There’s something about that first mouthful. Intensely meaty, enough oil to coat your tongue with a rich deep flavour. Very savoury, but with an underlying sweetness as well. There’s the slightest tang of decadence as the pleasure centres of your brain light up in oily delight.
If eating a slow cooked ragu sounds just a wee bit dirty, that’s because it is. There is nothing sophisticated or subtle about it. Slippery and sticky, strong and beefy, the moist saucy meat just slides across your tongue leaving wobbly-legged, dazed but wide awake taste buds in its wake. Pure gourmet porn, this is the sensuous libidinous mistress to haut cuisine’s sophisticated lady.
I know I sound infatuated. But I am. I can still remember the first proper ragu I ever ate. It was in The Red Pepper, and it blew the insipid 30-minute mince-and-tinned-tommies of my student kitchen right out of my brain. Next to this magnificent beast, my cooking was shallow and weak, full of immature, garish flavour that hadn’t had time to fully mature.
A good ragu will have been slowly simmered, flavours gently extracted from the meat and bone, vegetables and herbs, and melted into one another. Heightened and held together by fruity oil, strongly flavoured beef fats and cartilaginous matter transformed into a sticky sauce.
This slow simmer is absolutely key. A ragu isn’t hard to make, but you need to set some time aside. For maximum depth of flavour, braise the beef a day ahead of time and leave stewing in its juices overnight in the fridge. It’s still damn good even if you don’t do that, but the rest will raise it onto another plane altogether.
This is a dish to cuddle up on the sofa with. A bottle of powerful, hangover-inducing, red wine in easy reach. Maybe a good film film on the box. Hopefully the rain will be hammering against the windows and the wind wailing banshee-like over your roof. It’ll make the ragu taste even better.
The beef ragu
Serves three to four with pasta
As stated above you can make the ragu the night before and stick it in the fridge for a night or two. It’s a great thing to do on a Sunday ready to whip up a beautifully warming meal on the Monday or Tuesday.
You can substitute in different herbs, maybe try some juniper berries? You could even change the wine for stock (beef ideally, but veggie if not) and chuck in some spices too. There are all sorts of variations, the key is to cook it long and slow and use a bit of beef with lots of tendony, fatty bits like shin or short-rib.
The braised beef
1 beef shirt-rib plus meat – about 750g-1kg – chopped into chunks
1 onions – roughly chopped
1 carrot – roughly chopped
1 celery stick – roughly chopped
Half bunch flat leaf parsley
A few sprigs of thyme
2 stalks of rosemary
2 bay leaves
5 whole cloves garlic
Half a bottle red wine
Salt and pepper
1 tin of chopped or cherry tomatoes
Rape seed oil
The braised beef and reserved liquid
1 onion – finely chopped
Half red pepper – finely chopped
8 cherry tomatoes – quartered
Rape seed oil
Braising the beef
Put a heavy based casserole, deep frying pan or large saucepan over a medium-high heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of oil and fry the onion until soft, add carrot and celery and stir fry for a couple of minutes.
Add the beef (including the rib-bone) and fry for another minute or two. Splash some vinegar (not too much) stir and add the tin of tomatoes, the herbs, the garlic cloves and the wine. Turn heat down to the lowest setting, put a lid on and simmer slowly for a couple of hours, stirring every 30-40 minutes.
At this point, leave it covered in the fridge for a night if you can.
Remove the beef with some tongs, wait for it to cool and chop it as finely as you can. Pour the rest of the braising mix through a sieve into a jug and reserve the liquid.
Making the ragu
Heat about three tablespoons of oil in a heavy bottomed pan and fry the onion until soft, add the pepper and fry for two minutes. Add the tomatoes and garlic and fry for a couple more minutes then add the beef. Stir and fry for about a minute then add about half the reserved braising liquid.
Allow it to bubble away until about half of it is gone, stirring all the while. Add the rest of the liquid, turn the heat down a little and let it simmer quietly while you cook the pasta.
When the pasta is cooked drain it and add a few spoonfuls of the sauce and mix it in with a pair of tongs. Serve and add a couple a spoonful more of sauce to each plate.