Years ago, I was working at a tiny restaurant in Tuscany. This is where I first learned to make ragù—an unbelievably delicious sauce that I would let cook for hours and hours. But in the beginning, no matter how long I let it simmer, the owner would come over, taste it, and tell me the vegetables were raw! In my head I remember thinking, are you freaking kidding me? But he was right. I was skimping on an essential step—I was rushing the browning of the soffritto: the early stage in a ragù’s life cycle when the flavor begins to build and deepen. Now, of course, I’m super-sensitive to this step, and when I taste a ragù in a restaurant, I can tell instantly if the chef has taken a shortcut at the browning stage. So be patient—if you’re taking the time and effort to make this spectacular sauce, don’t rush it; brown it and enjoy!
- 2 onions, cut into 1-inch dice
- 1 small fennel bulb, tops and tough middle stalk removed, cut into 1-inch dice
- 2 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch dice
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 2 cups tomato paste
- 2 cups hearty red wine
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
- 1 pound spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 thyme bundle, tied with butcher’s twine
- 1 pound spaghetti
- ½ to ¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano
- Big fat finishing oil
Put the onions, fennel, celery, and garlic in a food processor and puree to a coarse paste.
Coat a wide, deep, pan with olive oil, add the puréed veggies, season with salt, and bring to medium-high heat. Cook the veggies until all the liquid has evaporated and they begin to stick to the pan—you want to brown the crap out of these guys until crud starts to form on the bottom of the pan. Stir occasionally to scrape up the brown bits, then let the crud form again Be patient here and don’t rush it—this is where the big flavor develops—it will take up to 30 minutes.
When the lovely brown crud has formed and been scraped down a couple of times, add the tomato paste, stirring to combine. Let it start to brown a little and continue stirring for 2 to 3 minutes. There’s not much liquid at this point to keep things from burning, so be careful and move fast. Add the wine, stir to combine, and scrape up any remaining brown bits; cook until about half the wine has evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes. Add both the sweet and spicy sausage and, using a spoon to break it up, cook until the meat is brown (this is where another round of big brown flavors is formed, so take your time), 10 to 15 minutes.
Add enough water to the pan to cover the meat about ½ inch. Stir to combine well and add the bay leaves, and the thyme bundle. Taste, season with salt, and taste again—it’s by no means done, but it should taste good. Bring the sauce to a boil (BTB) and reduce to a simmer (RTS). Continue cooking, checking occasionally, for 3 hours, tasting, seasoning, and adding more water as needed (see Notes).
During the last half hour of the cooking process, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 1 minute less than the instructions on the package suggest. Taste it: It should be toothsome with just a little nugget of hard pasta still in the center—this is al dente. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the pasta cooking water. Remove the thyme bundle and bay leaf from the sauce. Then remove half of the ragù from the pan and reserve.
Immediately add the cooked pasta to the pan with the ragù and toss to combine, adding more of the reserved ragù or pasta water if needed; continue cooking for another couple of minutes, until the pasta and sauce cling together and the liquid has reduced. Remove the pot from the heat and add the Parmigiano and a generous drizzle of the big fat finishing oil. Toss the pasta and sauce vigorously—this is the marriage of the pasta and sauce, and the cheese and olive oil are the glue that holds this lovely relationship together.
Call yourself a superstar!