Today is Father’s Day in USA and although in Italy we celebrate this holiday on March 19th, it feels appropriate to dedicate this post to my father.
It was June 5, 1998, it was a sunny afternoon and I was sitting on the sideline of the soccer field where my children were training. Unexpectedly, I saw my husband walking toward me, his expression was gloomy and when he asked me to step aside, my heart skipped and I just knew that something terrible had happened. My father, 4600 miles away, had died, suddenly, of a stroke. I don’t need to explain what or how I felt then, but today what still hurts the most, is that I could not say goodbye.
No time for tears, just let me tell you about the Ragú Napoletano, that wonderful, comforting slow cooked meat-based sauce, synonym of pranzo della domenica (Sunday family supper). My mother was an excellent cook and she would make handmade pasta, tagliatelle, gnocchi, fusilli, strascinati, orecchiette . . . like no other, yet my father was the king of the ragú.
My father would wake up at 5:30 AM every Sunday and after his caffè and his first cigarette he would start the ragú. First he would prepare the braciole (slice of meat rolled -up), one made with beef and one with cotica (pork rind). He would season them with with garlic, salt, pepper, parsley, pine nuts, raisins and grated cheese. The braciole, along with the rest of the meat, were going in the pot with the onions, then the wine, last the passata di pomodori (tomato pureed) – which we usually bottled at the end of summer. For the next 4-5 hours, my father would tend to the ragú like it was a work of art . . . Letting the sauce pippiare – an onomatopoeic word that describes the sound of the sauce that barely simmer producing tiny bubbles – stirring once in awhile, tasting for salt and pepper.
My brothers and I would wake up to the aroma of the ragú and my best treat of the morning was a small slice of bread smothered with sauce.
The sauce usually serves as condiment to the ziti spezzati – my mom used to buy the long ziti and it was my job to cut them into short pieces – or to the paccheri, or to the handmade pasta that my mom had prepared. The meat, covered with sauce, was the second course along with the obligatory patatine fritte (fried potatoes) and insalata verde – just plain green lettuce – simply seasoned with olive oil and squeezed lemon.
Now, to find an original, traditional recipe of ragú it is not easy task, so I have always relied on my memories and some research. The ragú, is prepared with large pieces of meat that are browned together with a lot of onions. The choice of meat cuts seems to be the main issue, and not just for me . . . If you have 3 minute to spare, you might enjoy this clip from Sabato Domenica Lunedì, an Italian movie, starring Sofia Loren. Rosa Priore (Sofia Loren) is shopping for the perfect ingredients for ragú; in the macelleria (butcher shop), she gets into an argument with another client about which meat cuts to use. I am sorry the clip is in Italian – actually Neapolitan – however, tone of voices and expressions tell it all . . . and who doesn’t want to see the beautiful Sofia Loren!
Italian meat cuts have such distinctive names, cappello del prete, piccione, locena and so on, that I often find very difficult to translate them into an English equivalent. So many times, I show up at the butcher counter with a meat chart and I point out the cuts I need. So here is a picture for you.
One of the more traditional recipe advise to use the following cuts of meat (The numbers correspond to the cuts in the picture, I also added the English equivalent):
Scamone (#14 – beef rump), annecchia (veal stew), one slice of locena (#2 – beef brisket), noce di vitello (#16 – veal sirloin), pork ribs, and one piece of cotica (pork rind).
In my recipe, I follow the traditional cooking method, however, I do not use the lard – originally used instead of olive oil – and the pork rind. For the meat cuts, on this particular day, I used what I found available – pork and beef. Keep in mind that I often cook for only 3-4 people therefore I need to adjust my recipes accordingly.
Ingredients for 8 persons:
1 pound rump (#14)
1 large slice of brisket (#2) not too thick.
1 pound veal sirloin (16)
1 pound veal stew
1 pound pork ribs
2 large Vidalia onions – sliced
6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoon butter (I use butter-oil combination as substitute for lard)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup of red wine
1-1/2 pound tomato pureed
salt and pepper to taste
fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 tablespoon raisins – previously soaked in water
½ cup freshly grated Parmiggiano Reggiano
1 clove of garlic finely chopped
First prepare the braciola: lay the slice of meat on a chopping board, season with salt and pepper. Add parsley (hand-chopped), pine nuts, raisins, and grated cheese. Roll-up the meat and tie with cooking twine.
Season the rest of the meat with salt and pepper. Tie the large pieces with cooking twine to keep the shape.
In a large pot heat the oil and melt the butter. Add the sliced onions and the meat at the same time.
On medium heat let the meat brown and the onion soften until almost disappear. To achieve a perfect result you must tend to each step with care. During this first step you must be vigilant, don’t let the onion dry, stir with a cucchiaia (wooden spoon) and start adding wine if necessary to keep moist and facilitate the melting of the onions.
Once the onions have dissolved and the meat has browned, add the tomato paste and a little wine to dissolve it. Stir and combine the ingredients. Let cook slowly for 10 minutes.
Time to add the tomatoes pureed, season with salt and black pepper and stir.
Cover the pot but leave the lid ajar, you can place a wooden spoon under the lid. The sauce must cook very slowly for at least 3-4 hours.
Remember, as they say in Naples, the sauce must “pippiare”.
After 2 hours add few leaves of basil and continue cooking.
IMPORTANT: Half way through, don’t forget to dip a piece of bread into the sauce and have your first taste of heaven!
During these 3-4 hours you must keep tending to the ragú, stirring once in awhile and making sure that it doesn’t stick to the bottom.
The sauce, as I mentioned can be use as condiment for different kind of pastas. This sauce is also used in the preparation of the lasagna napoletana and the parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmigiana).
On this particular occasion, I used my ragú to make fusilli e strascicati al tegamino – my husband had just returned from Italy and brought me back these fresh homemade pasta. See in pictures the steps and final product.
Before I leave . . .HAPPY FATHER’S DAY TO ALL THE DADS!!!