If you love rich pasta dishes, then this is the dinner for you. It seems to please the biggest to the smallest. I made this several times over the holidays (and again last night!) when crowds of people were dropping by continually, and it was a life-saver. It takes a bit of time (and a very large wooden spoon for wielding all of that meat!) but when it is done, you are off the hook for the whole evening, or for several days if you just cook it for the family for future meals.
I made this with a mixture of beef and lamb for extra flavor, and added special things like sun-dried tomato paste and smoky bacon to give the sauce a complex richness. Once you get the hang of making meat sauces they can be used in so many other things, Bolognese, Shepard’s pie, not to mention how they can be made ahead, frozen in 4 serving sizes to be drawn upon when you are in a hurry or you decide to ask the friend that came over for a quick chat after lunch to stay for dinner! All very handy indeed!
When I write about stuff like this I have to admit to feeling like some overly fastidious housewife and I have to scream out loud (mostly for myself) that it isn’t true!!! I don’t spend my days planning meals, and making mountains of food which get stored in Tupperware containers, neatly labelled with the contents. I only make giant amounts of food when I end up with a pile of something unexpected that needs using up (like 3lbs of ground meat last night).
I do however think about food quite a bit. Food just reminds me of everything that is good about the world: the pleasure of eating in the company of like-minded people, the smells bursting from my kitchen when I zest a lemon or chop fresh basil, the people I get to chat with who are drawn in by the activity and energy in my kitchen, cooking with friends, family and strangers, traveling anywhere and everywhere for that perfect meal, knowing that feeding someone who is down and out that day can change them for the better. It is a simple thing and not the most complicated thing to ponder on as I go through my day, but it is something that I can do everyday and it makes me feel good. You don’t need much to make something pleasing to the heart and soul, it can be as simple as a potato with a little blob of butter and salt – bliss.
You will need:
For meat sauce:
1/4 cup olive oil (extra-virgin is fine too)
3 lbs ground meat (beef, lamb or combination of the two – I buy 15% fat content when using beef)
4 or 5 stripes bacon (I used a flavorful smoky variety)
2 large onions, small dice
3 celery ribs, including leaves, diced
3 carrots, diced (I did this in my food processor – much faster!)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 28oz can (793 grams) tomato puree
1 1/2 cups water
3 tbs tomato paste (or sun-dried tomato paste)
1 tsp sea-salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper flakes (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups white or red wine
For Béchamel sauce:
1 stick butter (4 oz/ 113 grams)
1/3 cup + 1 tbs all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups milk
1 good quality veggie or chicken bouillon cube (I use Rapunzel Brand)
1/2 tsp sea-salt (I use Maldon sea-salt flakes) – NO salt if your bouillon cube is salty!
freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups parmesan cheese, grated (optional)
3 lb pasta (I recommend any tubular pasta: rigatoni, large penne, ziti)
1 – Prep all veggies for meat sauce and set aside. Put large deep saute pan or large casserole on medium heat and add 2 tbs of the oil. Add the chopped bacon and fry until getting crispy. Pour off some of the bacon fat.
2 – Next, add the rest of the oil, then the onions, garlic, carrots, celery and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally for about 12 minutes.
3 – Add the ground meat and cook until it has all browned. sir and break up meat as much as possible during the cooking. This will take about 12 minutes.
4 – Turn heat up to high and add the wine, water, tomato puree, and tomato paste and stir until everything is well incorporated and starting to bubble.
5 – Add the salt, several generous grinds of black pepper and cayenne pepper flakes (if using)
6 – When the mixture is bubbling, cover with the lid partially off, turn down and cook, stirring occasionally for up to 2 1/2 hours. The sauce will have thickened and become deeply rich.
7 – While sauce is cooking put big saucepan or saute pan on medium/low heat and add the butter. When it melts, swirl in the stock cube until it dissolves completely. Add the salt and several grinds of freshly ground pepper.
8 – Add the flour and stir with a whisk until it becomes a smooth paste. Add the milk 1 cup at a time, and cook on medium, stirring continually until it the sauce becomes thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Cover and set side.
Preheat oven to 400*
Boil the pasta noodles right before you want to cook this dish (the rest can be made ahead) Do not rinse with cold water.
9 – Stir Béchamel sauce into meat sauce
10 – Mix the hot pasta with the ragu. Butter a very large casserole (or several dishes) and pour pasta mixture into baking dish. Top with cheese (if using)
11 – Place in oven until getting crispy on top (start checking after 30 minutes)
Serve with lots of greens, more cheese, pepper flakes and black pepper!