Tagliatelle al ragu

As a student I perfected my own version of spag bol – who doesn’t! It came to mind as I had another of those dinners coming up when I couldn’t really be away from my guests before or during the meal and needed something hot and delicious in a pot to plonk in the middle of the kitchen table. Spag bol seemed like a good option but given my recent cooking escapades it seemed appropriate to search for a ‘proper’ spaghetti bolognese recipe. And that is how I came across tagliatelle al ragu, which is apparently how the real Italians do it. One of the surprises was the amount of vegetables that went into the pot – I was doing 4 times the recipe below. Another surprise was the subtlety of the flavours and juiciness of the meat. This is no spag bol!

The recipe that appealed to me most was from Gustoso:

Italy’s most loved but misinterpreted dish has to be tagliatelle al ragu. When it left Italy’s shores it somehow become spaghetti bolognese. The real bolognese dish is made by tossing a little rich, slow-cooked ragu (a meat sauce, usually veal and pork) through fresh egg noodles.

There’s a number of tricks to an outstanding ragu sauce. First you really need to let it simmer for a good 3 hours to allow all the flavours to meld together and fill your house with divine smells. A dash of milk is added to the ragu sauce to cut the acidity of the tomatoes and wine.

My own trick for browning minced meat is to do it in red wine instead of using oil. The flavour is noticeably richer and arguably healthier – substituting fat with alcohol…

Ingredients:
Serves 4

30g butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 carrot finely chopped or grated
90g pancetta or bacon, finely chopped
220g minced ground veal or beef (I used half pork/half beef mince)
220g minced ground pork
2 sprigs of oregano, chopped or 1/4 tsp dried oregano
pinch of nutmeg
½ cup dry white wine
3/4 cup milk, or soy milk
400g tin chopped tomatoes or fresh (I used tinned ones)
250ml beef stock (I didn’t use stock, there was plenty of liquid).
400g tagliatelle
grated Parmesan cheese

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the onion, celery, carrot and pancetta. Cook over a moderate heat for 6-8 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Add the minced beef, pork and oregano to the saucepan. Season with salt and pepper and the nutmeg. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the mince has browned slightly.

Pour in the wine, increase the heat and boil over high heat for 2-3 minutes, or until the wine has been absorbed. Stir in the milk and reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the tomato and half the stock, partially cover the pan and leave to simmer gently over very low heat for 3 hours. Add more of the stock as it is needed to keep the sauce moist.

Meanwhile, cook the tagliatelle in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain the tageliatelle, toss with the sauce and serve with grated Parmesan.

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Pot-roast pheasant with chestnuts

This one is a keeper, from The Sunday Times magazine. I made this recipe just once this year, in November, when chestnuts abound and butchers have pheasants on offer. The red current jelly served on the side is a must.

Serves 4
2 oven-ready pheasants
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
100g smoked pancetta, cubed or cut into strips (I often get bacon rashers from local butcher and cube them)
12-15 small round shallots, peeled (or 4 banana shallots, peeled and halved) – 250g in total
1 big stick of celery, halved lengthways and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
200g cooked, peeled chestnuts, quartered (an easy way to cook chestnuts is to put them in a microwave, covered, for about 3 minutes)
125ml red wine
250ml chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of thyme
10cm strip of orange zest
1 tbsp redcurrant jelly

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. Season the birds inside and out. Heat the oil in a casserole dish big enough to hold both pheasants. Add the birds and cook for a minute or so each side, to brown the skin. Remove from the pan and put to one side. Place the pancetta and shallots in the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, until they start to brown. Throw in the celery and garlic and stir for a couple of minutes more. Add the chestnuts and the birds, breast down. Pour over the wine, bubble for a minute, then add all the remaining ingredients. Stir, bring to a simmer, then cover and put in the oven for 40 minutes.

Finally, turn the pheasants breast side up. Return the dish to the oven for 15-20 minutes without the lid, to brown the breast a little. The pheasants are done when the legs pull away easily from the carcass.

White bean and smoked bacon soup

This is one of my winter staples. Heart-warming soup works both as a main course for a simple dinner or a starter to a bigger evening meal.

Ingredients:
250g dried cannellini, haricot or butter beans (I normally use waitrose canned cannellini or butter beans, which work perfectly)
6 cloves (I used as many as necessary to turn one onion into a hedgehog)
2 onions
handful of parsley stalks
8-12 black peppercorns
1-2 bay leaves
3 tbsp olive oil
1-2 stick celery diced
2 carrots diced
200g piece smoked bacon cubed (I use about 4 smoked bacon rashers from my local butchers or a packet of pancetta/lardons)
1 litre chicken stock or ham stock (when in a hurry I use knorr chicken cubes, no MSG or preservatives)
150ml single cream
chopped parsley to garnish
Go easy with the seasoning – the bacon means you shouldn’t need salt at all.

Put the beans into a large pan and cover with 1 litre water. Stick the cloves into one of the oinions and add it to the pan along with the parsley stalks, peppercorns and bay. Bring to the boil, skim off any scum, then partly cover. Turn down to a simmer and cook for an hour, with the lid on. Drain the beans and discard the onion, bay and parsley stalks.
Chop the other onion finely. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and add the onion, celery, carrot and bacon (keep back some of the bacon to fry for a garnish).
Cook gently until golden. Add the beans and stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer for 25-30 minutes. The beans should collapse completely – press them with the back of a wooden spoon to help them along. Add the cream (if using), season with pepper and taste. Quickly dry-fry the rest of the bacon, divide it between each serving of soup and scatter with parsley.

Note: I used coriander instead of parsley on occasion and it works well too. Different stock also affects the flavour, I found that using my own chicken stock makes for a creamier, less pronounced taste compared to the knorr chicken stock cubes.