White ragù—Italian meat sauce without tomatoes—is one of my all time favourite dishes. I learnt it as a teenager from my Italian step-grandmother in her kitchen in Venice. She was noted for her ragù and people were forever asking her how she made it but, of course, she wouldn’t tell. But one summer morning while I was having breakfast, she called me over to the kitchen stove and allowed me to watch her make it. And I discovered the three secrets behind the taste.
The first secret was butter. Zia Rita, as we used to call her, was a woman of the north from a generation that preferred butter to olive oil in their cooking. I’ve tried the recipe a few times with olive oil and the taste is completely different. The second secret: white wine, preferably a Pinot Grigio del Veneto. This is the only fluid used in the making of the ragù and lends a sophisticated flavour to the sauce which is difficult to match. The flavour is one of meat and not of stock, which creates a simplicity typical of Italian cuisine.
The third and final secret is the cooking time. Traditionally, Italian women would begin to make lunch as soon as the breakfast things were cleared, as did Zia Rita and also my aunt in Piemonte. This ragù would simmer slowly for three hours while she did the rest of the housework. Again, I have tried this with a shorter cooking time and it’s really not the same.
White ragù is perfect with tagliatelle, papardelle, and even rigatoni. I also like to use it in lasagne al forno as in the recipe below. Once cut, lasagne al forno should have the consistency of a cake and should not be wet or sloppy. In order to achieve this you should make sure that your ragù is as dry as possible through reducing the liquid properly and also that you leave the dish to cool down for at least half an hour after cooking. After this amount of time it will still be warm and you will be able to enjoy all the flavours without burning yourself.
Lasagne bianche ai noci
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 3 hours 45 minutes
Total time: 4 hours
For the ragù bianco
2 tablespoons butter
a dash of olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
500g (1 pound) minced pork
500g (1 pound) minced beef
16g (1 tablespoon) salt
1 bottle dry white wine
For the béchamel sauce
100g (3 1/2 ounces) butter
100g (3 1/2 ounces) plain flour
1 liter (4 1/4 cups) milk
50g (2 ounces) grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
12 sheets of lasagne (fresh or dried)
100g (3 1/2 ounces) walnuts, chopped
grated parmigiano reggiano
Make the ragù bianco
- Melt the butter together with the olive oil, in a saucepan, over a medium heat.
- Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook gently until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Mix the pork and beef together and then add to the pan. Brown gently for about five minutes.
- Add the salt and stir through.
- Add the wine and bring to the boil.
- Lower the heat, cover, and simmer gently for three hours.
- If the sauce is still very liquid, remove the cover, and reduce over a medium heat until almost no liquid remains.
Make the béchamel sauce
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat.
- Add the flour, all at once, and mix into the butter using a wire whisk. Cook for a couple of minutes until the mixture turns a golden colour.
- Add the milk, little by little, whisking all the time to avoid lumps.
- Bring the sauce gently to the boil, cook for about ten minutes, whisking all the time, until the sauce thickens.
- Take it off the heat and stir in the parmigiano reggiano.
Assemble the lasagne
- Take an oven proof lasagne dish and cover the bottom with a little béchamel. Cover this with a layer of lasagne.
- Cover the lasagne with about half the ragù.
- Now place about a third of the remaining béchamel sauce over the ragù and sprinkle with about half the walnuts.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 and cover with a final layer of lasagne.
- Cover the lasagne completely with the remaining béchamel sauce and sprinkle with parmigiano reggiano.
- Bake the lasagne at 180° C for about 45 minutes. Allow to cool for about half an hour before serving.