In a new series, Jenny Chandler expounds on the benefits of batch cooking as a way of saving time and money, through cooking one ingredient in bulk and using it for myriad recipes. This time: ragù
Batch cooking is a great habit to get into; there are certain ingredients and recipes that just make sense to cook in large quantities and then stow away as building blocks for quick after-work suppers, packed lunches or just adding the special touch to a simple weekday meal. It often takes no longer to cook a double batch, so you’ll be economising on time, effort and energy too.
The ultimate ragù
Bolognese sauce was one of the few dishes that I cooked as a student, thrown together in half an hour and gorged over a bowl of—invariably overcooked—spaghetti, with a handful of grated cheddar. I was pretty chuffed with my efforts; the pinch of ubiquitous herbes de provence and the magic squeeze of tomato ketchup gave the finishing touches. Years later, while working in Italy, I tasted my first true ragù. The depth and richness of this lusciously meaty dish blew me away. I’ve never looked back.
Dried herbs and ketchup apart, my basic recipe was not a million miles from the northern Italian classic. In fact, the primary missing ingredient was nothing more than time, three to four hours of it, which brings me back to batch cooking. How often do you set four hours aside to prepare supper after a busy day? We’d all be too ravenous to wait that long in any case, especially with the entire house enveloped in the mouth-watering wafts of a slowly simmering ragù. It makes perfect sense to get the pot on at the weekend (or at any other time when you’re happy to hover), and up the quantities, using less energy and creating go-to ‘ready meals’ for the fridge and the freezer.
It’s simple enough: you kick off with the sofrito, the bedrock of any Italian stew: onion, carrot, celery, fried in butter and oil. Then comes a little pancetta (or bacon if that’s easier) and perhaps a few mushrooms, minced meat (usually beef with a bit of pork but even lamb is fabulous, if not authentic), a good splash of milk, a slosh of wine and then some chopped tomatoes or passata. Nothing tricky, no exotic or elusive elements, just good ingredients and plenty of time.
Now, I would not suggest you use your batch of ragù for a weekly dose of spag bol—which, as we all know, sends most Italians into fits of disdain; consuming your ragù with anything but a flat ribbon of tagliatelle or pappardelle is apparently committing heresy. To be honest, I’ll happily dive into ragù with any shape of good pasta, and of course, it’s traditionally sandwiched between the silken handkerchiefs of lasagne, too. No, I’m suggesting all sorts of other end games for this meltingly tender, superbly umami sauce. At least one serving would be with pasta, there’s no doubt about it, but do hold back: with such deep richness, I’d only use a spoonful of ragù on each helping, stirring parmesan cheese into the pasta before the sauce.
Other ways with ragù (Italians please look away):
—I often like to lengthen my ragù by throwing in plenty of cooked lentils or chickpeas towards the end of the cooking time.
—You have a superb base for a cottage pie, maybe topped with a buttery celeriac and potato mash.
—Try roasting halved aubergines, dotting the scored flesh with a little oil, thyme and garlic. Once soft, dig out the cooked flesh and mix with the ragù, stuffing it back into the aubergine skins. Top with a little grated manchego or pecorino and give them a quick blast under the grill.
—It makes for the perfect simple supper with a baked potato and a blob of soured cream. Sweet potato is delicious too (add a few capers and chilli to the sauce to balance the sweetness).
—Pancakes can be stuffed with ragù and rolled like cannelloni, topped with a light béchamel sauce, sprinkled with cheese and baked in the oven.
—And for a cheat’s chilli to beat all chillis: fry up some garlic in oil with ground cumin and dried oregano, add chipotle chillies (the ones in adobo sauce are the easiest to use) and add a couple of cans of black or pinto beans. Stir in an equal quantity of your ready-prepared ragù. Serve with rice/tortillas/tacos and some guacamole.