pleasurable to make than ragu. Make no mistake: As wonderful as ragu is to eat, it's just as much fun to fix.
This is fall food at its best: slow cooking that develops deep, harmonic flavors. It's the perfect project for a lazy weekend day when you don't have much else planned. Cook a little. Go out to the garden and pull a weed. Come back in and give things a stir. Head for the couch and catch up on the game and your nap. This can go on all day.
Ragu is sometimes misunderstood. Most simply, it is a meat-based pasta sauce. But the definition goes deeper than that. Many sauces have meat in them, but ragus are based on meat. The juices of the meat that has cooked in them are fundamental to the sauce. That's the reason old-time East Coast Italians refer to ragus as "gravy."
They're not necessarily tomato-based sauces, either. In fact, the most classical version of the best-known ragu, the one from Bologna, can be made with either no tomato or very little. Very delicate, it is, with milk and veal.
Building a dish
"Delicate" is not exactly a word I would choose to describe my favorite ragu -- based very loosely on a recipe by Jeanne Carola-Francesconi in her classic "La Cucina Napoletana." This is a powerful, deeply flavored sauce built on long, slow cooking. Oh, and four types of pork.
Dishes like this are constructed more than they are cooked. No slap-dash sizzle-and-deglaze here. Each step must be given the time it deserves. But at the end it all comes together with an almost orchestral power.
Start by sauteing the soffrito -- a chopped paste of pancetta, prosciutto, onions, parsley and garlic. Add a big chunk of pork. Loin is traditional but I think the loins we get in this country are just too lean for braising -- you're better off with a hunk of pork shoulder or butt. If it comes with the bone, remove it and tie the roast into a uniform shape. I've also made this with meaty pork country-style ribs and though they cook a bit more quickly, they're really good.
Brown the meat slowly. It'll take an hour to an hour and a half. Add about a half-bottle of red wine and continue to cook, turning the meat whenever you have the energy. The meat will slowly braise and the wine will reduce to a thin, intensely flavored syrup. Count on another hour to an hour and a half.
Now it's time for the tomato paste. This is a key step and not to be ignored because of silly prejudice. Too often, tomato paste is regarded as a bad cook's crutch, but when it is handled correctly, it adds real depth to a ragu. The trick is to add it slowly, stirring it into the sauce and letting it caramelize and brown thoroughly. The color should be brick, not bright red.
A tender roast
Add more tomatoes and keep stewing until a carving fork slides easily into the meat. You want the roast to be almost shreddable. This can take a couple of hours, and remember that the meat won't become tender all over at the same time -- check in several places to make sure it's thoroughly done.
When the roast is cooked, remove it from the sauce and set it aside. In Italy, a ragu made this way is usually served in separate courses -- pasta with sauce first, then the meat as a main course, usually served simply with some kind of complementary vegetable dish (I've always loved the term contorni -- loosely translated, a vegetable dish that fits the flavor contours of the main course). You want something a little bitter to offset the richness of the meat, maybe braised broccoli rabe, or mustard or dandelion greens?
But wait, the sauce isn't done cooking. There's still one more pork to go. Crumble some good fennel-flavored Italian sausages into the sauce. Slit and remove the skins and squeeze small chunks between your thumb and forefingers to flatten them slightly. After this has cooked slowly for about an hour, the dish should be deep, dark and ready to serve.
Or not. At this point you can also refrigerate it and reheat it gently when you want. Maybe after the game. Or after your nap. Whichever comes first. Relax, it's fall and this is supposed to be fun.