Last week I undertook to cook some of the wonderful things Jackie and I ate in Modena and Parma. And I’ve started, but not with a dish that was on my to-cook list. Rather it was a variation on a richly delicious pasta dish: Gramigna con salsiccia, a fresh extruded (not rolled) vermiform egg pasta served with sausage ragù. I had all the ingredients in the house - apart from the gramigna itself, so I substituted a similarly worm-shaped thin dried macaroni.
I often make an appealing sausage ragù that owes more to Naples than to Modena: it uses plenty of tomatoes, herbs and aromatics, and a little garlic too. For me, it’s a shortcut, because the Italian-style sausages are already seasoned and flavor develops quickly. The sausage ragù of Emilia Romagna (we ate ours at Trattoria Pomposa in central Modena) is both richer and simpler, which sounds paradoxical; you’ll see what I mean when I describe the cooking, which is based on a recipe in Alessandro Molinari Pradelli’s La cucina dell’Emilia Romagna (Newton & Compton, 1998).
To make enough ragù for two or three main-course portions, I finely chopped a medium onion (it weighed 3 ounces – 85 grams) and cooked it, sprinkled with salt, in a generous amount of olive oil and butter (the mixture is for flavor, not because of any belief that the oil prevents the butter from burning, which it doesn’t) over medium-low heat until it had softened and just begun to turn golden, maybe five or six minutes. Meanwhile, I slit the casings of about half a pound (225 g) of coarsely ground “sweet” – i.e., not chili-hot – Italian sausages, removed the meat and broke it up with my hand.
When the onions were done, I added the sausage meat to the pan, slightly raised the heat and fried it for six or seven minutes until it had browned but not dried out, continuing to break it up with a spoon as I stirred it. Then, I added 1/3 cup (80 ml) of white wine and reduced it by half, or until it stopped smelling like raw wine. Next, 1/2 cup (120 ml) of whole milk and a tablespoon of tomato paste out of a tube – it’s the milk that makes this such a lush sauce, along with the sausage juices. For this sauce, I don’t recommend using tomato sauce or chopped fresh tomatoes instead of the tomato paste: that would alter the character and intensity of the dish for the worse. I lowered the heat to a slow simmer and cooked it, loosely covered, for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally and making sure there was enough liquid in the pan. About half-way through, I felt it needed moistening. I had some chicken stock, so added 1/4 cup (60 ml) of that (which I think is what an Emilian cook would do); water would have done the job too but not quite as well.
The result was a creamy, richly delicious sauce with lots of chunky sausage meat. It tasted far more complicated than it was.
For two slightly too-big portions, I cooked 200 grams (7 oz) of those skinny little macaroni until they were nearly done, then added them to the ragù over low heat, along with a good handful of grated parmesan and a generous grinding of black pepper. I stirred for 20 seconds or so to amalgamate everything. I checked for salt, but it needed none. What it did need was a splash of the pasta-cooking water to loosen it up.
Resist the impulse to add parsley or any other herb. You can succumb to the temptation to add extra grated parmesan, but do not do so until you’ve tasted the dish. Anyway, once you’ve tasted it, you’ll lack a free hand with which to reach for the cheese bowl: you won’t be able to stop spooning it up with one hand, and the other will be best occupied with a glass of wine.
I shall make this with egg pasta some time and will report back, at least on Twitter.