Sometimes I just want an excuse to open an outrageously good bottle of wine. Not that I need much of one. There's a bottle of Barolo in my cellar that I could save for a special occasion, but I think the best time to open a great wine is when you feel like it. And when I do feel like it, there's no question about what I'll cook to go with it: tagliatelle with ragù. Or more specifically, pigeon ragù - a favourite recipe of mine that I learnt from the ebullient Guy Grossi. The pigeons' bones are cooked along with their meat so it's well flavoured and it's perfumed with rosemary, porcini mushrooms and Marsala. It's a beautiful dish, and the slightly sweet and earthy flavours of the ragù together with the richness of the pasta marry perfectly with the Barolo.
A ragù can be made with a variety of meats such as beef, veal, pork and, less commonly, lamb or rabbit. The meat is either minced or cut into small pieces and cooked with a soffritto before being gently simmered in wine, herbs, stock and sometimes tomato, until the meat is tender and has become a sauce. Game is a particular treat in a ragù in Italy. Closer to home, I ate a memorable wild boar ragù with pappardelle at Café Di Stasio in St Kilda a few years ago. Scented with rosemary and apple, and finished with a touch of butter, it was at once rustic and elegant.
Whatever the meat you choose, a ragù should be sweet and fragrant, with a rich and complex flavour, and wet enough to coat the pasta, not just sit on top. Like many classic Italian dishes, ragù appears to be quite simple and straightforward (and in a way, it is), although making these modest ingredients shine requires respect and care on the part of the cook.
The key to a great ragù is in the way you cook the soffritto. A soffritto - onion, carrot, celery, garlic and herbs cooked in olive oil or butter or both - is the foundation of a great many pasta sauces, soups and meat dishes in Italian cooking. It's more or less the heart of a dish and it's certainly the heart of a ragù.
It's important to cook the soffritto slowly and gently so that it colours and cooks evenly. Cooked correctly, a soffritto should give your sauce a sweetness and depth of flavour. The vegetables should glisten in oil and butter and 'sing' over a medium heat. If the onions and garlic become too dark, bitterness will dominate your sauce. On the other hand if you don't cook your soffritto enough - until it's golden, that is - your dish will lack depth of flavour and colour.
Some cooks brown their meat until it's dark brown to give a deep savoury flavour, but I prefer the colour to be more on the golden-brown side, which gives a more sweet and gentle flavour. It's a matter of personal taste. Once your meat has been cooked, it's time to add the wine. I recommend adding a wine you'd be happy to drink. It doesn't need to be a lot of wine, either, as too much can result in a sharp, winey taste. It's about balance. Once you've added the chicken stock and the ragù has come to the boil, reduce the heat to a slow and gentle simmer. Skim the surface of any scum to keep the flavours clean. Allow the ragù to simmer just long enough that the meat is cooked and falling apart.
The best pasta to put with a ragù is, to my mind, tagliatelle, pappardelle or lasagne; this is because they're wide enough to catch the sauce. Fresh pasta is preferable to dried pasta because it tends to hold the sauce and absorb it somewhat, but if you do use a dried pasta, I recommend using a quality artisan brand such as Martelli, Rustichella d'Abruzzo or Benedetto Cavalieri.
Homemade gnocchi also goes beautifully with a ragù - those silky soft pillows of potato are a great foil. Guy Grossi's rabbit ragù with tarragon and white wine served with gnocchi is a favourite at our house. And to this day, the most perfect ragù lasagne I have ever eaten was made by Valerio Nucci of The Grand Hotel in Richmond. His version of the vincisgrassi lasagne, which is traditional to the Marche region, is legendary: a rich and unctuous lasagne made with beef, prosciutto, and offal such as chicken livers and giblets and lamb's brains.
Good pasta and a great bottle of wine - it's all I need to be happy. Enjoy.