This ragu from the late 18th century tastes rich, brown and velvety with the surprise of cinnamon and tingly black pepper. The sauce blends well with tagliatelle, pappardelle, penne and garganelli pastas. Experience it as it was first made centuries ago by combining the ragu with hollow maccheroni-style pasta and baking it. You could, of course, simply serve it up without baking.
After trying the ragu with and without Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, I found cheese overwhelms the sauce's cinnamon and pepper, while its texture changes the ragu's silkiness.
A Little History
This is one of the earliest of Emilia-Romagna's ragus to be served with pasta and was found in a small manuscript of 50 or so recipes written by Alberto Alvisi.
Between 1785 and 1800 Alvisi cooked for the Cardinal of Imola, Gregorio Chiaramonti. The Cardinal went on to be Pope Pio VII, while Alvisi dropped into obscurity.
Bolognese journalists Aureliano Bassani and Giancarlo Roversi discovered Alvisi’s manuscript in Bologna's archives, and published it some 180 years after the cardinal dined on this ragu.
Cook's Note: Using Other Meats: The original recipe offered the cook a choice of beef, veal shoulder, pork loin, or poultry giblets. Any of these could be substituted in equal amounts for the beef mentioned below.
2 tablespoons rendered fat from salt pork
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
l medium onion, minced
1-1/4 pounds beef skirt steak, or boneless chuck blade steak, trimmed of fat and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour
4-1/3 cups a rich, homemade meat or poultry stock
Generous pinch each cinnamon and freshly ground black pepper
6 quarts boiling, generously salted water
1 pound imported Italian penne pasta
Working Ahead: The ragu can be made ahead. It holds well, covered, in the refrigerator for 2 days and freezes for a month. Skim off fat and reheat before serving. Taste for cinnamon and pepper before tossing with pasta. There should be a sparkle of pepper and soft back taste of cinnamon.
Combine the ragu and pasta in a casserole. It can wait a couple of hours before baking. Plan on about 30 to 45 minutes in a 350° oven.
Browning: Heat the pork fat and butter in a heavy four-quart saucepan over medium high heat. Stir in the meat and onions, turning heat up to high.
Use a wooden spatula to push apart pieces of meat as it first throws off moisture and then begins browning. Lower heat if meat threatens to burn, or if the brown glaze on the bottom of pan turns very dark.
Reducing and Simmering: Sprinkle the first quantity of cinnamon and a little salt and pepper over the meat and stir in a 1/2 cup of the stock. Scrape up the brown glaze with a wooden spatula as the stock bubbles slowly over medium heat. Once the stock has bubbled down to nothing, add another 1/2 cup of stock. Repeat the reduction once more, using another 1/2 cup stock.
Blend in the flour, cooking it over medium heat about 2 minutes. Pour in the remaining stock. Bring it to a very slow bubble.
Partially cover the pot and cook about 2-1/2 hours, or until meat is tender. Sauce should be the consistency of unwhipped heavy cream. Add water if it thickens too much, or threatens to stick and burn. Once it is done, remove from the heat and cover. Or store in the refrigerator.
Cooking the Pasta and Serving: Have the water at a full, rolling boil. Drop in the penne and cook, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes, or until slightly underdone. Drain immediately in a colander.
Have the ragu hot. Sprinkle sauce with second quantity of cinnamon and pepper. There should be a whisper of discernable cinnamon and a gentle tingle from the pepper. Toss the sauce with the hot pasta.
If you are going to bake it, turn into a buttered 4 quart casserole and bake at 350° for 30 minutes, or until hot.
If serving right away, turn the pasta back into the pasta pot, add the ragu and toss together over low heat for 3 minutes, or until pasta has absorbed a little of the ragu’s juices. Serve hot.
Wine Suggestions: From Emilia-Romagna drink a red Barbera or Merlot from the Colli Bolognese. Or have Piemonte's Barbera d’Asti or Alba, or a Dolcetto d'Alba.
From The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Morrow, 1992). Copyright 1992 Lynne Rossetto Kasper.
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