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Quick ragu Bolognese
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Quick ragu Bolognese

The Italian "ragu" has little to do with French "ragout" except for a distant etymological kinship, and even less to do with the Ragu™ brand of spaghetti sauce.

"Ragu," as best I can determine, simply means "meat sauce," and it's rarely seen without "Bolognese" ("of Bologna") in its company: Ragu Bolognese is the classic meat sauce for pasta in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the Italian region that - at least according to its inhabitants - produces the finest food of the world's greatest food-loving nation.

For many years, I have used Marcella Hazan's recipe from her "Classic Italian Cook Book" as the basis for my ragu, and it makes a delicious and warming dish for autumn or winter. But there's a problem with Hazan's canonical recipe that keeps me from making it as often as I would like: It takes a LONG time. Following her precise instructions yields a sauce that can't be beat - but the procedure takes a good hour or more in preparation and another 3 1/2 to 5 hours (!) of slow, gentle simmering.

The other night, sensing autumn's approach in a blustery breeze, I decided to try to put together a variation that can be done from start to finish in an hour. This quick version may be a far cry from the real thing, but I believe it incorporates a good hint of the personality that makes Bolognese special, in a form that's not impossible for a reasonably competent home cook to accomplish after work.

It's not really necessary to use the exact weighed-out measurements that I've included here; that's part of my ongoing effort to fight the "battle of the bulge" through fairly precise portion control that holds main dishes to 600 calories or less. In a dish of this type, scrupulously controlling the amount of meat and pasta allows me to splurge a relative bit with the butter and cream. But this recipe, like most good kitchen procedures, is forgiving of changes. If you try it - and if you change it - I hope you'll let me know how it goes.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

4 ounces stew meat or other flavorful beef
1/2 small yellow onion
1 stick celery
1 carrot, peeled
2 cloves garlic
1 ounce (two tablespoons) butter
1 large tomato or 2 to 3 canned peeled tomatoes
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon heavy cream (optional)
4 ounces "long" pasta. (Tagliatelle is traditional, and fettuccine is the closest easily available match; but linguine or spaghetti will also work fine.)
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or other grating cheese (optional).


1. Chop the beef coarsely and set aside. Chop the onion, celery, carrot and garlic fine and put them all together in a bowl or dish. (This is one application in which I put aside the chef's knife and use the Cuisinart, for efficiency and speed.)

2. Peel the tomato if you're using fresh. (It's a finicky step, but I don't like the way that tomato skin forms unappetizing chunks in cooked tomato dishes.) Fresh or canned, cut the tomatoes into rough pieces and put in a bowl with their juices.

3. Melt the butter over medium heat in a nonstick sautee pan. Put in the chopped vegetables and cook until they start to soften. Then add the chopped beef and cook just until it loses its raw red color.

4. Stir in the white wine, raise heat to high, and cook until the wine is just about all reduced (evaporated). Put in the tomatoes, bring to the simmer, and only then add salt, pepper and nutmeg (preferably freshly grated from a whole nutmeg) to taste. Reduce to low heat, cover and simmer while the pasta cooks. The longer the better, but, as long as we don't tell Signora Hazan, 10 to 15 minutes is enough for this quick version.

5. Put the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water and cook till just done.

6. A moment or so before the pasta finishes, stir in the optional heavy cream. It will add a light "dairy" component that enriches the Bolognese in a delicious way, but it tastes mighty good without it.

7. Drain the pasta and serve in warmed bowls topped with the sauce. Parmigiano added at the table is another nice but not necessary finishing touch.

WINE MATCH: The wine ought to be red, and your favorite Italian table red makes ethnic sense. Anything from the Mediterranean (or similar red from around the world) will do fine, though, with this hearty dish. We enjoyed it one night with a decent red Rhone, Le Mas des Collines 1998 Gigondas, and made it again another night with a very cheap Spanish red, Codice 2000 Vino de la Tierra de Castilla. It worked well with both.

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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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