Growing up, one of my favorite things to ask for when my family went to a restaurant was "meat sauce". Meat sauce on spaghetti. Meat sauce on ravioli. Meat sauce on veal cutlets. I'd even ask for meat sauce on top of chicken parmesan! Well, I've grown up and matured (OK, somewhat). In this article I'll show you how to make a grown-up version of "meat sauce"--Ragù alla Bolognese.
One of the very first meals we had during our Voyage to Italy was Pici al Ragù... a Tuscan version of Spaghetti Bolognese. We had just gotten off the train from Rome in the small Tuscan town of Chiusi Scalo ("Scalo" designates the part of a town that surrounds a railway station). Chiusi proper, an historic Tuscan town with proud roots back to the Etruscans, was up on the nearby hilltop.
We were so weary from having traveled about 16 hours or more, first by air to Rome and then by train from Rome to Chiusi, where we were to pick up our rental car. And at this point we were also famished--needing to re-fuel. When we got off the train, the Hertz office was closed for riposa (a 3 hour siesta), so we had planned to have lunch while we waited. I had already picked out the trattoria that we would eat at, selected weeks before while fine-tuning the details on my Google Earth maps... we would eat our first Italian meal at Trattoria Porsenna, one block from the train station. It was a fantastic choice. With only 12 tables and a casual country style, we order a bottle of gassata for the table and waited for our meals. When the Pici al Ragù came, I couldn't believe how delicious it was.
By the way... Pici is a sort of thick, hand rolled spaghetti. Ragù is basically a meat sauce, the best of which is Ragù alla Bolognese, which originated in Bologna but is found all over Italy nowadays. People will tell you that "spaghetti Bolognese" doesn't exist in Italy--but it does. The sauce will just be called "Ragù" instead of "Bolognese", as in "Spaghetti al Ragù", and typically in place of spaghetti the dish is usually served with tagliatelle, a long, flat, fresh pasta noodle--"Tagliatelle al Ragù".
Historic records even prove that in centuries past, spaghetti (dried) was commonly used with a Ragù sauce anyway. (NOTE: In the weeks that followed, we saw "Spaghetti alla Bolognese" listed on many menus). So, whatever the name, and no matter what type of pasta you put under it, I knew that this was the Ragù I wanted to duplicate when I returned back home.
2 pounds ground beef (80% or less fat)
1/4 pound speck (cut 1/4" thick), 1/4" dice (Speck is a smoked prosciutto)
1 large Vidalia onion (or 2 large yellow onions)
1 teaspoon sugar (for sauteing onions)
4 tablespoons canola oil (for sauteing)
3 carrots, 1/4" dice
3 celery stalks, 1/4" dice
4 garlic cloves, smashed then diced
5 bay leaves (remove after cooking)
1-1/2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1-tablespoon dried basil
1 cup full bodied red wine (Primativo, Montepulciano, Chianti, etc.)
1-28 ounce can Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes
1-6 ounce can tomato paste
1 cup heavy cream
This recipe will make enough Bolognese sauce for several meals. It also freezes very well.
If you would like to make fresh tagliatelle to go with your Bolognese sauce, read Making Fresh Pasta at Home: Not a Necessity, but a Tradition.
Or, try making our Torta Rigatoni Piede Bolognese al Forno - Baked Standing Rigatoni Pie with Bolognese. Or, try Baked Standing Rigatoni in a Mug. It's also wonderful spread on a bruschetta for a small lunch or snack.
My all-time favorite tomato is Eva Purple Ball--a pink-purplish, 2-3" round globe heirloom tomato that I've been growing for almost 20 years. ("Sweet like sugar", as my Dad always said about his home grown tomatoes). Eva is impeccably disease resistant, with a smooth, flawless skin and produces well. Next in line is Giant Belgium--a large, pink beefsteak tomato. Like Eva, it has a rich, sweet flavor, but large enough for one slice to cover a small dessert plate (great for caprese).
But last year I found a fat, orange striped tomato in a local farmers' market that I fell in love with. I saved seeds from one of the biggest ones and planted two plants this season. Well, I'm in love again!
This tomato is a large, plum style that grows about 3-5-1/5" long, with a pointy end (often with a very pointy nipple). Some grew so fat that I could not wrap my hand around them. It's very fleshy with low acidity--perfect for making sauce. But it's very sweet! I've gotten into slicing ovals on the bias for my panini and American style hoagie sandwiches. I've made sauces twice for pasta, and even used them sliced as a pizza topping (like I'm doing again tonight).
The only problem is, the chipmunks in my garden love them almost as much as I do.But even with those few losses, I'd estimate that the two plants produced about 20 pounds of these so far, and there's still a few on the plants coming ripe.
I did several Google image searches until I verified the type--Striped Roma. I've already saved seeds for next season... You can find some seeds HERE.
God, I love tomatoes. Home-grown, that is.
San Marzano tomatoes are the holy grail when it comes to sauce tomatoes. They often cost twice the price of other canned tomatoes, which is the reason why there are many counterfeit, bogus tomatoes in cans labeled San Marzano, or "San Marzano style". Experts say that up to 95% of the tomatoes labeled "San Marzano" are tomatoes grown in other regions of Italy or other countries. The Italian Mafia and other unscrupulous organizations will place lesser quality tomatoes into cans and label them as San Marzano, when in reality they are a mixture of less sweet, less meaty tomatoes.
In was in 2011 that the president of Consorzio San Marzano (Consortium for the Protection of the San Marzano Tomato Dell'agro Sarnese Nocerino) said that only five percent of tomatoes marked as such are certified, D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are elongated plum tomatoes that by decree, must be grown in Agro Sarnese-Nocerino, an area surrounding Mount Vesuvious near Naples. When they are canned, they come with a D.O.P.-Denominazione d' Origine Protetta (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”) emblem on the label, marking their authenticity. This is the same type of certification that ensures the authenticity of other Italian products, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma or Balsamic di Molena.
To ensure you are getting San Marzano tomatoes, make sure that the can has one of the following on it: "Certified San Marzano", the DOP emblem, or the words "San Marzano dell'Agro Sarnese-Nocerino". The ingredients should list "whole (or peeled) San Marzano tomatoes". Some producers also include a statement something like, "San Marzano tomatoes (DOP-protected designation of Origin) are only cultivated in 41 approved municipalities, from San Marzano seeds, within the Sarno River valley surrounding Naples (or 'near the slopes of Mount Vesuvious'), in the Campania region." If the label says, "Grown in the USA", steer clear.
Certified Authentic San Marzano Tomatoes
The Phony Stuff
Compared to the Roma tomato, San Marzano tomatoes are thinner, a bit longer and pointed at their ends. The thicker, meatier flesh has fewer seeds and is fantastic for making sauce. The taste is also stronger, sweeter and less acidic. (I've had pizza from one local chic, wood oven pizzeria who claimed the tomatoes in their sauce were San Marzano, but the amazingly high acidic level burned my lips. I called BS.)
As many know, the tomato itself was imported to Europe after being discovered in the New World. Its first culinary appearance was in a 1692 cookbook as a base for a sauce. The San Marzano itself doesn't show up until much later, in a tomato manual published in 1940, the San Marzano is listed as a "recent cross" between the Re Umberto and Fiaschetto varieties.
The San Marzano vines are indeterminate type, and have a somewhat longer season than other paste tomato varieties, making them well suitable for warmer climates. Indeterminate tomato plants will keep producing fruit as long as the warm, sunny weather lasts, whereas determinate varieties produce only a set number of fruit on shorter plants, and then die.
Many heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate type (like the varieties I grow, producing 8' plants). San Marzano is an "open-pollinated", heirloom variety that breeds true from generation to generation, making seed saving practical for the home gardener or farmer. You can't save seeds from hybrid tomatoes because they cross-pollinate, which results in pot-luck tomatoes appearing on the vine. If you can get some authentic, D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes while in Campania, save some seeds to plant in your home garden, although they won't have the D.O.P. designation, they will be fairly close the what is grown in Campania. (Of course, you can't exactly match the weather or soil qualities).
You can also grow San Marzano seeds purchased from heirloom seed companies, but these wouldn't be from tomatoes harvested in the Sarno Valley area. You will find that even the highly respected Seedsavers Exchange doesn't list any "San Marzano" seeds out of respect for the D.O.P. designation of the originals. So, the next time you're in the Naples neighborhood, buy some San Marzano fruits and save the seeds.
There's nothing like home-grown tomatoes, as my father always said...
We all have days when we don't know the answer to the question, "What's for dinner?" Busy papa, busy Mama, busy Nonna... stuff happens and we forget to plan ahead. But even if you are a newcomer to the Cucina Italiana, there are always simple, quick meals that you can throw together without any pre-planning, as long as your Italian Pantry is stocked with essentials.
Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil) is one of the simplest, yet fulfilling meals any Italian can make. The cooking time is little more than the time it takes to boil your dried spaghetti and can be a base recipe for adding ingredients from leftovers. Even the most basic Italian pantries should have a box of spaghetti, extra virgin olive oil and garlic...
Serve with slices of crusty bread and some Chianti for a simple and tasteful meal.
This recipe is certainly a classic from Naples, but you can think of it as a base recipe for adding other ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, diced prosciutto, capers, olives, etc. Don't ever hesitate to be creative with Italian recipes!
Beef Ragu over Cheesy Polenta
A rustic, belly-filling recipe from simple ingredients. The cook time from pan to table is under an hour, so it's great for a quick family meal during the workweek...
Of course, I was first introduced to pot roast by my Mom, but being a working mother, she always looked for shortcuts--a big thing for Moms back in the 50s and sixties. Although it was delicious, her shortcut was to use cans of Campbell's Onion Soup and to cook it in her very scary, rattling pressure cooker (Mom managed to blow up a few of those beasts). Even as I moved on to my own life, he loved making this for me as a special treat, believing it was my "favorite" meal. (I really liked her lasagna much better).
Well into my thirties, as I developed my own culinary skills, I wanted something more authentic, so I opted for using sweet onions like Vidalia or Walla Walla to add a sweet, deep flavor to my version. In recent years, I've developed my Italian Style Pot Roast, reminiscent of Sugo (Sunday Gravy), but with a much lighter stew type sauce. In Italy, this type of recipe is called Stracotto (literally, overcooked), because of its slow cook time. Another name for this recipe, or rather, style of preparation is simply Brasato di Manzo (braised beef).
To ensure that the meat is tender, you should plan this as a weekend meal, allowing most of the afternoon to slow cook the roast on a gas range (OK, electric would be fine also). Yes, as my mother did, this pot roast isn't done in the oven but rather in a heavy pot on a cooktop. This method takes a minimum of 4 hours of slow-cooking. Technically, it's a braise and not a true roast. (One day soon I should show you how I do my Dad's Oven Roasted Beef).
I cook mine in our tri-bond, stainless steel, flat-bottomed All-Clad Stockpot, rather than our Dutch oven. I find the wider base spreads the heat out rather than concentrating it in the center, as the narrow-bottomed Dutch oven does. (Which would tighten the proteins in the beef rather than relax them). I also use a heavy cast iron Heat Diffuser over our medium diameter gas burner to diffuse the heat even further. I suppose I could also use one of our other options, like our Staub Coq au Vin Cocotte or our Emile Henry Brasier (for a smaller roast) but I like working with steel.
What Cut of Beef?
You will see cuts of beef labeled "chuck roast" in the supermarket, but you can use pretty much any type of beef--as long as it's a tough cut--not tender. A slow cooking time and very low temperature really define the process--not the cut of beef. Pot roast is a braise (slow cooked in liquid) that cooks at a low temperature for a long period of time.
The tougher cuts work best because the slow cooking gently breaks down the proteins and collagen, giving you a luscious, nearly-fall apart, fork-cutting texture. These cuts are from the parts of the animal that are very muscular with lots of connective tissue and very little fat. If you quickly grilled these cuts, the result would be very tough.
The following three cuts will all make a fine pot roast:
Allora... Buon appitito!
Don't forget to write and tell me how yours turned out...
GVI CUCINA HACK
In this recipe, I shared the trick of thickening with breadcrumbs, which gives a rustic charm to the dish. Of course, if you'd like a richer, even more tomato-y version, you can thicken the sauce during cooking by adding a little tomato paste--perhaps a couple of tablespoons. You can also thicken by using cornstarch... dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in a 1/4 cup of cold water and then stir it into the hot, bubbling sauce while stirring to distribute it. (High heat is needed for it to thicken).
My dad, Sal was a great cook. He loved food and worked with it every day, starting out selling produce down by the Hoboken waterfront with his brother Anselmo and their "three-legged (lame) horse " and cart. Later on he worked as a greengrocer and as a deli man. He even grew food in our tiny backyard garden--especially tomatoes. When his customers saw him around the county, they'd shout out "There's My Baloney Man!"
My Mom did all the daily cooking--soups, chicken, pastas and all that, but my Dad did the special meals: Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas Baked Ham, Roast Beef and lots of other Italian specialties like smelts, fried eel, and quick lunches like his "potatoes and egg" frittata. He was always great at making something from pretty much anything he found in the fridge.
But what I loved best was the way he made fist-sized meatballs in the deli. Only one of them would fit into a pint sized container. It was always a special treat when he brought some home. One of these giants on a plate with spaghetti was a feast--one meatball equal to about 4 or 5 the way my mother made them. No need to ask for any other meatballs--one was certainly more than enough.
Once every few years, in honor of Dad, I set out to make his meatballs, his way. His size.
In this recipe, we used about 4 pounds of beef--ground chuck. You can use your own family's meatballs recipe or ours HERE. The ingredients would need to be increased to account for the 4 pounds (if you're making a lot), or simply make less meatballs. Four pounds would give you from 6-8 giant meatballs--2 pounds, probably 4 meatballs.
In the bottom of a roasting pan, I placed light olive oil, about 1/4" deep. The meatballs are placed in the pan and brushed with Extra Virgin Olive Oil to help the browning. The oven should be pre-heated to 450 F at first, then roasting the meatballs, uncovered for about 30 minutes. Next, cover lightly with foil and turn the oven down to 350 F and bake for another 30-45 minutes (ovens vary). Check occasionally to ensure the bottoms aren't burning. Turn the meatballs over a few times if necessary. You want them nicely browned, or until the internal temperature reaches 165 F (using an instant digital probe thermometer).
After the meatballs are done, you can serve over pasta with some of your tomato sauce, or place them into a large pot of your Sugo (Sunday Gravy) to flavor the sauce. You can also cut up one meatball to make a large meatball hero (sub) sandwich, topped with grated parmagiano and toasted in the oven, or smash one with sauce and sliced provolone cheese inside a large flatbread, like the type used to make a muffaletta sandwich. You might also serve half a meatball, cut side down on separate plates with pasta for an intimate supper... calling the half-moon dish Mezzaluna. "When the Moon Hits Your Eye... That's Amore!"
No matter how you enjoy them, you'll love making these huge polpette--my dad, Sal's Giant Meatballs.
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Mascarpone: Pronunciation, mas-car-POH-nay
A key ingredient in tiramisu and zabaglione, mascarpone is velvety soft, slightly acidic, and expensive. Mascarpone is milky-white in color and is easy to spread. It is used in various Lombardy dishes, and is considered a specialty in the region. Mascarpone originated in the area between Lodi and Abbiategrasso, southwest of Milan, probably in the late 16th or early 17th century.
The name more than likely is derived from mascarpa, an unrelated milk product made from the whey of stracchino (a young, barely aged cheese), or from mascarpia, a word in the local dialect for ricotta. Others claims the name comes from the Spanish mas que bueno, "better than good." Ricotta, unlike mascarpone, is also made from whey.
Usually sold fresh in tubs, It is one of the main ingredients in the modern Italian dessert known as tiramisu, and is sometimes used instead of butter or Parmesan cheese to thicken and enrich risotto. Mascarpone is also used to produce Italian cheesecakes. It's a highly perishable cheese meant to be consumed as soon as possible after it is made.
How to Use Mascarpone
Substitute: Blend 8 ounces softened cream cheese with 1/4 cup whipping cream.
Mascarpone is made from two ingredients... whole cream and citric or tartaric acid (to thicken the cream).
Click HERE to see how to make your own.
Click HERE for Ciao Italia's Italian Cheesecake recipe.
Who Says There's No Such Thing as Spaghetti and Meatballs in Italy? - Discover Pallottine from Abruzzo
In the province of Teramo, in Abruzzo there is a recipe that rivals the Sugo of the Neapolitan tradition: Chitarra con Pallottini. If there is any ancestor of Italian-American style "spaghetti & meatballs" (a dish that doesn't exist in Italy), then this is it...
Let me explain the name first. Chitarra means guitar in Italian, but in this case it refers to the pasta making tool called a chitarra because it's wire strings resemble a guitar (OK, perhaps it looks more like a zither or auto-harp, but let's not quibble.) The chitarra is used to make a type of spaghetti with a square edged profile, called Pasta alla Chitarra. A thin sheet of fresh pasta is laid on top of the chitarra and a small matterello pin is rolled over the pasta to squeeze it down and through the wires, creating the square sides. The pasta falls below, picked up and dried or cooked fresh. Kids would love to help make this pasta. The name of this type of pasta has taken on the name chitarra.
As for the Pallottini... palla means ball, the "-ini" ending means they are small. Small isn't the word. These Abruzzo meatballs are absolutely tiny. When I made this recipe, it took me well over an hour to make 268 tiny pallottine from about 3 pounds of minced, lean chuck. (Yes, I counted them). I should have waited until my son, Lucas came home from school to help me! While making them, I discovered that it was difficult to make the pallotine as small as the ones I found in authentic Abruzzese recipes. Mine came out around 3/4 inch in diameter... instead of the 1/2" or smaller seen in Abruzzo. The problem was trying to pinch a small enough bit of meat in between the tips of my fingers. Perhaps using a 1/4 teaspoon measure would have worked better. Tiny fingers and hands of young children would be perfect for the task, but knowing how tedious this task is, more than likely it would be considered as child labor.
On Sundays, when Neapolitan nonnas and mamas are making their Sugo, the kitchens in Abruzzo are filled with similar scents of Nonnas making their Sugo, pasta alla chitarra and pallottine. Traditionally, the dish is accompanied by a rich meat and tomato based Sugo rather than a simple marinara sauce. The sugo is slow-cooked all day with lamb, beef, and pork added to a large pot of crushed tomatoes. The sauce isn't finished until the meat easily falls or shreds apart and can be mixed into the sugo. In my recipe, I slow cooked the pallottine with crushed tomatoes and spices, leaving out the other meats. My thinking was that 3 pounds of tiny meatballs will still add loads of meaty flavor to the resulting sugo.
Some claim that Chitarra con Pallottini is a dish from the Piedmont region in the north from the early 20th century. In Abruzzo people have been making and eating pallottini since the early 1800s, a full 100 years earlier. To add to the confusion, a recent report by an Italian expert in archeological gastronomy discovered a Piedmont recipe in a monk's cookbook dated 1344 that described tiny meatballs used in a rice and pork blood dish. Wherever it stemmed from, this dish is unique and well worth making...
Since I didn't have a Chitarra when I made this recipe, I used some 3/4 inch wide tagliatelle for my dish. I also changed up the recipe a bit from the originals I found. They tend to use nothing but ground beef, one egg and a sprinkle of nutmeg to make the pallottini. I wanted to add a bit more flavor, so I added a very small minced of garlic (in a jar, imported from Italy) and since these meatballs were SO tiny, I couldn't use fresh diced onions as I do in normal sized polpette. Instead, I used dried onion flakes, knowing they would re-hydrate when added to the meat mixture.
I won't get into the recipe for the traditional Sugo here, but if you like, you can make my recipe HERE. Otherwise, for a fresher sauce, make a quick marinara with crushed tomatoes, a bit of sugar, and a decent amount of dried basil.
3 pounds of lean, chopped (minced) chuck/beef
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
2 teaspoon minced garlic (in jar)
2 tablespoons fine sea salt
40 cracks fresh black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 beaten egg
In a large mixing bowl, mix the minced chuck with the beaten egg, the minced garlic and all the other dry spices. Get in there with your hands and mix really well, until you are certain that each and every tiny meatball will get an assortment of garlic, onion flakes and other spices.
Lay out several sheets of wax paper on your work counter and start making the pallotine. If using your bare hands, barely pinch a little bit of meat mixture in between the tips of your thumb and two forefingers. Roll the meat into a ball shape between your palms. As I mentioned, the pallottine should be less than 3/4 inch around. If you want to try a 1/4 teaspoon measure, this might help to measure out a smaller amount.
Once you finished making all of the pallottine, heat a large saute pan with light olive oil filled to a depth of 3/4 inch deep. If you would like to brown the pallottine a bit more, you can use half the amount of oil, but you will have to pay much more attention to turning them as they brown. These tiny balls cook quickly!
Cook them in batches and remove with a slotted spoon, then place on a large baking tray covered with several layers of paper towels to drain.
When completed, you can place them in your marinara or Sugo and slowly simmer for about 1-1/2 hours or longer if you are adding them to a Sugo with several other meats.
So, the next time someone claims there is no such thing as Spaghetti and Meatballs in Italy, try winning a bar bet with your knowledge of Pallottine!
P.S. When I get my Chitarra tool, I'll update this article with photos of the Pallottine on top of fresh made Pasta alla Chitarra.