These days are made for ragù. It is cold outside, and the windows in your kitchen will quickly be fogged up by the steam from the pot of meat sauce sputtering on the stove. The smell, that familiar, heartwarming, delicious aroma, will stick to your clothes like the warmth of your grandma’s hug.
I grew up eating my grandma’s Tuscan ragù, something she would make to celebrate our Sunday family gatherings. In the past, the hearty meat sauce was reserved for only holidays or special occasions, such as days of threshing or harvesting.
My grandmother Marcella is Tuscan, born and bred. She has always lived in the countryside, in between Siena and Florence. Her food is therefore Tuscan to the core, or, to be more precise, her recipes are from the hills of Val d’Elsa, the valley of the river Elsa, influenced partly by Sienese cuisine and partly by that of Florence.
My grandfather Biagio was instead from Basilicata, a tiny region in the south of Italy, wedged between Campania and Puglia. In the ’50s, he moved to Tuscany with part of his family, including his sister, Aunt Valeria, who was the best cook in the family. She was very resourceful, as she used to feed a large family with just a few, poor ingredients.
Grandma Marcella and Aunt Valeria clicked immediately, with food as their common ground. They used to visit each other on Sundays, sharing food and the table with their families. It was during one of those visits when Aunt Valeria heard for the first time a peculiar sound coming from my grandma’s kitchen.
It was my grandma, chopping vegetables on a wooden cutting board with a mezzaluna, a crescent-shaped knife with two handles. She was preparing the battuto, a mix of finely chopped vegetables—usually carrots, celery, and onions—that serves as the backbone of her festive meat sauce, the Tuscan ragù.
Valeria was very curious about the dish, and thoroughly enjoyed it when served with thick, homemade tagliatelle, so she asked my grandma if she could share her secrets. My grandma has always been generous with her recipes, so she gladly listed the ingredients and explained the cooking method: a copious battuto, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, then ground beef and ground pork, red wine, and tomato sauce.
When Aunt Valeria attempted cooking her ragù, she thought she would drastically reduce the amount of vegetables and increase the amount of meat, since in her experience, that was a sure path to a tastier result.
Yet her ragù was never as good as the one my grandmother would bring to the table on Sundays.
Every time Grandma tells me this story, she cannot help but smile. The trick to a successful meat sauce, she would say, is to use plenty of vegetables, as they did in the countryside to save money and bulk up the sauce. That and, of course, a wooden spoon for stirring and a very long, slow cooking time.
One Name, Many Sauces
One of the reasons Aunt Valeria misunderstood my grandma’s advice owes to the incredible amount of recipes listed under the label of “ragù.”
The most famous is probably the rich and indulgent Bolognese ragù. It begins with a battuto made of carrots, celery, and onion, made richer with a good amount of minced pancetta. The meat is often ground beef, cooked with dry white wine and a small amount of tomato purée. The ragù is finished with milk, or cream, to round out the flavor.
Remember that, for pasta purists, ragù alla bolognese is supposed to be served with thick and porous homemade tagliatelle—not spaghetti, which does not hold the sauce half as well.
Southern ragù, such as the kind enjoyed in Naples, is completely different. The battuto is made with just finely chopped onions, sautéed until translucent in olive oil and lard. The meat is not ground, but rather a triumph of rich cuts—a piece of beef shoulder wrapped in prosciutto or pancetta; braciola, a beef roll stuffed with cheese, garlic, parsley, raisins, and pine nuts; and pork sausages or ribs—all slowly simmered with red wine in tomato sauce.
At least three hours of cooking are required for the meat to fully release its flavor; some cooks will settle for no less than six. When the ragù is ready, the meat-infused tomato sauce is used to dress dry pasta, usually candele, ziti, maccheroni, or paccheri, and the meat is served as a main course—after all, you’ve just spent half a day cooking it.
This is the type of ragù my Aunt Teresa was used to; no wonder she thought to add more meat to her Tuscan ragù.
These are obviously generalizations. As always happens, every family has its own recipe for ragù, and so these Bolognese, Neapolitan, and Tuscan characterizations are more styles than precise recipes.
How to Make Tuscan Ragù
For my grandmother’s Tuscan ragù, the battuto is built from finely chopped carrot, celery, and red onion, but sometimes also parsley, garlic, or leeks. The aromatics are sautéed over low heat in plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and then stirred into the ground meat.
As for the meat, at home we traditionally use both lean minced beef and minced pork. Sometimes we replace the ground pork with the same weight in fresh pork sausages; the ragù will be tastier but slightly fattier.
If you prefer an old-fashioned, robust sauce, finely mince a thick slice of Tuscan prosciutto or spalla (cured pork shoulder) and add it to the ground meat. Or, opt instead for chicken livers—or rabbit livers, as my great-grandmother used to do—for a rich sauce typical of the countryside, where such backyard animals were more common than beef and pork. The ragù will be darker, but acquire a creamier texture, which marries beautifully with homemade tagliatelle.
Sometimes, to build heartier flavor in her ragù, my grandma would also add a handful of dried porcini mushrooms, previously soaked and finely minced.
Tuscan ragù is cooked with red wine, poured in little by little, and passata, tomato purée made from purely tomatoes that have been peeled and blended into a sauce—even better if it is your homemade one, prepared and canned during the heat of summer.
To give more character to the ragù, and get a more rustic sauce, sometimes I prefer to replace the passata with the same weight of peeled tomatoes, roughly crushed with my hands. I often add two large tablespoons of tomato paste, too, another secret that my grandma shared with me.
RECIPE: Tuscan Ragù
Although ragù nowadays is almost always considered red, made with some kind of tomatoes—either peeled and chopped, pureed, or in the form of tomato paste—it is also possible to find delicious white ragù, made without tomatoes.
An example is a white pork ragù. Use a flavorful, not too lean cut of pork, such as pork neck, as a base. Then add a generous amount of vegetables, following my grandmother’s wisdom. Without tomato, the acidity comes from white wine, poured in little by little to cook the meat. Other white ragus can be made with poultry, like chicken or guinea fowl, or even with rabbit meat.
If you don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen, using sausage meat instead of plain ground meat is my favorite shortcut. Sausage ragù is a quick and clever alternative to the classic Sunday sauce, requiring half the cooking time of a meat sauce made following all the rules, but with all the richness and flavor. Choose fresh Italian sausages, either spiced or with fennel seeds, and cook it exactly as you would a Tuscan ragù, but reduce the simmering time to about one hour.
In recent years, it’s also easy to find vegetarian ragù on menus, often based on pulses, especially lentils. As always, begin with an abundance of finely chopped vegetables, then add the lentils and cook them until soft. White wine, tomato paste, and even dried mushrooms add depth of flavor, an instant reason to celebrate.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com