When you mention Italian meat sauces, most people will immediately think of those monuments of Italian cooking, the ragù alla napoletana and the ragù alla bolognese, sauces that require hours of cooking and fairly elaborate preparation. These time-consuming ragù are, quite rightly, reserved for special occasions. Ragù alla napoletana is often called ‘Sunday sauce’ among Italian-American (and ‘il ragù della domenica‘ among Italians), an expression from back in the days when the main event of every Sunday was a grand, multi-course meal. I suspect that for most people, even in Italy, these dishes are prepared less often than that these days.
For everyday cooking, however, here is a far simpler meat sauce that may not exactly be fast food, but it certainly take far less time and effort. This generic meat sauce doesn’t have the complexity of one of those monumental sauces, but it’s plenty satisfying nonetheless, All you need is some chopped meat, some canned tomatoes and a few aromatic vegetables, and about 2 hours to spare, most of which can be spent away from the stove. I love to make this sauce with ground pork,which to my taste is more savory, but you can use ground beef as well, either instead of or in combination with the pork—in fact, it is far more common to do so.
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
500g (1 lb.) ground pork (and/or beef)
A splash of red wine
Salt and pepper
1 large can (800g, 28 oz.) of canned tomatoes, passed through a food mill (or use crushed tomatoes)
1 spoonful of tomato paste
A few dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in water
In a large pot, preferably of terracotta or enameled cast iron, make a soffritto by gently sautéing the onion, carrot and celery in olive oil until the vegetables are very soft, taking care never to brown them. (It helps to add a pinch of salt, which draws out the vegetables’ own liquids, as well as a spoonful of water from time to time. This both speeds up the softening process and helps avoid browning.)
Add the ground pork (or beef) to the pot, breaking it up with a wooden spoon and mixing to combine it well with the soffritto. Season with salt and pepper, and let is simmer gently, stirring almost constantly, until the meat has lost its raw look. Then add a splash of red wine and continue simmering, until the wine has evaporated.
Add the tomatoes, stir again. Then let it simmer for at least an hour, stirring only occasionally, until the meat is tender and the sauce has thickened and developed a deep flavor. (You can let it go longer if you like and it will only get better the longer it cooks.) If the sauce gets too thick before you think it’s done, then just add a bit of water or broth as needed.
NOTES: If you like, you can add a bit of tomato concentrate (aka tomato paste) along with the canned tomatoes. The pasta adds a more intense tomato flavor as well as acting as a thickening agent. But since most imported canned tomatoes in the US already come packed in tomato purée, adding tomato paste is sort of overkill, at least in my book.
You can also add a few pieces of dried porcini (or other) mushrooms, soaked in water for 20 minutes or so, either to the soffritto or to the sauce as it simmers. Don’t throw out the soaking water; if you use it to thin out the sauce as it cooks, it will add extra flavor.
And there are other variations, too. The most traditional recipes call for meat that has been finely chopped with a knife rather than ground; other recipes call for cubes of meat, which produces something akin to a stew. Some people like to add a bit of garlic and/or parsley to the soffritto. Some add a bay leaf or a clove or a bit of grated nutmeg to the sauce as it simmers. In Tuscany, they will use a red onion rather than the more common yellow onion found elsewhere. And you can use butter along with, or instead of, the olive oil.
This sauce can be used to dress a wide variety of dried or fresh pasta. Stubby dried pastas are wonderful this way, as are longer fresh pastas like tagliatelle or fettuccine. Spaghetti and linguine, on the other hand, don’t really work that well with meat sauce, despite the popularity of ‘spaghetti bolognese’ (a fake Italian dish is there ever was one). It is also a fine substitute for ragù alla bolognese in making lasagne. But perhaps my favorite way of using sugo di carne, is to make a pasta al forno, which is featured in today’s companion post.
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