Medicine is a cyclical existence. I’m not just referring to influenza although that’s pretty seasonal too. Job and training cycles invariably coincide with graduation cycles so your contract dates end up working out along those lines as well. Currently it’s the start of interviewing season, where stressed out overachievers in their last year of training try to decide whether they want to move to Kalamazoo and join that well heeled private practice group with a patient volume that reminds you of the conveyor belt scene in Modern Times versus remaining in the ivory tower and realizing that not only will you take a 30-40% pay cut for helping mold young minds and care for the indigent but you’ll also discover how university hospitals can still take care of the same number of patients with all those kinder and gentler house staff hourly restrictions. (Hint, there are no caps on hours or patient limits in the private or academic world once you’ve flown the coop ;)) Ah, memories. So glad that’s long behind me; however, even attendings aren’t immune to the vagaries of seasonality, there are simply smaller numbers of people migrating at the end of their contracts if they decide not to become partners in a private practice group, moving on to another institution to advance their careers, family considerations,…. What this means for us is lots of opportunities to eat out and enjoy the preparation du jour, oh, and meet the hopefuls–this year, a certain subspecialty has only 8-ish job openings nationwide for a graduate pool that’s over 3X that number [eek!]. Maybe it’s vicariously
re-living living through other people’s tumults and upheavals or the strangeness of the new, but times like this make me long for classic flavors prepared simply. It re-centers me and soothes my soul and psyche.
Ragù is about as simple as can be, basically a meat-based sauce (usually with some veggies but sometimes not) for pasta. It can easily feed just 2 or become an easy, breezy dinner party cuz beyond dicing the veggies and puréeing the sauce, most of your time is spent reading or doing the laundry while the meat braises happily in its tangy, mouthwatering sauce. In fact, this sauce can either be made entirely on the stove if you’re puttering around the kitchen
experimenting with sea salt soft caramels multitasking or started on the stove and finished in the oven (I’ll often do the stove part through puréeing the sauce but before braising the meat in oven the day before and then finish the following day after a sojourn in the refrigerator if I’m making this for dinner guests/am doing a lot of cooking) or browned and then dumped into your handy dandy slow-cooker. I’ve used classic flavors starting with a mirepoix (aromatic onion, carrots, and celery), browned meats, a little vino for deglazing all those yummy browned bits, tangy tomato (frozen ripe cherry tomatoes and flavor-anemic canned tomatoes boosted with some tomato paste and cider vinegar) and traditional thyme and oregano. You could also shake things up with a tiny pinch of ground nutmeg as that seems to bring out the hearty flavors of the meat and tomatoes as well. Oh, and just in case you’re interested, the sauce tastes even better the next day as the flavors have melded. I’m speaking theoretically here since someone had thirds tonight 🙂
In my defense your honor…
1) Do not boil pasta and then rinse it off in water so it can sit in the colander until you’re ready for it if you can at all avoid it. Why? Cuz rinsing the pasta also gets rid of all that sticky starch on the outside that lets your delicious sauce adhere to and flavor that lovely pasta. That’s also why it’s best not to add oil to pasta water because while it may keep the pasta from sticking together it will also coat the pasta and prevent the sauce from sticking to it as well resulting in a bland slightly greasy carb bomb.
2) Save a cup of pasta water before you pour everything into the colander. This will save you pain and hardship if your sauce is too thick or gummy without making it watery like water or broth would or making your veggies grey lifeless from having to cook down the additional broth. I find that dipping a ceramic mug into the water gives me sufficient pasta water and then I don’t have to worry about being able to aim a 10 lb molten hot pot as I’m draining it.
3) I like to undercook my pasta by about a minute or two, so chewy that it’s not even al dente yet (literally “to the tooth,” such that the texture is firm to the bite), allowing me to finish cooking it in the sauce so that the delicious flavors can stick to the starchy outside of the pasta giving you savory pasta with yummy sauce instead of bland pasta with a savory sauce.
2 oz pancetta or 4 strips bacon, diced
12 oz beef stew meat
1 tbsp all-purpose flour **substitute corn starch if cooking gluten free
1 c full-bodied red wine (I used Shiraz)
1 medium-sized carrot, peeled and diced
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tsp (2 cloves) crushed garlic
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
1 c cherry tomatoes or 3 large ripe tomatoes, diced
1 tsp tomato paste
1 tsp cider vinegar
1/2 tsp dried (1/2 tbsp fresh) thyme
1/4 tsp dried (1/4 tbsp fresh) oregano
1/2 + 1 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
12 oz pappardelle or your favorite long, flat pasta
1/4 c shredded parmesan, optional
In a large ~3 quart pot or Dutch oven brown pancetta over medium heat till fat is rendered. Using tongs and a paper towel blot out all but 1-2 tsp. Season meat with salt and pepper and then dust with flour on both sides. Brown meat in pot ~4-5 minutes**. Remove meat from pot and set aside in a small container (I like to use a bowl so I can pour the meat and its accumulated juices back easily later on). Deglaze pot with wine and simmer briskly till reduced by half. Add onion, carrots, celery and garlic to pot and cook till they have released their juices and are tender (also known as “sweating,” yeah, it sounds icky to me too) ~4-5 minutes.
Stir in all the tomatoes, tomato paste, vinegar, thyme, oregano, 1/2 tsp salt and ground pepper and simmer with cover on till vegetables are very tender/can be easily mashed with a spoon ~15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor purée sauce. Return sauce, meat and any accumulated juices to the pot–this is a good stopping point if you want to finish 1-3 days later. Braise meat on stove at a low simmer (give it a few desultory stirs every few minutes as you do the many things you do) or in the oven at 350F till meat is very tender and shreds easily with a fork ~20-30 minutes on the stove or ~45-60 minutes in the oven.
While meat is braising boil water and remaining 1 tsp salt in a large (at least 3 quarts) pot. Set a timer for 1 minute less than the recommended cooking time and boil pasta. (If you’re using the oven method, don’t start boiling the pasta until you take the ragù out of the oven otherwise you will have a cold gummy pasta brick while your sauce is still finishing.) Scoop out a cup of pasta water then drain pasta and simmer for another minute in the ragù. This makes a dense, dry sauce. If you want a more liquidy consistency add pasta water by the quarter cup till you get the consistency you like. I prefer my ragù on the drier side so I’ve never needed to add pasta water. Makes 4 servings. Sprinkle with parmesan if using. Take a deep breath, sigh, and reset 🙂
**If you’re using a slow-cooker, transfer all ingredients except pasta, 1 tsp salt, and parmesan into slow-cooker at this point and cook on med-lo for 6-8 hours (or whichever setting give you meat that is easily shredded with a fork). This method will give you a rustic, chunky sauce as the veggies won’t be puréed.