When you mention Italian meat sauce, most people will immediately think of those monuments of Italian cooking, the ragù alla napoletana and the ragù alla bolognese. Those 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 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
- Olive oil
- 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.
If you like, you can add a bit of tomato concentrate (aka tomato paste) along with the canned tomatoes. The paste adds a more intense tomato flavor as well as acting as a thickener.
This is a versatile sauce that works with many different kinds of pasta. Short pastas like rigatoni or penne go particular well. The sauce also pairs well with fresh pastas like tagliatelle, fettuccine or even pappardelle. On the other hand, factory-made long pastas like spaghetti 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 meat sauce, is to make a pasta al forno, which is featured in today’s companion post.
Finally, although it sounds funny, you can leave out the meat from your meat sauce, in which case you’ll have a sugo finto or “Fake Sauce”. It’s actually quite delicious.