The word ragu brings to mind deeply flavourful sauces that take hours to simmer, reduce and intensify. It doesn’t always have to be that way, though, depending on the ingredients you use. The first recipe starts with minced meat and umami-rich ingredients and needs only about 30 to 45 minutes of simmering; the second recipe uses oxtail and pig’s foot, so it’s good for when you have more time.
Pork and pancetta ragu with rigatoni, mint and aged pecorino cheese
I include one ingredient in this recipe that I didn’t put into the title, because so many people think they dislike it: anchovies. When the tiny, intensely flavoured fish are cooked like this, you don’t really taste them, but they add even more umami savouriness to the sauce.
I like to use fresh tomatoes for this dish (buy the small tomatoes sold by fruit vendors) but you can substitute chopped canned tomatoes, too.
15ml cooking oil
80 grams pancetta, sliced about 3cm thick
3 garlic cloves
About 100 grams onion
1 tsp whole fennel seeds
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
3 anchovy fillets in olive oil
500 grams minced pork (buy slightly fatty pork, if it’s available)
750 grams cherry tomatoes, pear-shaped tomatoes or canned chopped Italian tomatoes
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 60 grams aged pecorino cheese, grated on a fine rasp-type grater (such as a Microplane)
Fresh mint leaves
500-600 grams rigatoni
Cut the pancetta into thin batons. Thinly slice the garlic cloves and roughly chop the onion. Mash the anchovies with a fork. If using fresh tomatoes, cut them in half.
Heat the oil in a pan placed over a low-medium flame and add the pancetta. Cook, stirring often, until the pancetta fat is translucent. Remove the pancetta from the pan, leaving behind as much oil as possible. Add the garlic, onion and a light sprinkling of salt and cook until the onion is translucent, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle in the fennel seeds and chilli flakes and stir constantly for about 30 seconds, then add the anchovy, minced pork and the cooked pancetta. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring often, until the pork starts to lose its pink colour. Stir in the tomatoes and sprinkle with salt. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for about 30-45 minutes, or until the tomatoes have broken down and the ragu has a slightly soupy consistency. Add about 30 grams of pecorino cheese to the ragu and stir well, then taste for seasoning; add more pecorino and a little salt, if needed.
While the ragu is cooking, boil the rigatoni in salted water. When it’s ready, ladle off about 100ml of the pasta water, then drain the rigatoni in a colander. Put the pasta in the pan holding the ragu and add about 50ml of the pasta water. Stir over a low flame until the sauce lightly coats the pasta; if it seems dry, add more pasta water.
Chiffonade about a dozen (or more) fresh mint leaves and add them to the pan then sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and stir well. Scoop the pasta onto five or six plates. Add fresh whole mint leaves, and let everyone add more pecorino cheese to taste.
Italian braised oxtail ragu
This is a recipe I’ve adapted from Essentials of Italian Cuisine, by Marcella Hazan. She serves the oxtail on the bone, but at home, I deal with someone who prefers boneless meat. The pig’s foot is an inspired addition, because it makes the sauce rich and sticky.
Have the butcher cut the pig’s foot in half lengthwise, and cut the oxtail into 3cm-wide pieces. Also ask him to cut the largest pieces of oxtail – the ones from the base of the tail – in half through the bone.
1 pig’s foot, about 18cm long
1.25kg oxtail, cut into 3cm-wide pieces
About 60ml olive oil, divided
1 medium-sized onion
2 large garlic cloves
1 medium-sized carrot
1 celery stalk
350ml dry white wine
300 grams fresh cherry tomatoes, pear-shaped tomatoes, or canned chopped Italian tomatoes
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A small handful of fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Finely grated zest of one lemon
Rinse the pieces of pig’s foot and oxtail under running water, feeling them with your fingertips to make sure there are no bone shards. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the pig’s foot and oxtail. When the water boils again, drain the meat through a colander and rinse with cold water. Blot the pieces with paper towels.
Put a large, heavy pan (preferably enamelled cast iron) over a medium flame and add 30ml of oil. When the oil is hot, add the pig’s foot and oxtail in batches; do not crowd the pan. Lightly brown the pieces on all sides; when they’re ready, put them in a bowl before adding more to the pan, drizzling in more oil if needed.
While the meat is browning, chop the onion, mince the garlic cloves and dice the carrot and celery.
After browning the meat, put all the pieces in a bowl. Heat the pan (no need to wash it) over a low flame, add 30ml of oil and the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is translucent. Add the carrot and celery, sprinkle with salt and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. If the vegetables stick to the pan, drizzle in a little more oil. Add the pig’s foot and oxtail back to the pan then turn the flame to medium-high. Add the white wine and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer for about three minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and about 200ml of water, then season with salt. Turn the flame to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Lower the flame, cover the pan with the lid and cook at a low simmer for several hours, or until the pig’s foot and oxtails are very tender. Check the ingredients periodically and stir to make sure the meat is not sticking to the pan; if it is, stir in more water.
Take the oxtail and pig’s foot from the pan and leave at room temperature until just cool enough to handle.
Strip the meat and skin from the pig’s foot, and the meat from the oxtail. Roughly shred the oxtail meat, and finely dice the pig’s foot meat and skin. Skim off any fat floating to the surface of the sauce, then stir in the shredded and chopped meats. Taste the sauce for seasoning and add salt, if needed. Stir in some fresh pepper and the chopped parsley and lemon zest. Serve with pasta, rice or polenta.