Ethan Stowell likes to make his tasty ragu with pork or veal cheeks, but if you can’t find those, ground beef short rib will work just fine.
IN FALL, I ALWAYS crave pasta with a killer Italian ragù. For many years, my go-to sauce was a combination of ground beef, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, carrots and zucchini, plus the typical Italian seasonings and red wine. But recently, I grew tired of that and wanted to up my game. So I went on a quest for a ragù with deep, rich flavor and meat so tender it falls apart.
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There seems to be a consensus about some fundamentals: The meat should be browned first, the sauce needs to be cooked for a long time and San Marzano canned tomatoes are the bomb. Some chefs swear by pork; others favor a combination of pork and veal. I tried a few recipes with braised pork shoulder but was disappointed in the results. Although the meat did fall apart, it lacked the flavor I was after.
Ethan Stowell, mastermind behind the Italian cooking at Tavolàta and Rione XIII and chef/owner of more than a dozen other Seattle restaurants, says he prefers ragù made from pork cheeks or veal cheeks (the collagen lends thickness to the sauce). Because cheeks can be difficult to find at grocery stores, Stowell suggests home cooks try a version made with beef short rib: “It’s a great way to use a really nice piece of meat. It’s rich but not heavy or overwhelming.”
My butcher looked surprised when I asked him to grind boneless short rib. It is expensive, compared to the ground chuck that goes into a lot of sauces. In this case, you get what you pay for. The rich flavor of the short rib is out of this world. This recipe might look a little plain on first read, with no herbs other than bay leaf, but it is truly outstanding from the quality of the beef, the meaty San Marzano tomatoes and the slow cooking. The ingredients speak for themselves.
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Some recipes call for red wine, but Stowell uses white here, à la traditional Bolognese, for a lighter sauce. I love how this ragù appears light and veggie-laden but packs so much flavor. Buon appetito!
Beef Short Rib Ragù
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ pounds ground boneless short ribs
1 cup finely diced carrots
1 cup finely diced onion
1 cup finely diced celery
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup white wine
2 28-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes
2 fresh bay leaves
Freshly ground pepper
1. Heat olive oil in a wide Dutch oven or high-sided pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the ground meat. Brown the meat over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring to break up any lumps.
2. Drain most of the fat from the meat.
3. Add the carrots, onion, celery and garlic, and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add the wine, stirring and scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
4. Put the tomatoes and their liquid through a food mill, or puree in a food processor and strain to remove the seeds. Add the puree to the pot, and bring to a boil. Add the bay leaves and the salt and pepper to taste.
5. Decrease the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for 1½ to 2 hours, or until the meat is quite tender, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. While the ragù is cooking, make sure the liquid in the bottom doesn’t run dry. If the liquid evaporates, add a little water and stir. When the sauce is finished, it should be thick with good body.
6. Remove bay leaves, and serve with your favorite pasta and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.