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Ragù Napoletano

Ragu Napoletano

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In its essence, Neapolitan ragù is a meat and tomato sauce cooked over a very low flame for a long time. Unlike ragù alla Bolognese, Neapolitan ragù is started without a battuto (the combination of carrot, onion and celery at the start of many Italian dishes); includes copious amounts of tomato sauce; and uses whole cuts rather than chopped or ground meat.

Different schools of thought exist when it comes to the types of meat used in the ragù. As with most regional Italian dishes, there are as many recipes as there are cooks. Some use a cut of beef called locena – a steak-like cut obtained from the beef chuck. Others only use pork, in the form of bone-in chops and/or ribs. Many agree that a combination of beef and pork produces the best results in terms of texture and flavour. When using beef, the meat is often flattened, seasoned with parsley, garlic, pine nuts, raisins, and cheese, and finally rolled and tied before being added to the sauce. Either way, the sauce kicks off with a soffritto made of minced fatty meats – prosciutto and pancetta, with a little piperna (a local aromatic herb similar to thyme) for an added aromatic boost.

After all the ingredients are in, the ragù has to cook over a very low heat for many hours in order to achieve its signature texture and complexity of flavour. The sauce shouldn’t be simmering; rather, it should be forming the smallest and most sporadic of bubbles – often just one lone, tiny bubble breaking the surface of the sauce every few seconds or so … not unlike an underground volcanic mud bath found in some thermal locations. (The Neapolitan term for it is peppiare.) To achieve this, first cook the sauce over a very low flame. The other way – tried and tested by many a local cook – to achieve this kind of subtle bubbling is to set the lid on top of a wooden spoon resting across the length of the pot. This way, the lid doesn’t cover the pot completely, allowing for some of the steam to escape.

The only way to tell when it’s time to turn off the heat is by using your senses – by monitoring the evolution of the sauce over time. Generally speaking, the ragù is ready when the oils and the tomato have separated and have been cooking separately for about one hour.

Because of the lengthy and somewhat laborious preparation, it could be easier to prepare the ragù a day or two ahead, then reheat it right before serving. In fact, the resting time does it some good, enabling the flavours to mingle and get acquainted, gaining in depth and complexity.

Use the sauce to season a pot of pasta (ziti or maccheroni), then serve the rest of the meat as a secondo, with some of its sauce for good measure, alongside some stir-fried greens (friarielli, to keep it traditional, or cime di rapa). Alternatively, you can use the sauce to dress a dish of lasagne di carnevale (this, as an unorthodox yet perfectly delicious replacement for the all-pork ragù it normally calls for).

Ingredients

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Method

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1
Begin by preparing your meat. Wrap the beef chuck with the pancetta and prosciutto slices, top with the sprigs of thyme and tie tightly with butcher's string
2
In a small bowl, combine the pine nuts, raisins, garlic, parsley and cheese. Lay the flattened blade steaks out on a work surface, season them with salt and pepper, then scatter the pine nut mixture over the surface, making sure to leave a small uncovered border at the edges. Roll the steaks up and tie them tightly with twine
3
Heat a large saucepan over a low flame. Add the oil and lard and allow to heat up and melt. Add the minced lardo, then the onion. Fry gently until the onion is soft and translucent, approximately 15 minutes. Next add both the chuck and the rolled steaks. Allow them to brown over a low flame, turning regularly so that they colour evenly. Make sure to scrape up any bits that stick to the base of the pan
4
After about 45 minutes, add the pork ribs and carry on cooking the meat until dark brown on all sides and the onions are very caramelised, approximately 1 hour. Make sure to turn the meat and stir the onions often during this stage
5
At this point add the wine. Increase the heat so the wine completely evaporates, stirring often. Next add the tomato concentrate and stir well so it combines with the sauce. Remove the pork ribs and set aside on a plate. Pour in the passata and reduce the heat to very low. Season to taste
6
Cook the ragù over a low heat for about 1 hour, then partially cover with a lid, allowing a small gap, cook for a further 3 hours. Check the sauce often, stirring to make sure the sauce doesn't stick to the bottom and burn
7
After this, remove the remaining meat from the pot. Allow the sauce to continue to reduce for 1 more hour, until it becomes dense and shiny, with a deep red oil on the surface. Season to taste. Place all the meat back into the pot and bring back up to temperature. Turn off the heat and allow the sauce to rest for about 30 minutes
8
To serve, combine the sauce with 600g of cooked pasta, dusting with a handful of grated pecorino. The meat and a little of the sauce can be reserved for the main course
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