A ragù is emotional.
I’ve always found, after many years of cooking, that a ragù/ meat sauce, is deeply personal to everybody that cooks it. Even people who hate cooking/ don’t cook will always say to me that they make ‘a good bolognese’ or ‘a good lasagne’, and while this makes me happy, because I’d rather someone cook anything than nothing, I do get a bit upset when I then see those people reach for a jar of premade stuff.
A ragù is nothing more than a tomato-based meat sauce and spoiler alert, that means cooking meat in tomatoes until it’s saucy, so there really is no need to be reaching for a jar of anything when you want a ragù to cross your countertop. And the beauty is that because the basic template of a ragù is so simple, the opportunity for adaption, development and personalisation is endless.
My staple ragù, i.e. the one taught to me by my cooking mentor Antonella when I was cooking in Florence a few years back, can be found in my Kitchen Instinct ebook here, but this version of mine just coaxes it in another direction with the addition of ‘nduja.
‘Nduja, for anybody not familiar, is a spicy Calabrian paste made from pork and chilli peppers and has a very funkily distinctive smoky, fiery taste. It gives an instant burst of flavour to any dish it anoints, adding a firm saltiness that is so welcome in a dish that can sometimes border on round sweetness, such as a ragù.
Although the fire is admittedly calmed slightly due to the sweetness of the tomatoes in this recipe, it’s presence is definitely felt. I use ‘nduja quite a lot when I have the jar in the house, but I don’t buy the jar often? Strangely. But when I see it in shops, I do grab it because it’s wonderful spread on toast, added into a stew, served alongside some eggs and also so good fried with some white fish.
Although I dare say, if you don’t have any ‘nduja or can’t get your hands on any, you could get yourself some spicy cooking chorizo and chop it really, really finely and add to the pan below in place of the ‘nduja. It will change the texture, but the taste will be familiar to this recipe nonetheless.
I use canned whole cherry tomatoes in this recipe – and a lot of my recipes latyely actually, where canned tomatoes are used. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but there’s something about canned chopped tomatoes that are not ticking my boxes texturally anymore. I find that cherry tomatoes have all the viscosity that I need from a can of tomatoes, but I also get to manipulate it’s thickness depending on whether or not I want to manually burst the soft tomatoes with the back of my spoon.
Here, I encourage you to burst as many as you can, so that the pot can get as much sauciness as possible, but I take no offence to having the odd whole tomato here and there in the final dish to add different textures to the ragù with every mouthful.
In terms of accompaniments, this is a spicy take on a ragù, the real gutsy kind that you want slathered over buttery pasta. And if you’re debating which pasta to use, Antonella gave me a tip that has stayed with me ever since and this is that thin sauces go with thin pastas, and thick sauces go with thick pastas. As this is a thick sauce, then any thick pasta like tagliatelle, pappardelle or even a rigatoni would be perfect with this.
But, if you are eyeing up this version to potentially use as a meat sauce in a lasagne, I would recommend pouring in about 400g of passata along with the stock and cooking it for just slightly longer to reduce it down. That way you’ll have a much more liquid based sauce, which would be perfect for coating lasagne sheets. That way you won’t need to preboil them because the runny liquid sauce will soak and coat them for you as the lasagne bakes.
Preboiling lasagne sheets… who’s she? Don’t know her. Never done it.
Serves 4 – 6
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion – peeled finely chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
600g beef mince
A grating of fresh nutmeg
1 x 400g can cherry tomatoes
500ml beef stock
- In a large pot (big enough to hold all the liquid) that comes with a lid, warm the olive oil on a medium heat.
- Add the onion with a little salt and pepper and cook for about 5 minutes, just until they begin to soften a little.
- Using a fine grater, mince in the garlic cloves and add the fresh thyme leaves, stirring them into the onions.
- Add the tomato paste and ‘nduja and stir into the pan, cooking for 2 -3 minutes just until they are heated through. At this point, you will see the contents of the pan start to turn an intense, rich orange soused mush.
- Add the beef mince, a grating of fresh nutmeg and a further pinch of salt and pepper and using a spoon, break the mince up into smaller pieces, turning constantly so that the mince is coated in the orange oils. Cook for around 5 minutes, just to take the rawness out of the beef, but don’t cook for too long – we want the beef to do the rest of the cooking once the liquids are in so that we can keep it tender.
- Empty the can of cherry tomatoes into the pan and then fill the can up halfway with water from the tap, swirl it around the can and empty into the pan. Now pour in the beef stock and stir thoroughly.
- Bring the pan to a boil, lower the heat so that the pan is gently bubbling, and then pop on a lid and cook for 1 hour.
- After this time, remove the lid, give everything a stir and cook for a further 5 – 10 minutes with the lid off. In this time, use the back of your spoon to gently burst any cherry tomatoes that have stayed whole, releasing the gutsy tomato juices into the meat sauce.
- Remove from the heat and serve as you see fit – pasta of course, being my preferred option. I recommend serving with lashings of Parmesan, and a further sprinkle of black pepper and thyme leaves.