Step 2: Make the ragu
True Italian Lasagna, not the cheesy, saucy stuff we make here in the US, is a very involved process. It all starts with a soffritto, followed by a meat ragu.
Every cook in Italy has their own ragu recipe, variations on a theme of ground mixed meats, tomatoes, soffritto, herbs and spices. But one thing that remains constant is the love and care that goes in to making the perfect ragu. I don't claim to have achieved it yet, but I've learned a few tricks along the way that have helped me get a wonderfully flavorful sauce that can be used in many dishes. I like to make a big pot, use some and freeze the rest for a quick tagliatelle on a busy day.
They key, as in all good recipes, is the freshness and quality of the ingredients. Three types of meat give you a more complex flavor and if possible have the butcher grind the meat for you fresh so that you really know what is in that package. Fresh tomatoes are ideal but a can of San Marzanos can give excellent results. I did a combination of both here and am really happy with the outcome. Dried herbs will work but again, fresh is best!
Use a 6 Qt. pot for this, it will give you plenty of room to brown the meat. One of the things I've learned along the way by reading over many, many recipes from Italian chefs and home cooks, is how to achieve the proper texture of the meat. If you notice when you eat ragu in Italy it is not chunky, the meat doesn't glob together, the vegetables are chopped finely, giving the sauce a smooth, light texture. So you'll need a wooden spoon and a lot of patience to achieve this and I'll explain below when we get to the step.
The ingredient list, with a few minor changes, is Guisi’s Ragu from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook by Frances Mayes and her husband Edward
Mayes. I've listed my changes and her originals. This recipe will give you enough ragu for the lasagna as well a quite a bit to freeze for later. If you are making the lasagna, I recommend you prepare the ragu the day before as it takes about 4 hours.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ground lean beef
1 pound ground veal (Mayes uses pork)
2 large links of sausage, casings removed. I found a delicious duck and pork at Rouses with no additives or preservatives. (Mayes uses Italian sausages, and Terranova's would be perfect)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
1 to 2 cups red wine
1 cup soffritto (recipe below)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
8 whole tomatoes finely chopped, 1-28oz can of San Marzano tomatoes, finely chopped. Mayes calls for16 to 20 tomatoes or 2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, juice included, chopped
Pour the olive oil into a 6-quart heavy pot with a lid. Next, add all the ground meat to the pot. Here is where the most work is involved. Using a large wooden spoon keep breaking up the meat into smaller and smaller pieces as it cooks. Do not brown it too much or dry out. Don’t let it sit in the hot shortening on the bottom of the pot and sear. Keep moving it around; it should just lose its color. Keep working on the meat and keep breaking it up into smaller and smaller pieces. It should also begin to smell wonderful.
When the meat has lost all its pink color and is reduced to minuscule bits (10-12 minutes), add the salt, pepper, thyme, and 1 cup of the red wine. After the wine
has cooked into the meat, about 10 minutes, add the soffritto, and stir
in the tomato paste and tomatoes.
Bring the sauce to a boil, and then lower to a quiet simmer. Partially cover, and continue cooking for 3 hours, stirring now and then. Along the way, add the remaining cup of wine if you think the sauce is too dense.