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Happy New Year, Lemur readers! Soon, I’m going to be all about lighter and more colourful food to brighten up the dark days of January and look forward to a healthy Spring…but right now I’m still in hearty December mode. After my trip to Italy, I wanted a proper ragú to warm me up on these dreary English nights. Ragú is one of those things that most everyone makes but that it’s easy to take short cuts with. I don’t actually cook it all that often, but when I do, I’m all about the slow simmering of meats. I firmly believe that a good ragú needs both pork and veal. Often, I’ll spend contemplative time chopping the meat by hand but sadly, the supermarket only had minced veal, so this actually a rather easier version of a traditionally laborious process. Using pork cheeks means you can cook them whole and then pull the meat apart later. It gives a lovely unctuousness to the ragú, along with the rich flavour offered by the veal. You can’t really get easier than a ragú, where all the magic is worked by slow cooking rather than by any effort on the part of the cook. Later today, I’ll be cooking New Year’s fava bean soup, another slow-cooked Italian wonder. Happy 2013!

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Veal and pork cheek ragú

  • 8 pig cheeks
  • 1 lb of veal, minced or chop it yourself
  • a large handful of cubed pancetta
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 glass of white wine
  • 2 cups passata
  • a handful of capers

Begin by sautéing the onions and carrots in a little butter until softened, then add the meats. Continue to sauté until the veal mince is coloured and the pancetta fat a little rendered.

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Add the milk – it’s important to add the milk first, ostensibly to protect the meat from the acidity of the wine. I have no idea is there’s any scientific veracity to this idea, but it’s what I’ve always been told. Let the milk froth and reduce entirely, then add the wine. Again, let the wine reduce down and then add the tomatoes and a cup of water. You want the pot to be fairly liquidy at this stage, and the meats fully covered. You can add more tomatoes if it seems too thin, but I prefer my ragú not too tomatoey. (I think this is one of those key axes of difference in the world of Italian sauces. Some people like a thick Italian-American style red sauce, while others see ragú as more of a meat-oriented sauce. I’m more on the meat side of this divide, especially if we’re talking about white meats.) Bring to the boil and then simmer on the lowest of flames for at least a couple of hours. Check in occasionally and add more water if it gets dry.

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When the ragú has cooked down to a thick state with a bit of oil on top, fish out the pig cheeks and pull the meat into strands, then dump it all back into the pot. Stop for a second to admire the meatiness of it all.

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Mix it all up and let simmer for a few more minutes, then adjust seasoning. Ragú can take more salt that you might imagine.

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I served the ragú over spelt penne, which is not entirely traditional, but I find spelt pasta works very well with deeply flavoured wintery sauces. Top with parmesan and a handful of capers. This is a trick I learned in Croatia, where the capers are sensational and used as an everyday condiment. Don’t do it if you can’t source really good capers, but if you can, the little sour bursts are a sublime addition, cutting the richness of the meat sauce.

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Serves 4-ish

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