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swirl and savor

Tagliatelle al Ragu

Beth Ribblett

One of the food blogs that I am particularly fond of is Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino written by a woman named Eleonora who lives in Rome. She did a wonderful post last year about how in Italy Sundays mean "family", and of course family means food which is similar to how I grew up with my mother always taking the time to cook a delicious Sunday dinner for all of us and inviting extended family to share the meal as well.

Eleonora describes her Sunday ritual and her mother's signature dish that for her is a weekly display of love. I've been wanting to make this ever since I read her post, but for some reason never got around to it, until this Sunday. Because for Kerry and me, Sunday means "home" as it is the only day that we don't go to the shop or spend too much time working. We go for a bike ride, Kerry works in the garden, I work on my blog and we cook a delicious meal. So this Sunday I decided it was finally time to make Eleonora's mother's classic Sunday dish, Tagilatelle al Ragu. It is still simmering away on the stove (see photo below), but I wanted to be sure to get the post done before we sat down to eat because it is divine! I'm including her full post as it is a wonderful look into the Italian way of life brought back memories of my own childhood in my mother's kitchen.

From Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
March 22, 2009
Sundays spent satiating

"Sundays in Italy mean family. They speak of tradition, repose and morning Mass. Sundays gather the family around the table for communal weekly updates, sports events (mainly soccer) and convivial merry. As my son and I skip down the flights of stairs of our apartment building on our way out, we walk past Signora Rosetta’s door, inebriated by the smell of tomato sauce simmering on her stove. That divine perfume then wafts over and mingles with our downstairs neighbor Gina’s veal cutlets. And so forth, in a Babylon of aromas all the way down, all good, all Sunday-like.

Every Sunday lunch, my little boy E. and I go to my mother’s house, which is a 5-minute walk from our home. Wearing a nice blouse or a new pair of trousers, to honor our host, we head out. Mamma likes that kind of stuff, she also loves it when E.’s hair is combed with a tidy part on the side. A rare image, E. defines tousled. We breathe in the morning air and take a nice stroll to our favorite cafe, buy the paper, chat with people from our neighborhood. A Sunday ritual. We may go to Mass if we feel inspired, otherwise we head straight for the pasticceria (pastry shop) and pick up a tray of assorted bigné, cannoli, sfogliatelle, éclairs etc. sold by weight and wrapped in gift paper, tied with curly ribbons.

We always arrive early, at my mother’s house. That too is part of a Sunday habit. All members of the family each chip in with the housework, helping in the kitchen, airing out the bedrooms, watering the flowers on the terrace. Every time I walk in the house where I have been raised, I am immediately overcome with a warm, reassuring feeling. Back to the womb. The aroma of my mother’s cooking returns me to all my childhood memories. The incidental music of the TV broadcasting the usual Sunday shows, the smell of fresh flowers. My mother’s books, her dust, her Persian rugs. The chandeliers, the framed black and white photographs, the Steinway grand piano. It’s all there, unchanged, thank God.
And then that which she is most proud of: la tavola, her table. It is a festive occasion, and she honors it beautifully by setting an impeccable table. She always prouds in laying a crisp embroidered linen tablecloth, ironed to perfection. China plates, double glasses – for both wine and water – shiny silverware and matching fabric napkins. Mamma cooks for two days in preparation for her family feast, and she prouds in displaying her efforts. The beverages are always served in glass (and not the bulky plastic) bottles. The wine is always chosen wisely to pair the food, and there’s always an extra dessert, usually homemade.

My mother makes it a point to pick the best ingredients, priding herself in finding seasonal variations, local and organic staples. She cooks it lovingly, employing all her generosity, and enjoying the creative process. She provides for us, not merely nourishment and great tasting foods, but an on-going, weekly display of love.

For this year’s edition of 5 Minutes for Mom’s Ultimate Blog Party – my first – I will share with all participating home cooks, mothers, and daughters of great ladies before them, my mamma’s signature Sunday dish, the one she is most fond of. It his her pièce de résistance; whenever she prizes us by making it, it is in fact a party. I have watched her make homey dishes like these countless times, as I grew into the mother I am today, and never once has she or her fabulous fares disappointed me.

The authentic Italian Sunday lunch tradition lives on in my mother’s hallmark Tagliatelle al Ragù. Pull up a chair and let's eat. This recipe is a classic. It results in the creation of an intensely flavorful, rich meat sauce to serve over home made tagliatelle, and dusted with lavish amounts of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. My mother starts preparing it early in the morning and allows it to simmer, very, very slowly for many hours, at least three and ideally four.
* 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

* 2 tbsp unsalted butter

* 1 large carrot, finely diced

* 1 small onion, cut into same size dice as carrot

* celery stalks, cut up into same size dice as carrot and onion and in the same amount
* 650gr (1 1/2 lbs) ground beef and veal total (small variations from this weight are not significant)

* 200ml (1 cup) whole milk

* 200ml (1 cup) dry, white wine

* 1 kg (28-oz can) whole or crushed tomatoes, San Marzano would be great

* A pinch of ground nutmeg

* 300gr (3/4 lb or 1 1/2 cups) tagliatelle. If you decide to make your own homemade pasta, the outcome will be a million times better. And those eating will feel even more loved by you.

* Salt to taste

* Lots of Parmigiano, grated

It all begins with an empty, heavy-bottomed, medium to large sized pot. If you have a Dutch oven, that is ideal. Place the oil and butter into the pot and bring to medium-high heat.
Add the diced battuto (carrot, onion and celery trinity) and stir to coat well, allowing vegs to soften for about 6 minutes. Hark! Do not brown the onion or celery, they need to simply wilt.

Next, add all the ground meat to the pot. Here is where the most work is involved. Using a large wooden spoon keep breaking up the meat into smaller and smaller pieces as it cooks. Do not brown it too much or dry out. Don’t let it sit in the hot shortening on the bottom of the pot and sear. Keep moving it around; it should just lose its color. Keep working on the meat and keep breaking it up into smaller and smaller pieces. It should also begin to smell wonderful.

When the meat has lost all its pink color and is reduced to minuscule bits, pour in the milk and turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Stir well and allow the milk to completely boil away. When that happens, you should only be able to see the olive oil and butter between the meat pieces and vegetables, and no more milk. This will take about 20 minutes.

Now add the white wine and evaporate it too.

Add the tomatoes. Empty the entire can into the pot and use a wooden spoon to break up the whole tomatoes into large chunks. Season with salt and nutmeg, stir well and turn down the heat to a very gentle simmer, only the occasional plip, plop! bubble should come to the surface. Do not cover. Allow the sauce to simmer slowly for 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally; and to fill the rooms of your soul with warmth, love and a terrific aroma.

If you're pressed for time, or making home made pasta feels too big a task right now, you can decide over dried or fresh commercially sold tagliatelle, the only requirement is they be rough-surfaced and quite thick (at least 3 mm, 1/8-inch).

When the sauce is almost ready, bring your salted gallon of water to a rolling boil. Cook the tagliatelle, then drain them al dente, saving some starchy cooking water. Return the pasta to the empty stewpot and add about a cup of meat sauce to the cooked tagliatelle and stir well. This only colors the strands lightly, but we’re not done yet. Serve the coated tagliatelle in individual soup bowls, spooning the divine Bolognese sauce over each and dusting with copious amounts of grated Parmigiano.

Mamma uncorked two bottles of Chianti today, and the first roaring toast was to the never-ending party she throws, come Sunday at lunch."