What is ragu?
In Italian cooking, ragu is a meat-based sauce. Traditionally, cooked pasta is tossed in the ragu, the noodles soak the flavors of the sauce, and the combination is served as a single dish.
There is no universal recipe for ragu. In the northern regions of Italy, minced meat is used while chunks are preferred in the south.
If you want to make ragu, decide first whether to use ground meat or meat chunks. It doesn’t have to be beef. Any meat can be cooked into a ragu. You may even use sausage meat.
We’ve almost always used a combination of coarsely ground beef and sausage meat in the past. Then, we discovered how much richer in texture ragu is when chunks of stewing beef are used instead. We’re fortunate enough to find a meat shop that sells beef short plate as a regular item.
I start by heating a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a wide pan. The cubes of beef are spread in the hot oil and, over high heat, left until the undersides are browned. The meat cubes are stirred and the cooking continues until they are lightly browned on all sides.
The heat is turned down to medium. Chopped onion, garlic, bell peppers, oregano, bay leabes, salt and pepper are added. The mixture is cooked with occasional stirring until the vegetables have softened.
Diced tomatoes and a bit of sugar are stirred in. When the sauce comes to a simmer, red wine is poured in. The ragu can be cooked all the way on the stovetop. Just cover the pan tightly, set the heat to low and leave to simmer for a couple of hours until the meat is so tender that when you pierce a piece with a fork, it falls apart.
But the day I made the ragu, I wasn’t in the mood for occasional stirring — a must when cooking stew on the stovetop to make sure that no scorching occurs when the liquid evaporates faster than the meat cooks. We had been watching the live broadcast of the Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation case, and I didn’t want to miss any part of it to stir the ragu every so often.
So, after simmering the ragu on the stovetop for about ten minutes (just long enough to allow the strong smell and taste of alcohol to dissipate), I dumped the meat and sauce in the slow cooker. With the heat set to LOW, the ragu was perfectly cooked after five hours.
To assemble the mac and cheese, there were two other things I needed to cook. The pasta and the Mornay sauce.
The macaroni was cooked in salted water and, while still very hot, the ragu was stirred in. The mixture was transferred to a baking dish where the noodles started soaking up the flavors of the ragu.
Meanwhile, I made the Mornay sauce. It’s just Béchamel sauce — some people simply call it white sauce — with cheese stirred in. You make a roux, add milk, wait until the mixture thickens then you stir in cheese until melted. That’s Mornay sauce.
The Mornay sauce was poured over the pasta and ragu, and they baked together for about half an hour in a 400F oven.
Baked mac and cheese
- Slow cooker
- 2 cups Béchamel sauce
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella
- ¼ cup grated Pecorino
Cook the ragu
- Pat the beef dry with paper towels then toss with a tablespoon of salt and half a teaspoon of ground black pepper.
- Heat the olive oil in a wide pan.
- Spread the beef cubes in the hot oil and, over high heat, leave to allow the undersides to brown for a minute or so.
- Stir the beef and continue cooking, tossing them around in the hot oil occasionally, until all sides are lightly browned.
- Turn down the heat to medium, and add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, bay leaves, oregano, a tablespooon of salt and a quarter teaspoon of pepper.
- Cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften.
- Pour in the diced tomatoes, stir in the sugar, and bring to a simmer.
- Add the red wine, stir and allow to boil gently for about ten minutes.
- Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed.
- Transfer the meat, sauce and vegetables to the slow cooker.
- Set the slow cooker to LOW and cook the ragu for five hours.
Cook the macaroni
- Preheat the oven to 400F.
- Cook the macaroni in boiling water with a tablespoon of salt.
- When the noodles a just a bit undercooked, drain and return to the pan.
- Take half of the ragu (reserve the other half for another time) and stir into the pasta.
- Transfer the pasta and meat sauce to a baking dish.
Make the Mornay sauce
- Start by making Béchamel sauce.
- Add the cheeses to the hot sauce and stir until melted.
Bake the mac and cheese
- Pour the Mornay sauce over the pasta and meat sauce.
- Bake at 400F for 30 minutes or until bubbly and the top of the Mornay sauce has brown spots.