Slow-Cooker Beef Ragu

Apparently, in less than an hour, I will be watching an interview with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, in which he will tell us that he was a virgin in high school, and for many years afterwards.

Whatever your opinion about Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, I hope we can all agree that we don’t want to know details like this. Perhaps civic engagement demands that we learn them–but really, we’d rather not.

So let’s all think about something different. Something nice. Something like slow-cooker beef ragu.

We’re preparing for a renovation, and that means working my way through a mountain of food from our freezer and pantry. It turns out that I have stockpiled a rather unbelievable amount of frozen chuck. Every time flat-pack chuck roast was on sale, I’d buy some and … well, suffice it to say, the Official Blog Spouse and I are going to be eating a lot of chuck roast for the next few weeks.

We’ve done pot roast. We’ve done soup. So this weekend, I decided to try something a little different: a Northern Italian style beef ragu. It turns out to be absurdly easy, and, according to the Official Blog Spouse, “The best new thing you’ve made in a long, long time.”

Now, if you are used to the sort of slow-cooker recipes one finds on some sites (names redacted to protect the innocent), you will protest that this is not, really, an “easy” recipe. By which you will mean that you can’t just dump two cans of condensed soup over some meat. And no, it isn’t.

But here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as a really good recipe that involves un-browned meat and two cans of condensed soup. If you don’t brown, you don’t get the Maillard reaction–that lovely caramelization that adds flavor. Nor can something from a can substitute for fresh ingredients. (Okay, tomatoes: I give you tomatoes. The exception that proves the rule.)

But we’re browning the easy way: using flat-pack chuck and the broiler rather than painstakingly browning “stew meat” in a lot of oil that will splatter all over your stovetop. (And for foodies who are tempted to sniff: I got this trick from Julia Child, m’kay?). The only vegetables are a coarsely chopped assortment of basics most people have in the house. The only exotic ingredient is pancetta, which these days is sold pre-chopped in handy four-ounce packages at most supermarkets in America. (If you’re having trouble finding it, try Trader Joe’s.) The total active time is under 20 minutes. And if you’re worried about getting it going in the morning, then simply saute your vegetables and brown your meat the night before, place in the refrigerator overnight, and tuck it in the crock pot the next morning. It will still be delicious.

For your less-than 20 minutes of active time you get something truly remarkable. Succulent beef almost dissolving into your pasta, and a rich, deep sauce that’s loaded with flavor. It’s quite different from what the average American thinks of as “italian food”–but once the average American gets a taste of this, I’m willing to bet they’ll be looking for more ways to bring Northern Italy to their table.

The ingredients:

  • 4 pounds flat-pack chuck roast
  • 3 lbs onions
  • 4 ounces pancetta, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1.5 tablespoons herbes de provence (“italian seasoning” will also work)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper

The Prep:

  1. Sprinkle the chuck roast with salt and fresh-ground pepper and broil on both sides until brown. Cut into 1.5-inch pieces
  2. Meanwhile saute the pancetta until the fat melts
  3. Coarsely chop the vegetables and add to the pancetta, along with two tablespoons of olive oil. Saute until the onion is translucent and the other vegetables slightly tender
  4. Add the herbes de provence and the garlic to the pan and saute for another minute
  5. Put the vegetables and the meat into the slow cooker, along with the tomato paste, the white wine, the tomato paste, the soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  6. Cook on high for 5-6 hours, or low for 7-9 hours. Stir the sauce briskly to break up the meat a bit.
  7. Serve over a nice robust pasta like spaghetti rigatti or rigatoni, with a great deal of nice, freshly grated parmesan.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. So, is there any particular reason for pancetta instead of chopped bacon?

    1. mcmeganish says:

      American bacon has a very strong, very smoky flavor that I don’t think would work here, because there are so few flavoring agents. Canadian bacon, though, would be fine if you can’t find pancetta.

  2. James, Eater of Pork says:

    I’m surprised at that substitution. Canadian bacon is so lean (cured pork loin, I think) that I wouldn’t expect it to render particularly well.

    1. mcmeganish says:

      No, that’s right–you’d have to add more olive oil to counteract the leanness, but you would get a nice porky flavor.

  3. Bill Woods says:

    “Sprinkle the chuck roast with salt and fresh-ground pepper and broil on both sides until brown.”
    Broiler, huh. I’ve been doing the ‘cut into steaks and brown in skillet’ thing.

  4. Jen says:

    Thank you for this distraction from current events. Just to confirm…4 lbs chuck? I’m tempted to start out with 2 lbs.

    1. mcmeganish says:

      I like a higher beef-to-onion ratio, and we freeze what we don’t eat. (Not that much, as I’m married to a carnivore). But sure, cut it in half, or just cut the beef, if you want a more onion-rich, sweeter-tasting ragu.

  5. mike davis says:

    Anyone know if this McMeganish person is any relation to the lady who writes a stylish column in WaPo with a vaguely libertarian tone? Probably not. I Can’t recall her name but said columnist is a clear-eyed realist who understands the frailty of the human condition (“Why yes, Swiss health care would be lovely. But you’re not Swiss and this isn’t Switzerland.”)

    McMeganish, on the other hand, has an almost AOC-like faith in the perfectibility of man. She seems to think we have a freezer full of goodies and before going to bed we carefully lay out our plans for the next night’s crockpot. The reality, of course, is that most of us find ourselves in the grocery store at around 1 thinking “oh, crap, it’s our week to host Sunday dinner and the family expects cocktails at 6 sharp”.

    Never mind.

    I’m here to tell you that if you do everything she says to prep this ragu, you can plop it into the Instant Pot by 5:15 and have a perfectly wonderful dinner ready by 6:30.

    A few notes: (1) the onion/meat ratio seems way too high. If you agree, just cut it back to one large onion. (2) Remember your Instant Pot will not usually produce an especially think sauce. If that matters—and it should—don’t add extra liquid and be prepared to let it cook down a bit on the sauté setting. (3) I would have preferred a bit more tomato-ness. Next time I’ll probably add more tomato paste or maybe a small can of crushed tomatoes (but beware of the getting too much liquid to make a good sauce). (4) There is no substitute for good parmesan. Grate liberally at the table.

  6. Frank says:

    I’ve seen a lot of ragu recipes that include some diary – any reason you decided against including some in this dish?

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