Sunday Ragù

Every winter I like to make a huge vat of meat sauce and freeze it in small portions for the bleak months ahead. Though I am not copying any particular restaurant version here, the recipe is derived from Regina Schrambling's nearly perfect recipe for lasagna that appeared in the Times years ago. The lasagna was great, but I was floored by the sauce. I tweaked it to make it more Italian-American than authentic Italian - more tomato, more oregano, less meat. Even a dash of garlic salt at the end, though yes, I know that is cheating.

Make it while watching Goodfellas on a Sunday afternoon. Just remember to keep stirring the gravy.

Sunday Ragù

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup finely grated carrot
1 clove garlic, minced
6 ounces pancetta, sliced 1/4-inch thick and diced
1/2 bottle good red wine, preferably Italian
3 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, preferably Muir Glen organic
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 whole cloves garlic, lightly smashed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
sea salt to taste
a few grinds of black pepper
1/2 pound of Italian sausage, a mix of hot and sweet
1/2 pound ground sirloin
1 egg
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only (about 3 sprigs)
flour for rolling
garlic salt to taste

Heat 1/4 cup of the extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the onion, carrot, minced garlic, and pancetta, stir once, and reduce the heat to low. Continue stirring for 10 minutes, until the onions are wilted. Add the wine, bring to a boil, then simmer on medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, until the wine is mostly reduced. Open the canned tomatoes and snip them in pieces with kitchen shears while still in the can, then add the tomatoes and their juices to the pot. Add tomato paste, oregano, and smashed garlic cloves. Add salt and pepper, but err on the side of undersalting at this point, because you still have a lot of reducing to do. Bring to a simmer, then cook uncovered over the lowest heat for 1 hour. Don't let the sauce stick or it will burn.

Meanwhile, make the meatballs. Combine the ground sirloin, egg, cheese, minced garlic, parsley, and some salt and pepper in a bowl. Roll the mixture into golf-ball size balls, then roll the balls in a plate of flour to coat them. Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil in a skillet and brown the meatballs on all sides over medium-high heat. Do not cook the meatballs all the way through, just brown them. This should take about 3 minutes. Remove them from the skillet and reserve.

Slice the sausages open lengthwise and turn their meat out of the casings into a clean skillet set over medium-high heat. When they really begin to sizzle, turn the heat down to medium-low and saute until they are about halfway cooked. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. As Lidia Bastianich says, if you season each individual element of the sauce before combining them all, chances are you'll get a final product that's seasoned to taste.

After the tomato sauce has been cooking for 1 hour, add the sausage and meatballs and stir. Continue to simmer on the lowest heat, stirring at least once every 10 minutes, for at least another 1 1/2 hours (or until Goodfellas has ended). Don't forget to stir the gravy.

When the sauce is done, fish out the meatballs with a large spoon, chop them finely, and return the meat to the sauce and stir. Taste for seasoning, adding oregano and garlic salt as necessary.

How To Cook Pasta:

Fill a 5-quart size pot at least halfway to the top and throw in a handful of kosher salt. Yes, a handful. Never fear, you won't be consuming all the salt, just the salt that's absorbed by the pasta, a tiny fraction of the total amount of salt. The point is to make the water thoroughly salty, because then the boiling point is higher, and the pasta will be al dente and slightly, pleasantly salty.

When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta. As soon as the water returns to a boil, set a timer to the minimum time on the package directions. When it's done, drain the pasta and return it to the still-warm pot. Stir in butter for an Italian-American take, if desired, until it is absorbed the the pasta. Add several spoonfuls of hot sauce to the pot, turn the heat on medium, and stir for a minute until the pasta begins to absorb some of the sauce. Pour into a bowl, top with a bit more sauce and a sprinkling of fresh grated Parmesan.

Variations on the Sauce:

For ragù Napoletano: Order the pancetta as one large 6-ounce piece and cut into large chunks. Cut the sausage into 1-inch chunks. Prepare the rest of the recipe as above, but at the end of cooking, remove all the meats and the garlic cloves. For a particularly refined version, you can pass the cooled sauce through a food mill. Serve with the reserved meatballs or sausage, or just as a sauce for pasta. Warn the vegetarians.

If you get hungry while making the sauce: You can always eat the Beaujolais Nouveau version of the sauce, that is, a bright, less complex version that's only just ripe for the picking. After an hour of cooking, before adding the sausage and meatballs, spoon a small amount sauce over pasta.

To freeze: Let the sauce sit overnight in the refrigerator, then ladle into 1/2 pint containers (for one serving) or pint containers (for two). I keep takeout containers for this purpose. Good for up to three months in the freezer. Reheat on the stove or in the microwave.

Makes 10 portions.