GOD-DESS

Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

September 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

The following ragout is really the first recipe I ever created. It has evolved over the years, yielding an almost unlimited number of delicious variations. It is a staple in my home, and the main ingredient proportions led me to create the fantastic roasted ragout at the end of this column. If roasting is alien to you, either contact me, or wait until my October column on roasting! Meanwhile, it’s September, so take advantage of the abundance of tomatoes!

BRET’S MULTIPURPOSE RAGOUT

For 20 years, I have made this ragout. When confronted with a nearby farmer’s market when I was in graduate school, this recipe started as an experiment, and has been fine-tuned ever since. The initial preparation is time-consuming, very unlike most of my recipes (set aside one day, involve your family, and make several batches simultaneously, even if you have to borrow neighbors’ large saucepans and use all four burners on the stove!). However, the work is only at the “front end,” and the flexibility of this sauce will satisfy everyone. I keep pints of the ragout in my freezer, and it has saved my sanity more times than I can count! This vegetarian sauce is hearty, but check out the adaptations at the end for those who are carnivorously inclined. Try out the various variations, and the numerous applications, and you will quickly see why you would want to keep this on hand year round, as I do.

Place olive oil in a 4 quart sauce pan over medium heat. Add onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano, bay leaves, salt and pepper (and, if using, the other dried herbs, carrots and celery; reserve fresh herbs for later, if using). Cook until mixture releases its water, and becomes somewhat dry, about 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Add the tomatoes (and the wine, if using), stir to incorporate with other ingredients, and cook over medium heat until volume is reduced by 1/3; add fresh herbs at this point if using. Continue cooking until final volume is about ½ of the original volume. Yields about 7-8 cups of sauce.

Variations:

Salsa Bolognese: To a large skillet over medium high heat, add ¼ c olive oil. Add ½ to 1 lb ground lean pork, beef, turkey or any combination of these, and cook until lightly browned. Drain any excess fat that has rendered if your meat was not very lean, but don’t be fastidious here; a little bit of rendered fat, with the olive oil, gives the Bolognese sauce a delicious flavor. Add 2 to 4 cups of the ragout and 1 c water or stock to the browned meat, and simmer gently for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Optionally, you can add ½ to 1 c of cream to the meat just prior to adding the ragout for additional richness, or add 2 to 4 T butter to the sauce just prior to serving. Additionally, meat ragouts such as this are often simmered in traditional Italian kitchens for several hours to render as much of the meat flavor into the sauce; do it if you want to.

Salsa con Salsiccie: Follow all of the instructions for Salsa Bolognese, except substitute your favorite mild or hot Italian sausage for the ground meat(s); you can remove the sausage from its casings and crumble it prior to browning, or slice the encased sausage into 3/8” slices (you must use a very sharp knife here) and brown the slices, or brown the sausage in large pieces (4 to 6”). Crumbling the sausage will make a little bit go farther!

Salsa con Funghi: Follow all of the instructions for Salsa Bolognese, except substitute about one pound your favorite sliced/coarsely chopped fresh, canned or rehydrated dried mushrooms for the ground meat(s); cook the mushrooms until browned and crispy on the outside.

Applications:

Sauce for pasta or rice or potatoes: use ½ c to 1 c of sauce per ¼ lb of cooked pasta, with up to ¼ c pasta cooking water, or 1 c cooked rice, or 1 lb/1 large boiled/steamed potato, with some grated hard cheese.

Sauce for pan seared or poached meats, poultry or fish: Cook the meat, poultry or fish simply, either by pan searing/frying with a little salt and pepper, or poaching (particularly the chicken or fish) in a flavored stock (I’ve done it in plain water with some peppercorns and bay leaves added; you don’t need a full-fledged court bouillon). Plate the meat, poultry or fish, and drape with the sauce, or place the meat, poultry or fish atop a pool of the sauce.

Italian Tomato Soup: For each cup of ragout, add ½ c water or stock (or only ¼ c if you like a really thick stew). Serve immediately (ie, do not simmer, as recommended for the Calamari Chowder below, and if you are using it out of the freezer, just thaw it), whether hot, warm or cold with crusty bread, and a green salad on the side. I like it with some pieces of sourdough baguette, but that’s just me! Croutons are also great!

Gazpacho: Add up to 1 cup finely diced, seeded (peeling is optional, but preferred if the skin is bitter) and lightly salted cucumber (that’s about 4” of cucumber, which is about 6oz, prior to seeding) to each cup of Italian Tomato Soup; allow the cucumber and ragout to refrigerate together for at least an hour, to let the flavors mingle. Serve with some good bread, and maybe a swirl/dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche or yogurt on top, and perhaps a mint leaf or two or three. No, this isn’t true gazpacho, but it’s easy, refreshing and delicious (in other words, Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® ).

Chicken cacciatore: Pan fry approximately 3 lbs of chicken (using the cuts you enjoy, and salting and peppering them to your preference; you can also dust them lightly with flour, if you like) in about ¼ c oil in a large dutch oven or skillet with a cover; only brown the exterior of the chicken; do not cook thoroughly. Drain chicken on paper towels; discard all but about 1 T of the oil, leaving as many of the brown bits in the pan. Add 2 c ragout and 2 c liquid (wine, stock or water) to the hot skillet, and stir to combine and to loosen brown bits. Add browned chicken to ragout in pan so that it is nestled in the sauce. Cover slightly, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook for 30 minutes to an hour, until a knife or fork piercing a thick piece of chicken produces clear liquid.

Variation: after draining most of the oil, but before adding the ragout, add 1 c fresh sliced or canned mushrooms; sauté until mushrooms are brown and crusty, then proceed as above.

Calamari Chowder: Add 4 c ragout to a large sauce pan with 4 c liquid (wine, stock [preferably seafood stock] or water); bring to a simmer. Add ½ to 1 lb cleaned calamari (squid, or octopus), cut into rings (tentacles into about 3 pieces). Simmer, covered, for 1 hour (note: We are often told to cook squid for only a few minutes to avoid toughening it; this is true. However, by cooking it for an hour, the squid tenderizes, and its flavor blends with the ragout to create a more full-flavored chowder). Variation 1: any other seafood (shrimp, scallops, clams or fish) can be used in this hearty chowder, but the cooking must be limited to 15 minutes if the pieces of fish are about 1”; if using canned clams, add their juice as part of the 4 c liquid, allow it to come to a simmer, then add the clams for only 2 or 3 minutes. Variation 2:This can become an excellent pasta or rice sauce by cooking the squid chowder uncovered for an hour; if using other seafood, just add to the ragout that has not been thinned and cook as specified above.

Osso Buco: Osso buco is traditionally made with veal shanks, and is served with gremolata (garlic, parsley and lemon). I have simplified this classic recipe as follows: lightly flour and season 1 to 1.5 lbs veal or lamb shanks, fry in about ¼ c oil in a large dutch oven or skillet with a cover, until outside is nicely caramelized. Drain all but 1 T of the oil, add 2 c ragout and 2 c liquid (wine, stock or water), the zest (finely minced, about 1 T) and juice of 1 lemon (about 2 T). Scrape bottom of the pan to loosen and incorporate any brown bits, and combine all of the ingredients at the same time. Cook covered over medium-low heat for 2 hours, or in a 350 degree oven for two hours, until the meat is falling off the bones and the sauce is reduced. Serve one shank per person, or remove the meat from the bones, shred it, and return it to the ragout mixture to use as a sauce for rice or pasta.

Eggplant Parmesan: Eggplant tends to act as a sponge for both water and oil, but by slicing the eggplant thinly and frying at a medium high temperature, the sponge effect is minimized, though not eliminated; this dish does have a certain amount of oil in it. To fry the eggplant: Begin by thinly slicing (1/4”) two pounds of eggplant (preferably several small ones); if desired, salt the slices and allow to drain for 30 to 60 minutes (though this isn’t really necessary, as eggplants aren’t as bitter as they used to be; pat dry with towels. To a large skillet over medium high heat, add ¼ c olive oil; heat but do not allow the oil to smoke. Meanwhile, mix 1 c of flour with1 T of salt, place on a dinner plate, dredge both sides of the eggplant slices, place the dredged eggplant slices into the oil in the skillet until skillet is full; grind fresh paper over the top, and cook until the first side is crisp and golden, about 5 minutes; turn and grind additional pepper on top of the slices. When completely crisp and golden, remove to paper towels. Add additional oil to the skillet and repeat the frying process until all of the eggplant is cooked (you may need to periodically use a spatula to remove some of the flour that has fallen off and burned in the skillet). To construct the final dish: Place about 2 T of ragout (out of a total of 2 c) in the bottom of a 12” square baking dish (or similar size) and allow to moisten the bottom of the dish; layer eggplant slices until bottom is covered (this will be about 1/3 or 1/4 of the total number of slices; test by laying out a layer of slices in the baking dish before the ragout is added, and then counting the slices and dividing the total number of slices into equal numbers; the slices don’t have to totally cover the surface, but you may overlap the slices if you wish). Top the slices with either 1/3 or 1/4 of the remaining ragout (depending on the number of layers you’ll end up with), then evenly sprinkle on ½ c grated mozzarella, and 2 T grated parmesan (or pecorino or asiago). Repeat eggplant, ragout and cheese layering, with the top layer being cheese. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Allow the baking dish to rest on the stove (without heat) for about 10 minutes, then cut into eighths, and serve with a fresh salad. Leftovers can be frozen.

ROASTED VEGETABLE RAGOUT

Using proportions similar to my Multipurpose Ragout, and waiting until the end of the growing season when the temperatures had fallen enough for me to turn on the oven, I made this Roasted Vegetable Ragout. Unlike the Multipurpose Ragout, it really does require a food processor or blender. And, unlike the Multipurpose Ragout, the flavors are so delicious and subtle that I prefer to use it by itself (I once used it to make a Chicken Chasseur/Cacciatore with caramelized mushrooms; the result was fantastic, but did not play up the special qualities of this ragout). This recipe assumes that the vegetables were roasted according to directions given by separate recipes, so because the vegetables were salted during roasting, no additional salt or even pepper is needed, and please don’t use herbs because they will also obscure the subtle flavor of this ragout.

Combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor or in a blender (if you have roasted the vegetables especially to make this ragout, be sure to include the pan juices and olive oil from the cooking sheet). Process until smooth. This yields about 2 c of sauce which can be served immediately over pasta, rice or potatoes (about ½ c per serving [1/4 lb pasta prior to cooking, or 1 c of cooked rice, or 1 lb/1 large boiled/steamed potato]), along with some grated hard cheese, or used as a spread for bruschetta or on good crusty warmed sliced bread, or even as a sauce for a simple pizza. It also freezes well for a touch of late summer during the winter.

I must go make my own ragout now, so that I’ll be able to create quick, easy, delicious meals throughout the coming months. I hope you will, also!

 

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