Pasta for the SopranosHome >> Experiences
«This woman is so large she's got ragł in her veins.» said one of Tony Soprano's soldiers before my screen went black. After two hours fiddling with the cables I had to admit outside help was needed. I called my friend Pasquale, a Swiss of Italian descent who does media rooms for the Swiss chalets of Russian tycoons and Supreme Court judges down to the small guy like myself. Pasquale was the only hope of seeing the rest of my beloved Sopranos.
«Earliest I can come is middle of next month» he said. No way I can wait two weeks, but he lives a 100 miles from me, a long drive in Switzerland. I needed to make him an offer he couldn't refuse. I called him back an hour later and said:
«I fix you homemade maccheroni al ragł, with real ragł like in Napoli?» I asked him.
The ragł takes me 7 hours to make so we agreed that he would come tomorrow. Tonight I prepared the first stage of the ragł, hoping to lure him to my house tomorrow so that he can fix my home cinema.
Use the largest saucepan you own on the strongest burner in your kitchen. Neapolitan tradition calls for the use of a terracota pot but they are difficult to care for and have a small surface. A large saucepan will enable you to brown the tomato concentrate much faster. Here I use a professional frying pan a friend bought from Greuze, a cult restaurant in Tournus, and placed it on my three-ring Gaggenau burner. Serious cookware, but don't let this turn you off - you can do the same at home. Ragł is a dish Neapolitan mamas cook in dusty courtyards, not some elite restaurant dish.
Brown gently the finely chopped garlic, onion and bacon in a tablespoon of olive oil. I recommend guanciale (seasoned pig jowl) or pancetta if you can find them.
Prepare your cans of tomato concentrate. Neapolitan chefs do use canned tomato concentrate. They even have a dialectal word for it, la buat [lah booaht] if this can help you accept canned condiment into your gourmet kitchen. You can do your own tomato concentrate, but do not use fresh tomatoes.
Traditionally the tomato concentrate is added teaspoon by teaspoon, but in a large saucepan on a strong fire you can definitely use more at a time. Here I used six 70-grams/2-oz cans in two stages. Spoon the concentrate on top of the fried garlic-onion-bacon.
Add a glass of water so that all ingredients mix together in a nice bubbling liquid. If you didn't do this you would have a small red hill of tomato concentrate that will gradually turn brown at the base. Only by diluting the concentrate can you brown it homogeneously.
Increase the fire to the hottest setting and use a paddle to turn the ragł constantly so that every particle gets in contact with the hot frying pan long enough to reduce and brown but not too long so that it doesn't burn. What we do here is increase the flavor of the tomatoes by browning them (the Maillard reactions). Abscond for 5 minutes and the ragł will brown.
After a few minutes your ragł will have reduced by half and turned three shades darker. Just how dark you can get before burning is a matter of experience and guts. Be cautious and don't take the risk of burning the sauce when you make this the first time. If the dish is a success you'll want to do it again and again, and you'll have opportunities to try for a darker ragł then.
Now is the most magical moment. The dark, shrivelled mixture will be brought back to life with a glass of water. like the alchemist working on the Opus Nigrum, where the black crow presides on putrefying the flesh only to bring it back in an higher stage of consciousness, the chef now revives the sauce with fresh water. The sauce swells, expands and becomes a luscious velvety dark ruby mass one with the water.
Add the rest of the concentrate and mix vigorously until you have one homogeneous mass. Reduce again like before.
Make sure that you don't scrape the black burnt bits of sauce on the sides of the frying pan. They would turn the sauce bitter.
The first stage is now complete with all the tomato concentrate thoroughly browned. Let it thicken and transfer to a Dutch oven or another heavy-bottomed lidded pot designed for simmering.
The fearsome bubbling of the tomato paste will not leave your kitchen undamaged. Clean the many droplets of tomato with a wet towel before they dry out.
In the same frying pan briefly brown the veal roast on all sides with a tablespoon olive oil.
Dilute the ragł with 3 cups water, mix well and in this dark bed of ruby gently lay down the roast.
You can add a piece of pig skin to simmer with the ragł. I removed this bit from the piece of guanciale I used above.
The ragł will now simmer for a good 2 hours or until the roast is cooked through. It is usually considered bad practice to add spices before simmering for so long as this would bring out bitter humors like oversteeped tea. Some Italian cooks still add finely chopped basil to their tomato sauces in the early stages and this what I did. For the same reason, salt but do not pepper at this stage.
The meat releases tasty juices throughout the cooking, as you can see from the ring left in the sauce after you remove it (top right).
The fate of the roast is one of the mysteries of Neapolitan cooking. It is not eaten with the dish. You just serve it later or in a different meal. The whole purpose of this piece of meat is to transfer its juices and flavor to the pasta sauce. It has no other role in this dish.
Although my friend Pascuale is due to come tomorrow night, I was not going to cook for 3 hours and starve. With a couple eggs and durum wheat semolina, I prepared short mezzanelli, a smooth tubular pasta.
I plunged my mezzanelli in a large pot of boiling salted water. No oil at this stage no matter what non-Italian cookbooks say!
After about 60 seconds my fresh-dried pasta is cooked. I make my pasta mix very dry and the resulting pasta has just as much bite as bought dried pasta. But it tastes infinitely better!
The ragł had 'only' cooked for 3 hours, but I served myself a generous helping nonetheless.
Here are the mezzanelli al ragł with a little freshly grated caciocavallo cheese and basil on top. Happiness is definitely in the kitchen tonight! You go check at the graveyard if they serve pasta like this. They don't and you'd rather have one for the road.
That is all for tonight. The ragł will have to simmer for a further 4 hours tomorrow. But will Pascuale come and fix my media room? And if he comes, will he like my ragł? What if he can't fix my problem, will I still serve him my ragł? Check my next article for the answer - in pictures.