The Richest Ragu

January 20, 2016


You give me the richest ragu/That’s why I’m in love with you.

Those are Sade lyrics, in case I’ve lost any of my younger readers. She loved ragu, apparently. Couldn’t get enough.

This recipe is from Kenji Lopez-Alt’s book The Food Lab. In case you don’t know him, he writes The Food Lab column for Serious Eats and is also their Culinary Director, whatever that means. Sounds good though, doesn’t it? We’re huge Kenji fans in this house, so much so that we considered building a shrine to him in our living room. Possibly.

His ‘thing’ is that he does lots of recipe testing, to the point where he’s comparing 30 eggs boiled for 30 seconds more each time, side by side, to see which is the best, and he delves into the science of cooking in a Harold McGee kinda way.

I wanted something I could get ready ahead of time since I had friends coming over, so gave his ragu recipe a go. It was fabulous, and had incredible depth of flavour, which is unsurprising considering it contained a paste consisting of anchovies, Marmite, soy sauce and chicken livers, and three kinds of meat. I also went to town with the quality of the ingredients, using Strianese tomatoes, the best Parmesan and hugely expensive pasta. It turns out that last move was a mistake.

Are you hungry? I asked my guests at around the 7.30pm mark. Yes, yes they were. “Magnificent!” I said, and proceeded to be very clever by adding my massively posh pasta to a pan of boiling water. Except it wouldn’t cook. It wouldn’t cook for like, an hour. Maybe more. Those attractive belts of flour and egg which had looked so appealing on the shelf turned into fat flaps of gummy gluten that just would not soften. We ate at around 9pm, after separating the pasta into two separate pans and burning ourselves twice. Someone was so hungry they went to the shop for spaghetti. “No!” I said, shaking from hypoglycaemia, “NO”. We will eat this f*cking clown shoes pasta, mainly because it cost me a tenner.” And so my friends suffered because I can’t control myself in expensive food shops.

Anyway, the ragu is fabulous and you must make it. I’ll admit that the blended chicken livers have one of the most unnerving textures I have ever come across in the kitchen, but you’ll just have to deal. This is an excellent recipe even if it is 100% faffier than any other ragu recipe you’ve ever made. I should also say that it took four hours to cook down, not two as stated in the recipe, which is quite a significant difference. One for the weekend.

Ragu Recipe

This recipe is from The Food Lab cookbook by Kenji Lopez-Alt, published by W.W Norton & Company. I halved the quantities in the recipe and converted them from American measurements, in some cases adjusting them very slightly. I also like to serve it with a gremolata (chopped lemon zest and parsley) which adds some freshness. The original recipe was for 8-10 servings, although I found this half quantity served 8, and you know how much pasta I can eat (at least 300g on my own. What?). 

60g chicken livers
2 anchovy fillets (more if they’re titchy, mine were a good size)
1/2 teaspoon Marmite
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
250ml milk
125ml cream (Kenji specifies heavy cream but I used single cream)
250ml beef stock (Kenji specified chicken but I bought beef because I hadn’t written it down correctly)
1/2 packet powdered gelatin (haven’t looked into why he uses powdered)
30ml extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, grated or crushed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Large pinch dried chilli flakes
Around 400g tinned tomatoes (I used slightly more in the end)
100g pancetta, diced
1/2 large onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1.5 stalks celery, diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
225g minced lamb
225g minced pork
225g minced beef (Kenji said veal but I couldn’t get it)
8-10 sage leaves, chopped
1/2 bottle red wine
2 bay leaves
Handful basil, chopped
Handful parsley, chopped
1/2 tablespoon fish sauce
50g Parmesan, grated

In a food processor, whiz up the chicken livers, Marmite, anchovies and soy. Set aside. In a bowl, combine cream, milk, stock and gelatin. Set aside.

Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a medium saucepan over a medium high heat until shimmering. Add garlic, oregano, chilli flakes and cook for around 1 minute, stirring. Add tomatoes, with their juice and bring to boil over high heat. reduce to simmer and cook until liquid has reduced by about half. Set aside.

Combine remaining two tablespoons of oil in a large pot with a lid (you will cook the ragu in this) and cook the pancetta for around 6 mins until the fat is translucent. Add onions, carrots, celery and cook until softened but not browned. Transfer to a bowl.

Return the pan to the heat and add the butter, heat until the foaming subsides. Add the three meats and the sage and cook until meat is no longer pink (don’t brown it). Add livers mixture. Stir. Cook for five minutes. Add pancetta mixture. Stir. Add wine. Stir. Bring to boil, then simmer until wine is reduced by half.

Blend tomato sauce until smooth (easiest with stick blender). Add tomato sauce, cream mixture, bay leaves, half the basil and half the parsley to the pot. Stir. Bring to boil, reduce to very gentle simmer. Cover with lid left with slight gap. Cook for two hours. I cooked for two hours, then found it needed two more, one with the lid off. Use your instinct.

Add fish sauce and Parmesan. Season to taste. Remove from heat to cook for 30 minutes. Stir in remaining basil and parsley. Serve with sensible pasta and a gremolata of equal amounts chopped parsley and lemon zest.

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  • Reply Food Urchin January 20, 2016 at 8:46 am

    A highly complicated spag bol recipe, ingredients wise, but it looks lush, so I’ll give this a go.

    And Sade never sang about ragu, silly.

    She did sing about a rather smooth coffee percolator once though.

  • Helen Graves
    Reply Helen Graves January 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Ah yes, that’s one of my fave Sade songs, apart from the ragu one obviously. The kitchen was clearly a huge source of inspiration for her.

  • Reply Alicia (foodycat) January 20, 2016 at 11:51 am

    The gelatine seems like a strange addition. Did it bring anything to the party?

  • Helen Graves
    Reply Helen Graves January 20, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Ah okay so the gelatine is added because he uses veal mince, but veal is low in gelatin, so he adds it for a silky texture. I added it anyway because I forgot I’d used beef mince instead. Still, a silky ragu it was!

  • Reply Ginandcrumpets January 20, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    I love the Serious Eats investigations into the best way to do things. The Sichuan Dry-Fried beans is my favourite, when it turns out the grilling them is much better than frying.

    Hell of an unami hit with this ragu. Love that it served 8 even after you halved the quantities.

  • Helen Graves
    Reply Helen Graves January 20, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    OOH! That’s amazing re: the beans. I have to try it. Also yes I am really baffled by the quantities. Maybe he adds LOADS more ragu to his pasta, I dunno.

  • Reply steves January 22, 2016 at 12:03 am

    In the unlikely event you’re not familiar with his ruminations on making chili, I’ll link the amazingly-named J. Kenji López-Alt’s article:

    The common theme is the same marmite/soy sauce/anchovy trick for upping the umami. At first I thought that was just throwing stuff in for the sake of it, but it does make sense – you don’t really want your dish tasting too much of any one of those things, so a little bit of each is quite clever.

    Also, azeotropes. Seriously – booze + science!

  • Helen Graves
    Reply Helen Graves January 22, 2016 at 8:32 am

    I’d just been looking at the chilli, weirdly! I have to make it. I can’t resist a project recipe at the best of times and it’s perfect weather for it. Agree on the different umami sources, it is actually rather clever. I’ve still got some of the ragu in the fridge and I’m keen to taste it a week later.

  • Reply Sharmila January 23, 2016 at 8:58 am

    “The ragu you give it’s just too rich for me”. Ah, Sade.

  • Reply wearesavoury January 23, 2016 at 3:07 pm


  • Reply Matt February 7, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Amazing ragu!
    Made a doubled up recipe because the meat was in 500g from the butcher…

    All gone and 2nd batch about to be made

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