It’s been a funny old year so far, like one of those intense mystery novels with one dizzying plot twist after another. None of us know what’s going to happen next, the author has gone rogue & the leading characters are all bickering with each other like petulant, hungry teenagers. When everything seems to be a swirl of stress & stomach dragons are grumbling, never fear – comfort food is here! A proper dinner helps calm grumbling of all kinds, soothing those pesky stomach dragons & restoring a little peace (albeit briefly).
Preparing a meal is something I truly enjoy. It’s impossible not to feel relaxed, while creating something so comforting & satisfying. The whole process requires you to focus on each task & that in itself seems to release any tension. It’s not as precise or technical as some recipes, but it’s sheer ease brings a sense of peace as you create a meal for your family. My adoration of Italian food began when I was a teenager & this is a rush-less ragu recipe I’ve been making for my family ever since. It is at the heart of my homemade meat lasagne, slowly baked between blankets of cheese sauce & sheets of homemade pasta, regularly shared as a Sunday dinner & often accompanied by my Husband’s focaccia (he’s quite a talented baker). Sometimes I make it with sausages, sometimes beef or both, usually whatever I’ve got in the freezer (I freeze meat in small batches for this very purpose).
This is a family-sized recipe & will serve at least six people generously (it makes a decent six portion lasagne too, although I have stretched it to eight on occasion). Keep some handy in the freezer for when you’re short on time (make sure you use fresh beef or sausage if you intend to freeze it though, not previously frozen).
A ragu is not fast food – to me it means “Relax And Gradually Unwind”, so just take your time & go at your own pace – there’s definitely no rush. Ready to ragu? Hands washed & aprons on!
What you need:
200g Minced Beef or 4 Plain Pork Sausages, skins removed (or half beef & pork)
2 medium Carrots, washed, peeled & finely chopped
2 sticks of Celery, washed & finely chopped
1 medium Onion, skin removed, topped, tailed & finely chopped
2 tins of Plum Tomatoes & their juice
1 generous tablespoon Tomato Puree
1 or 2 dried Bay Leaves (if you’re unsure, just use one)
1 sprig fresh Rosemary (approx 6″ long), leaves chopped finely
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped/sliced finely
2 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A splash of Balsamic Vinegar (the good stuff – about a teaspoonful)
Seasoning – Sea Salt & Black Pepper, both freshly ground
What to do:
Firstly, prepare your garlic, carrots, onion & celery. Make sure you wash the carrots & celery thoroughly to remove any grit or dirt. Peel the carrots & trim the ends off them & the celery. Chop finely into mini pieces & set aside on your board.
Next, peel the garlic & onion. Top & tail the onion, then chop finely as before – you can always use the food processor for this if you prefer. Here’s a little tip from me: wear sunglasses to help reduce any tears (obviously not dark ones, you need to see).
Chop the garlic finely & then the Rosemary. Remove the spindly leaves from the stem first – I save these for making mini-tomato & vegetable kebabs.
Heat the oil in a large skillet or deep frying pan on a medium heat. Add the carrot, celery & onion & fry for a few minutes to soften. Keep them moving around the pan, so they don’t catch & burn.
Add the meat – squeeze the sausages from the skins straight into the pan if it’s easier. Break any big chunks into finer pieces (I use tongs for this, but a wooden spoon or spatula is just as good). Stir fry until the meat is thoroughly coloured & all the pink has disappeared.
Season with a little salt & pepper, sprinkle in the garlic, Rosemary & bay leaves, giving everything a good stir (the scent is fabulous). I don’t add the garlic at the beginning, because it can burn quite quickly & lose it’s sweetness.
Next, add the tomatoes – I tend to buy the whole plum tomatoes & squish them by hand, evenly over the pan. Yes, it’s messy but you’ll wash. Half fill each tin with cold water to swirl out those last little drops of tomato juice into the pan too – we don’t waste anything!
Add the tomato puree & a good splash of balsamic vinegar (even a few drops makes all the difference). Reduce the heat to low & let it softly simmer for about 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Give it a taste, then add a little salt & pepper as needed (depending on the sausages you use, you might not need very much). Using a clean spoon, taste it again to make sure it’s to your liking (seasoning is a personal thing).
Once you’re happy, let it bubble away on a gentle simmer for another 30 minutes or so, until reduced to a rich, thick meaty sauce. Give your ragu another quick taste to check the seasoning is good & adjust it if you need to. To test if it’s done, drag the spoon through the middle (the parting of the ragu) – if it leaves a gap & you can see the bottom of the pan, then it’s ready!
Get the family together, grab a fork & get stuck in! It makes a sumptuously lazy supper generously spooned over spaghetti (with a good scattering of grated Parmesan on top), or stuffed in a variety of pasta parcels & shapes. This versatile rich meat sauce is especially fabulous layered up in lasagne – here’s the link to my vegetable lasagne recipe, just swap the meat ragu for the vegetable one: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/perfect-pastafication/
Sometimes, I’ll use the leftover meat sauce in a pasta bake (brilliant when you’re short on time & easily feeds two people comfortably). Pre-heat the oven to 180*C. Pop a couple of generous spoonfuls of ragu into the bottom of a small baking dish. Next, cook a couple of handfuls of fusilli (these twirly swirls make the best topping for this, as they are easily coated with the cheese sauce).
Make the cheese sauce while the pasta is cooking – melt 45g butter in a pan, then add 45g plain flour & stir well to make a thick paste. Slowly add 300ml of semi-skimmed milk, a little at a time & stir gently (I use a whisk to make sure there are no lumps). As the sauce thickens, stir more vigorously until silky smooth. Add a small handful of grated mild cheese (approx 60g) & mix in until melted. Taste, then season accordingly with a little sea salt & freshly ground black pepper. Sprinkle generously with more grated cheese, dust with a little dried Oregano & bake for about 30 minutes.
When it’s ready, the topping will have turned a gorgeously golden hue. Allow to cool for a few minutes before tucking in (just add a simple green salad & a little homemade focaccia for scooping up the sauce.
When the world gets too fast, slow down the pace & make a little comfort in your own kitchen with a fabulously flavourful ragu – Relax And Gradually Unwind. Stay hungry! Aimee 😉 x