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Meat Sugo and Pasta
(recipe, Michael Pollan)
Here is Samin Nosrat's recipe for sugo, the classic Italian meat sauce that, depending on the region, is also known as Bolognese or ragù.
This might not at first seem like a braise — there's no featured chunk of animal protein — but the principles are the same: a dice of onions, carrots, and celery; browned meat; a long, slow simmer in liquid.
Making this recipe takes a few hours, so I usually prepare a big batch and freeze some of it in containers. Samin's recipe calls for pork and beef, but it can be made with any kind of meat, including chicken, duck, rabbit, or game.
For the spice sachet
- 3 whole cloves
- One 1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns
- 1 tsp. juniper berries
- ½ tsp. whole allspice
- ¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
For the sugo
- 2 cups pure olive oil (not extra-virgin)
- 3 lb. boneless pork shoulder (ask the butcher to coarsely grind the meat through a ⅜-inch die, if possible)
- 3 lb. beef, veal, or a combination, coarsely ground (any braising cut, such as chuck or round, is fine)
- 1 bottle (750 ml.) dry red wine
- 4 medium red onions (about 2 lbs.), peeled
- 3 medium carrots (about 12 oz.), peeled
- 3 medium celery ribs (about 8 oz.), rinsed
- 1 cup tomato paste
- Parmesan rinds (optional)
- 4 bay leaves
- One 3-inch strip of orange peel
- One 3-inch strip of lemon peel
- 3 to 4 cups beef, veal, or chicken stock, preferably homemade
- Salt, to taste
- 3 to 4 cups whole milk
- Cooked pasta
- Make the sachet: Combine the cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, juniper berries, allspice, and nutmeg in a cheesecloth and tie with string; set aside.
- Make the sugo: Set a large, wide rondeau or sauté pan over high heat and add enough olive oil to just coat. (In general, the bigger the pan, the better.) Cook the pork in batches, adding a third to a half at a time, so that there is space in the pan. (If it's too crowded, it will steam instead of sear.) Cook, stirring and breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until it sizzles and turns golden brown. (Do not season the meat — salt draws out water and prevents browning.) Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a large bowl, leaving the rendered fat in the pan.
- Add more oil to coat the pan, as needed, and continue cooking the remaining pork and beef in the same way. (If browned bits start to burn on the bottom of the pan, deglaze it between batches with a little red wine, scraping with a wooden spoon as the wine simmers to pull up the tasty bits. Transfer the deglazing liquids to the bowl of meats, wipe the pan dry, add more oil, and continue browning the meats.)
- While the meats are browning, make a soffritto. Use a knife or a food processor to mince the onions, carrots, and celery separately until all are very fine. You don't want to be able to identify any of the ingredients in the soffritto once the dish is cooked. (If you choose to use a food processor, pulse the machine frequently, stopping often to scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure the vegetables are evenly cut. The celery and onion will release a lot of water, so make sure to drain or pat them dry before cooking.)
- When the last of the beef has finished cooking, add enough oil to the pan to rise about ¼ inch deep. (There should be what you might consider a scary amount of olive oil in the pot, about 1½ cups, as soffritto means "subfried.") Add the minced soffritto vegetables and reduce the flame to medium. Cook, stirring often to prevent burning, until the vegetables are brown and tender throughout, about 50 minutes. The vegetables will steam at first and then sizzle. If they start to burn, add some salt or a ladleful of water or stock, and turn down the heat.
- Once you are satisfied with the soffritto (don't rush it!), add the bottle of wine to deglaze the pan. As the wine simmers, use the wooden spoon to scrape up the delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Once the wine has reduced a bit and its alcohol has burned off, add the browned meats, along with the sachet, tomato paste, Parmesan rinds (if using), bay leaves, orange and lemon peels, and about 3 cups of the stock. Season with salt. Bring to a boil, and then add enough milk to just cover the meat, about 3 cups. Let simmer.
- Once the milk breaks down and the color starts to look appetizing, between 30 and 40 minutes, start tasting the mixture and adjusting salt, acid, sweetness, richness, and body. If the mixture needs more acid, add wine. If it seems bland, add tomato paste to bring it to life and make it a bit more acidic and sweet. If it needs to be richer or the meat seems dry, add a splash of milk. If it needs more body, add stock.
- Simmer over the lower possible heat, skimming off the fat from time to time, and stirring often, until both the pork and beef are tender and the flavors have melded, anywhere from 2 to 4 hours total. Add more of the remaining milk, stock, or water to ensure that the meat always stays just barely immersed. (But don't drown the meat in liquid.) Continue to taste as you go, but stop adding ingredients at least 30 minutes before the sugo is done so they have time to cook into the sauce.
- When you are satisfied that the sugo is done, use a spoon or ladle to skim off the fat that has risen to the surface and remove the spice sachet, Parmesan rinds, bay leaves, and orange and lemon peels. Taste and adjust the salt again.
- Serve the sugo: Serve with pasta cooked al dente and tossed with a few tablespoons of butter. Top with lots of Parmesan cheese. This recipe makes a lot, but for this much work, you deserve leftovers!