Ragu (Bolognese Sauce)

This is now my favourite Ragu sauce for pasta. It’s not a traditional Bolognese sauce but this is how I like it.
You can do this with beef, or pork, or a mix of pork and beef. I like the mixed pork & beef mince. You can either get pork and beef and grind it yourself or you can buy it ready minced.
I suggest you make a double batch. Have a fresh egg pasta, ideally tagliatelle, with the sauce. Or Gnocchi is good. Bag up a couple for the freezer. Or make a lasagne. A homemade lasagne with fresh homemade pasta sheets is a bit of work, but a joy.
Serve with grated parmesan or a lovely creamy pecorino if you have.

Ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 50-100g of pancetta (it’s even better if you can get proper Italian pancetta)
  • 2 garlic cloves, cut in half lengthwise
  • Bouquet Garni – Sprig of rosemary, Sprig of sage, Couple of fresh bay leaves. Chopped basil stalks can be good too if not too woody and just added to the soffrito.
  • Half bottle of drinkable red wine
  • Tablespoon of tomato paste
  • 1kg good fresh tomatoes, peeled and deseeded, then chopped. (Alternatively, I frequently use a couple of tins as the fresh ones are often poor)
  • 500g Minced Beef
  • 500g Minced Pork
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. Finely chop the carrots, onion, celery. And the pancetta into matchsticks
  2. Put a decent amount of olive oil in a pot and fry off the carrots, onion, celery, with the garlic cloves in a pot and fry them moderately to make the soffritto. Keep stirring and the aim is to sweat them off but not brown them too much.
  3. Fry the pancetta until slightly crispy and add to the soffritto.
  4. In a separate frying pan brown the mince in some oil. Do it in parts. Grey steamed mince is not what we want. This needs a properly hot pan and the mince needs to brown. A slightly golden colour as the mince ever so slightly crisps is the desired outcome. You can actually hear the change in sound from a hiss to a more crackly sound as the mince begins to caramelise. This is what makes the flavour in your ragu. Put the cooked mince in with the vegetables and repeat until you are done. (Tom Kerridge cooks the mince spread thinly on a baking sheet and in a very hot oven until quite golden, I’ve not tried yet but seems like it could be easier and less smoky in the kitchen.)
  5. Now add the herbs in the bouquet garni to the pot, turn the heat up and add the red wine. Stir and cook it off until almost all of the wine is gone.
  6. Add the tomato paste and the tomatoes and stir it in. Bringing back to a gentle simmer.
  7. Put a lid on it and put it in a medium oven for about 90 minutes. Check it every 30 minutes or so. If it’s too wet and sloppy then leave the lid off so it reduces a bit. Don’t be frightened to give it another 30 minutes if it needs it.
  8. When you take it out the sauce should be rich and thick. If it’s not you can put it on the stovetop and reduce it down, but stand over it, stirring all the time or you will burn it.
I bag it up in single and double portions and freeze it so it’s a source of convenient meals. It’s one of those great discoveries in the freezer when you can’t be bothered doing much cooking and you find a leftover bag of ragu. A quick microwave and a boiling of spaghetti produces a delicious emergency dinner.

Risotto Alla Milanese – Great With Osso Buco

Risotto Alla Milanese is a simple saffron risotto often served with Osso Buco.
The texture and wetness of the risotto is important. There is nothing worse then claggy, stodgy risotto. Equally, you don’t want it too soupy, especially if serving with Osso Buco which will have a wet gravy. If, when it has rested it seems too “dry” then adding a ladle of the remaining stock can loosen it up just before serving.
Traditionally this also had some bone marrow in it. I don’t even attempt this, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s much harder to get. Secondly, it’s very rich and if you are serving this with Osso Buco, which is already rich, then it’s all a bit too much.

Ingredients

  • 25-30g butter
  • 1 medium onion very finely chopped
  • Risotto rice, 80-100g per person
  • 100ml of white wine or vermouth
  • A good pinch of saffron
  • About 500ml of chicken stock. You need to vary for the number of portions and rice quantities, but start using boiling water if you run short.
  • 100g Parmesan, finely grated, adjust to taste
  • 25-40g cold butter, cubed

Method

  1. To make the risotto start by softening the onion gently till it is soft. This can take 10-20 minutes. You don’t want colour, no golden onions here.
  2. Put the stock pot beside the risotto pot and warm it up till it’s at the gentlest simmer, put a ladle in the pot.
  3. Add the rice and stir until the grains are hot and well coated in the butter
  4. Add the vermouth or wine and let it simmer down, the alcohol will burn off
  5. Add some salt, probably about a teaspoon, you can adjust at the end. Remember the butter might be salted.
  6. Now ladle stock, a couple of ladlefuls at a time, into the rice. Stir the rice more or less continuously until the stock is mainly absorbed, then add some more of the stock, and continue. The stirring brings out the starch and creates the creaminess of texture.
  7. After the first ladleful add the saffron. I put two-thirds in a mortar and pestle and grind it, washing the grounds out with a little of the stock into the risotto pot. Add the remaining threads, these are nice to see in the finished risotto.
  8. You have to test the grains to see if it is ready. Cooking will take 15-20 minutes. When the rice grains are just losing their dry firmness in the centre it’s time to stop.
  9. Now for the “mantecatura”, which is just making it creamy. Add the half the parmesan, and the cold butter cubes. Beat these in with a wooden spoon for a minute or so till all is incorporated and creamy.
  10. Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of parmesan and freshly ground pepper.

Osso Buco – An Italian Classic

Raw veal shank slices for Osso Buco
Raw veal shank slices for Osso Buco

Osso Buco is a classic Italian dish. It is slices of veal shin, slow cooked in a wine and stock gravy, with the bone in. It literally means bones with holes. Nowadays you should use high welfare rose veal from the UK.

The quantities suite 4 people, reduce as required. Some recipes have a little tomato passata or puree in them but I don’t think this is required.
The Gremolata is a great addition to the dish because the sauce is rich and buttery. It cuts right through. The lemon zest and parsley gives a fabulous zing. Some recipes have crushed garlic in the gremolata but I omit as I find it can be a bit too raw and electric flavoured. Add what you like. I chop the parsley onto a board and then zest the lemon skin over the chopped parsley, this works well.
Traditionally served with Risotto alla Milanese which is a simple saffron risotto.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 25g flour, to dust
  • 4 pieces of veal shin, about 4cm thick, if you can get them, or if they are thinner that’s fine, they may be slightly quicker to cook. You don’t need to trim any fat from this as it will mostly render down, and the outer ring holds the piece together.
  • 50g butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stick, finely chopped
  • 1 head of garlic, cut horizontally
  • 2 strips of lemon zest, just slice down the side of a lemon cutting the yellow rind off, about 2cm wide
  • 4 sage leaves, if they are very large then reduce the quantity, sage is a powerful flavour and needs to be in balance
  • 200ml white wine
  • 200ml good chicken stock
For the gremolata
  • 1 unwaxed lemon, zest finely grated. If you can’t get unwaxed them just rub and wash a lemon to remove the wax.
  • 3 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Method

  1. Use a hob-proof casserole dish wide enough to hold the meat in one layer, over a high heat, and add the oil. Put the flour on to a small plate and season generously, then use to coat the meat. When the oil is hot, add the meat to the pan and brown well on both sides until golden and crusted. Set aside on a plate. You will probably get enough salt from the seasoned flour so don’t add more till you check the seasoning when it’s cooked.
  2. Turn the heat down and add three-quarters of the butter to the pan. When melted, add the onion, carrot and celery, plus a sprinkle of salt, and cook until soft. Add the garlic halves, lemon zest and sage to the pan and cook for a few minutes more.
  3. Turn up the heat then add the wine to the pan. Return the meat, standing it on top of the vegetables, and bubble until the wine has reduced by half. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer.
  4. Turn the heat right down, cover and simmer for one and a half to two hours, carefully turning the meat over every 30 minutes, until it is tender enough to cut with a spoon. Meanwhile, mix together the gremolata ingredients.
  5. Dot with the remaining butter and allow to melt into the sauce, then serve with the gremolata and Risotto alla Milanese or wet polenta.

Chicken Risotto – A Simple Italian Classic

This is a really fabulous Chicken Risotto. It’s worth taking the effort to cook a whole chicken and use the stock and meat to make the risotto. It’s not really that much work and depending on the number of portions you need you might have a left-over poached chicken breast for a fabulous sandwich on the following day.
In my opinion, you want to avoid strong partner flavours for this Chicken Risotto to allow the chicken flavour to shine through. Some folks think there is cream in the risotto but this would be a crime. It’s the mantecatura that makes the difference.
The texture and wetness of the Chicken Risotto is important. There is nothing worse then claggy, stodgy risotto. Equally, you don’t want it too soupy. If, when it has rested it seems too “dry” then adding a ladle of the remaining stock can loosen it up just before serving. Risotto really must be made and served as soon as it has rested for 5 minutes. If you keep it hanging around the rice will overcook, and absorb more liquid, and “dry up”, becoming a fairly unpleasant sticky, claggy, mess. Likewise, it’s not much good for leftovers that can be reheated.
Ingredients
  • A small to medium chicken
  • Some carrot, celery and onion to add to the chicken stock
  • Thyme
  • Bay leaf
  • 1-2 tbsp Olive oil, I just use plain olive oil, again to keep the flavour simple
  • 1 medium onion very finely chopped
  • Risotto rice, 80-100g per person
  • A glass of white wine or white vermouth, I generally use Noilly Prat
  • The chicken stock, there should be enough, but start using boiling water if you run short.
  • 100g frozen peas (optional)
  • 100g Parmesan, finely grated, adjust to taste
  • A decent bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped just before you use it
  • 25-40g cold butter, cubed
  • The cold chicken meat, torn by hand into decent sized chunks. The chicken pieces need to be small enough to eat in one bite but should be as large as can be managed. Small shreds will just get lost and also be a bit fibrous to eat,
Method
  1. First, cook the chicken. Do this on the morning of the day you will have the risotto if you can, or the previous day if you chill the chicken and the stock in the fridge after cooking. Put the chicken in a pot or casserole suitable for the stove top. It should be tight fitting. You should add some carrot, celery and onion, a bay leaf, and some sprigs of thyme (a few peppercorns won’t go wrong.) Then top it up with water to just cover the chicken. Do not season at this stage. Bring it to the boil and poach at a very gentle simmer for between 60-75 minutes to cook the chicken.
  2. Cool the chicken, till it can be handled, in the stock to keep it moist
  3. Remove the chicken to a work board to pick the meat off the chicken, storing the cooked chicken in the fridge. Keep the breasts whole, you can tear them apart later when you put in the risotto.
  4. Drain the stock through a sieve into a pot. You will use the stock to cook the risotto, giving the chicken flavour to the cooked risotto.
  5. To make the risotto start by softening the onion gently till it is soft. This can take 10-20 minutes. You don’t want colour, no golden onions here. I don’t add celery to this risotto to keep the flavour simpler.
  6. Put the stock pot beside the risotto pot and warm it up till it’s at the gentlest simmer, put a ladle in the pot.
  7. Add the rice and stir until the grains are properly hot and well coated in the oil. You don’t want to brown them, but this tostada stage is important. They will begin to feel like they are sticking to the base of the pan and it’s essential to keep them moving. Once they are nicely hot then move on.
  8. Add the vermouth or wine and let it simmer down, the alcohol will burn off
  9. Add some salt, probably about a teaspoon, you can adjust at the end. Remember the butter might be salted.
  10. Now ladle stock, a couple of ladlefuls at a time, into the rice. Stir the rice more or less continuously until the stock is mainly absorbed, then add some more of the stock, and continue. The stirring brings out the starch and creates the creaminess of texture.
  11. You have to test the grains to see if it is ready. Cooking will take 15-20 minutes. When the rice grains are just losing their dry firmness in the centre they are ready.
  12. If using frozen peas add them now and stir for a minute or so till they are heated
  13. Now for the “mantecatura”, which is simply making it creamy. Add the half the parmesan, the parsley and the cold butter cubes. Beat these in with a wooden spoon for a minute or so till all is incorporated and creamy. Remember that you don’t want to overpower the flavour with parmesan, too little is better than too much.
  14. Stir in the chicken and set the pot somewhere warm to keep hot for about 5 minutes.
  15. Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of parmesan, parsley and freshly ground pepper.
Some folks add finely chopped celery at the onion cooking stage. I prefer a slightly less intense flavour to allow the chicken flavour to shine. If I was making Porcini Risotto I would probably add finely chopped celery alongside the onion. You can add more chopped thyme with the rice if you like a more herby flavour. The peas are fine because they maintain their shape and are lightly cooked so become little pea flavour pods in the finished Chicken Risotto.
For a nice textured Chicken Risotto with lumps of chicken, stir the chicken in last to avoid breaking it up by the mantecatura stage.

Simple Tomato Sauce – A Freezer Essential

This is based on a Rick Stein suggestion and works very well. It’s a great simple tomato sauce which freezes nicely in portions. I always have portions in the freezer.
It’s flavoured with bay leaf and having fresh bay leaves really helps. Every garden should have a bay tree, they are easily grown in pots by the back door. It can be jazzed up by adding basil or oregano (dried or fresh) when using to add a different flavour edge.
I use tinned tomatoes and they work well. If you have fabulous ripe fresh tomatoes they would work too (you need to skin them) but I don’t think it will work so well with supermarket water balls…. This is probably a good way to use up that tomato glut at the end of the season if you grow your own. If using fresh from the supermarket, you might find some tomato puree helps the colour and flavour a bit. The tinned approach is tasty, easier and less work.
Did you know that most tomatoes sold in our supermarkets are grown in water (a system called hydroponics)? This is where buying organic can make a difference. The Soil Association certify what is organic, which they do by certifying the soil. So tomatoes that are organic have to be grown in soil.
It’s quite possible to grow all the ingredients in your own garden (assuming you have somewhere like a greenhouse for the tomatoes.) The onions, garlic and bay leaves are all grown easily at home. Get started with some garlic, it’s the easiest.
I find this sauce useful for:
  • Being the tomato base to smear on top of a pizza before adding other toppings
  • As a sauce for pasta. A simple cooked pasta with this sauce and a sprinkle of parmesan with fresh basil works really well.
  • As a basic sauce, it’s acceptable to most kids with pasta as it doesn’t have any “bits” or anything green.
  • Great with homemade ravioli, perhaps stuffed with ricotta and herbs.
  • Rick Stein uses it in a Spanish lamb stuffed aubergine recipe which is really nice. So can be added as a bit of a cheat to some minced beef or pork to make a quick ragu for that emergency guest situation.
Oil… yes, it’s a lot of olive oil (no need for extra virgin) but it gets blended into a smooth sauce and emulsifies nicely. Trust me, it’s fine.
I usually make a bigger quantity and freeze portions in labelled freezer bags. One piece of work, many meals.
Ingredients
Single
Double
Olive oil (don’t waste extra virgin)
125ml
250ml
Onions
250g
500g
Garlic cloves
2
4
Tinned tomatoes (400g tins)
1
2
Bay leaves
3
6
Water
150ml
300ml
Salt
1 teaspoon
2 teaspoons
Sugar
1 teaspoon
2 teaspoons
Method
  1. Sautee the onions in the olive oil till soft. Do not brown/colour/crisp, so a low heat works best and this will take 15 to 30 minutes. Start this first and then look out the rest of your ingredients.
  2. Make the garlic to a paste and add to the onions for the last 5 minutes to cook off.
  3. Now add everything else and bring to the gentlest of simmers.
  4. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour, until the sauce and oil have cooked together and reduce to be a bit thicker.
  5. Remove the bay leaves
  6. Allow to cool and then blend in a food processor or blender. You end up with a slightly orange looking tomato sauce that tastes delicious.
  7. Make in advance and freeze or fridge till needed.
Portion Thoughts
For an 8-year-old, I find that 80g of dried pasta and 140g of sauce works well. That might leave room for that essential scoop of ice cream afterwards.
For an adult 120g of dried pasta, you might want about 180-200g of sauce, depending on how wet you like your pasta and what else you are adding. Eg. pan fry some courgette chunks quickly and add to the sauce along with some fresh oregano.
The 140g portion size works well with a portion of 6-8 homemade ravioli.
Oh, if you’re defrosting from a freezer bag then don’t put the bag of sauce in the microwave. The oil in the sauce will melt the bag and you will have an awful mess. Just sayin’.
If you run the bag under the cold tap you can remove the sauce from the bag quite easily and either melt in a pot or heat in a microwaveable bowl.

Pesto – Classic Italian Pasta Sauce

The subject of a Pesto recipe is a minefield and subject to so much variation. There is no right list of ingredients or method. Many people omit the garlic. Here’s what I prefer. It sounds more work than it is to make. Once you’ve done it a few times it’s pretty quick. You can vary the quantities as you prefer, less cheese, more pine nuts, less garlic. In some recipes, the cheese is pecorino (it’s creamier, sharper, less salty.)
Ingredients
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts
  • 1 clove of garlic (try half or quarter clove if it’s too much)
  • All the leaves (yes, all, but not the stalks) from one of those growing basil plants you can buy in the supermarket
  • About 50g finely grated parmesan (Gran Padano works pretty well and will be cheaper)
  • 100-200ml of nice extra virgin olive oil depending on how “oily” you prefer
Method (Mortar and Pestle)
  1. Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan until nicely coloured. Remove them immediately when done (I like a decent bit of dark toasting on the pine nuts) to cool on a plate
  2. Crush and grind the garlic clove to as creamy as paste as you can manage, a few pieces of coarse salt can help this but you don’t want too much as the parmesan is salty.
  3. Now pound the basil leaves and work them till they are a green mush
  4. Add the cooled pine nuts and crush them with the leaves
  5. Begin adding the oil and making a loose paste
  6. Add the parmesan and amalgamate to the paste
  7. Continue to add the oil and stirring it to create a nice a texture you like
Blender
If using a blender then just toast and cool the pine nuts, then pretty much everything can go in the blender and get whizzed.
Using
I usually just spoon the Pesto on top of hot spaghetti pulled straight from the cooking pot. Spoon over as much or as little Pesto as you like and mix through with your fork. If you like you can pre-dry some halved cherry tomatoes for about 1 hour in a 100C oven. Sprinkle them over your pasta for extra deliciousness. I also like to keep some of the toasted pine nuts back to sprinkle on top.
It will keep in an airtight Kilner jar in the fridge for a few days as long as there is enough oil in it.

Pasta al Forno, with Tomato, Mozzarella and Parmesan

A very simple dish that we’ve made for about 30 years It’s been a great standby and always seems to hit the spot. Not really authentic Italian but it is Italianesque. Cooked in the oven, al forno.
This quantity is generous for two people.
Ingredients
  • 1-2 tbsp ordinary olive oil
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 1-2 garlic cloves crushed, quantity according to taste
  • 1 tsp crushed chillies (optional)
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ball of Mozzarella chopped to 1-2cm cubes (we use the stuff in brine and poly bags from the supermarket. It’s going in the oven so we don’t bother with fancy, expensive, buffalo mozzarella. Equally, the hard stuff you can grate is not right for this dish.)
  • a generous handful of freshly grated parmesan (or Gran Padano is just as good). (The dry ready grated stuff you used to get that smelled like vomit cannot be used. It is actually a hanging offence in some parts of Italy.)
  • 20-30 basil leaves
  • 250g dried pasta tubes. Your preference. We use Rigatoni but Penne works fine.
Method
  1. Put on a big pot of water to boil for the pasta, and preheat the oven to 180C fan.
  2. Soften the onion gently for about 20 minutes until it’s soft and translucent
  3. Add the chillies (if you like it hot, angry – “arrabbiata”)
  4. Add the garlic and cook it off for 2 minutes
  5. Add the tomatoes and salt/pepper and simmer very gently for 10-15 minutes (this simmering always seems essential, as something happens with the oil and the tomatoes to take away the metallic “just out of the tin” flavour.)
  6. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. It only needs the minimum time stated as you are going to cook again with the sauce in the oven.
  7. Drain the pasta into a suitable dish or tray with at least 4cm sides
  8. Add the tomato sauce and mix through
  9. Now stir in all the mozzarella, half the parmesan, and the basil leaves torn in half
  10. Finish by sprinkling over the remaining parmesan
  11. Put it in the oven for about 15 minutes. It needs to be long enough to heat through and melt the cheese. The top will crisp slightly, I find this is a love/hate thing depending on the individual.
Variants
  • Add some chopped courgette or other vegetables, you just need to make sure they are cooked enough or pre-cooked.
  • Omit the chillies
  • Add more chillies

Duck Legs with Potatoes

A tasty Italian supper. Simple and little effort from a preparation perspective. Takes about 2 hours elapsed time but this is just the length of cooking time. The duck legs end up with a crispy skin and moist leg meat, which works well with creamy roasted new potatoes, cooked in the duck fat.
Serves 4 (It’s one leg per person, adjust accordingly)
Ingredients
  • 4 duck legs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 600g new potatoes, peeled
  • Leaves from a sprig of sage
  • Leaves from a few sprigs of rosemary
  • 4 tablespoon brandy or grappa or Marsala (optional)
Method
  1. Put the duck legs in a large baking dish or roasting tin, skin side up. Season with salt and pepper and prick them all over with a pointed knife. I find a generous rub of Maldon sea salt to be perfect. It’s delicious, salty, crisp skin you’re aiming for.
  2. Put the dish in a preheated 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas 4 oven for 1½ hours. Depending on the size of the duck legs you might want to reduce this by 15-20 mins. You just have to judge, they do take at least 90 minutes to cook properly.
  3. In the meantime, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until only just tender, about 10 minutes, then drain and cut them into ½ or ¼ depending on their size. Let them steam dry before you add to the roasting tin
  4. Take the dish out of the oven. Lift the legs out on to a plate. If there is way too much fat then remove some, but with two legs, for example, I find its OK.
  5. Put in the potatoes and stir them so that they are well covered with duck fat. Return the duck legs to the tray, skin side up, pushing the potatoes to make room for them. Spoon a little fat over them, put a sage leaf or two and a few rosemary leaves under each leg.
  6. Return to the oven and continue to cook at 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas 4 for about 15-20 minutes.
  7. Then turn the temperature up to about 180C fan or 200C normal. Scatter a generous amount of chopped rosemary needles over the potatoes and duck. They need about 5-10 more minutes.
At the end of the cooking, the duck skin is crisp and brown and the meat is soft and comes away from the bone easily. Sprinkle some salt on the potatoes before serving or let each person do individually.
10 minutes before the end, if you like, pour a tablespoon of brandy/grappa/Marsala etc over each duck leg.
Warm some pasta bowls to serve the food.
Serve by putting a duck leg in each pasta bowl. Get your guests to shred the meat off the bone and discard the bone. Then spoon in potatoes etc from the roasting pan which you have placed in the middle of the table.
Variants:
  • Add a few decent sized carrot chunks to the potatoes and roast them with the potatoes
  • Add some fresh garden picked, blanched, broad beans two minutes before serving. They will be emerald pieces of deliciousness.