A genuine ragù alla bolognese is a thing of beauty — a certain magic happens as the beef and aromatic vegetables slowly cook down with wine, tomato paste and broth. This pasta sauce is the quintessential comfort food that all of us desperately need as we start to wonder if this long, long winter will ever end. When I had a hankering for ragù the other day, I turned to Italy’s premier cooking magazine to see what they had to say on the subject. La Cucina Italiana’s recipe for classic Bolognese sauce has 19 ingredients, including five different kinds of meat (sweet Italian sausage, pancetta, ground beef, ground pork and ground veal) moistened with three liquids (wine, beef broth and milk), added at different times. It starts by finely chopping together – by hand – celery, onion and carrot, and the sauce needs to slowly simmer on the stovetop for at least three hours. Wonderful stuff no doubt, but in my case more of an aspiration than a doable recipe since it was raining out and I had very few of these ingredients on hand.
Easy Italian Recipes: Saffron is the Secret
Lucky for me, Italy is made up of 20 regions and every one of them boasts their own version of a rich meat or fish sauce meant to be served on top of pasta. I looked to sunny Sardinia for this satisfying sausage and saffron sauce that has only eight main ingredients and takes about an hour to make, from start to finish. Source of the recipe is “The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and Culture of am Mediterranean Island,” an island renowned for its saffron fields (a saffron festival is held in the little town of Turri in south-central Sardinia every year on the 2nd Sunday in November). Saffron has a unique aroma and flavor that cannot be duplicated and it is the secret to this sauce.
To be true to the Sardinian origins of this recipe, it should be used over gnocchetti sardi – in Sardo dialect the pasta is called ‘malloreddus‘ – however, my local market in Florence doesn’t carry this particular pasta shape. Chunky and concave with a ribbed back, gnocchetti sardi also take longer to cook than normal pasta so any good quality, short pasta imported from Italy will do; just make sure it has ridges and whorls to capture as much sauce as possible. Mezzi rigatoni are a perfect match since the meaty sauce will fill up the large hole in the middle, providing a satisfying mouthful of the combined sauce and pasta in every bite. In fact, there’s a pan of saffron and sausage sauce bubbling away on my stovetop right now, permeating my house with its wonderful aroma – I can hardly wait for dinnertime!
Recipe for Short Pasta with Sausage and Saffron Sauce
Ingredients for 4 servings
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2-3 big links Italian sausage; about 8 ounces
- ½ medium onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ teaspoons powdered saffron, dissolved in 1 tablespoon warm water
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
- ½ teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon sea salt, divided
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- ½ cup freshly grated pecorino cheese, for sprinkling
- ½ pound tubular dried pasta such as mezzi rigatoni, paccheri or penne
In a large skillet, warm the oil over medium heat. Remove the sausage from its casing and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until it softens and becomes translucent.
Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the saffron, stir well, and cook for 1 minute more.
Add the tomatoes with their juice and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Stir well, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat to medium–low and cook the tomato sauce for at least 45 minutes; more if you want. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a large, 14-to 18-quart stockpot, bring the water and 1 tablespoon coarse salt to a boil. Add the pasta of your choice and cook al dente, according to the package instructions. Remove from the heat. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water.
Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding some of the pasta cooking water, if necessary. Serve hot, sprinkled with grated pecorino.
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