Beef and Onion Ragu with Spaghetti Squash

16 Nov

ImageI had the opportunity to get out of the city over the long Veterans Day weekend, and I spent a few days in one of my favorite places: Charlottesville, Virginia. My memories from Charlottesville are warm and inspiring, and I think the air is different there – the breaths I take are clean and crisp, and reinvigorating. I try to escape to Charlottesville now and again to recharge. And, of late, to cook!

I convinced my friend NB to join me for the weekend, and as we paged through magazines looking for something for me to make for dinner, we both simultaneously pointed to the same picture: Cooks Illustrated’s Rigatoni with Beef and Onion Ragu. The temperatures had dipped into the 30’s overnight, and we were craving some serious comfort food. As we read through the recipe, NB asked if I could “healthify it,” and I accepted her challenge.

Chopped Ingredients for Beef RaguHealthification #1: Instead of 2 oz of pancetta and 2 oz of salami, I opted to use instead 3 oz of pancetta (aka “italian bacon”), and no salami. As we perused the available pancetta, we were shocked at how much the nutrition information varied from brand to brand. We ended up with Wellshire Farms which, in addition to having a low number of ingredients, has no antibiotics, nitrates, or nitrites – and only 2g fat in a 2 oz serving, with 350mg sodium. Other pancettas available had almost 10 times the amount of fat, and very high sodium. It’s always worth a look, even when buying bacon! We felt very good about using this product in our meal.

Shoulder ChuckHeathification #2: A shoulder roast of steak, rather than the suggested chuck eye roast. When you are braising meat for hours and hours, you do need a meat with some fat in it, but I asked the butcher what he would recommend for a leaner cut than chuck eye. He said that if the recipe used chuck eye, that I should not go any leaner than shoulder. I looked through the shoulder cuts available and selected the leanest I saw.

Using Spaghetti Squash for the BaseHealthification #3: Spaghetti Squash instead of rigatoni or other pasta. NB and I had discussed whole wheat pasta, but in this recipe, you mix the squash completely in to the ragu. It’s a great way to hide a healthy ingredient (much like hiding quinoa in this Marinara Quinoa with Chicken), so even if you are not totally jazzed about spaghetti squash, I have a feeling this will work for you. Note that I just added a bit more squash for the base, and color in the pictures. Two bites in, NB confirmed that we had made an excellent choice, and that the spaghetti squash provided just the right bite of texture. I agreed.

The process to make this Beef and Onion Ragu with Spaghetti Squash is not difficult, but is a bit lengthy, and I recommend making this recipe when you will be home on a chilly day and don’t mind the oven being on for a few hours.

– 1 to 1.5 lb beef shoulder roast, cut into 4 to 5 pieces and trimmed of major pieces of fat
– S + P
– 3 oz pancetta, chopped roughly into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 carrot, peeled and chopped roughly into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 celery stalk, chopped roughly into 1/2″ pieces
– 2.5 lbs onions (about 7 medium), peeled and cut into 1″ pieces {You read that right. If you like onions, this recipe is for you! Try a mix of yellow and sweet onions.}
– 2 T tomato paste
– 2 c water
– 1 c Sauvignon Blanc, or other dry white wine
– 2 T minced fresh oregano
– 1 spaghetti squash, roasted and processed
– 1/4 c Pecorino Romano, grated {and extra for serving}

How do I make it?

  • Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300.
  • Sprinkle beef with 1/2 t kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and set aside.
  • Process pancetta in a food processor (a smaller processor may work better with the small amount of food you will be using in these first steps) until ground to a paste, about 30 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
  • Transfer paste to an oven-safe dutch oven or soup pot and set aside.
  • Do not bother cleaning out the processor bowl. Pulse onions in processor in batches (it may take 3-4 batches), until the pieces are 1/8 to 1/4 inch pieces, about 8 to 10 pulses per batch. Transfer the onions to a medium or large bowl and keep them at the ready – you will need them in a moment.

Let’s pause for a photo break.

Onions in the Food Processor

I was interested to read in Cook’s Illustrated that using a food processor to chop the onions will result in more surface area being exposed on the onion pieces, in short (and skipping a bit of the science here), leading to a release of chemicals that gives a meatier flavor. Who. Knew.

  • Cook pancetta paste mixture (with the carrot and celery) over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the fat is rendered (= you can’t see it any more on the meat) and fond begins to form on bottom of pot, about 5 minutes.

What is fond? This is fond. You may think it’s food sticking and burning to the bottom of the pot. But no, if you manage to keep it a light brown, it is actually a very shmancy thing called “fond.” Below is an illustration – check the bottom right quadrant of this picture for the heaviest fond concentration.

  • What does fond look like?Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, about 90 seconds.
  • Stir in 2 cups of water a little bit at a time, scraping up the fond. This works best if you add just a little water, and scrape up the fond as the water is boiling (it doesn’t work as well if you add all of the water at once).
  • Stir in onions and bring to a boil. {Note that I wasn’t sure how this was going to happen – but the onion cooks down and there will be enough liquid to boil, I promise!}
  • Stir in 1/2 c of wine and 1 T minced oregano.
  • Add beef and push it into the onion mixture, to ensure that it is submerged. Transfer the pot to the oven, on that low rack, and cook uncovered until beef is fully tender, about 3 hours.
    • {This may be a great time to roast your spaghetti squash. While I recommend 400 degrees, it will be fine at 300. Just leave it in until it starts to brown on the outside and collapse – should be under an hour, but you should have some time on your hands during the 3-hour beef braise!}
  • Transfer beef to carving or cutting board. Place pot over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture is almost completely dry. This may take a half hour to 45 minutes. Stir in remaining 1/2 c wine and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • While the liquid is cooking out, using 2 forks, shred beef into bite-size pieces. Comme ca:

Shredded Beef

  • Return shredded beef, and the remaining oregano, to the sauce, and stir it in. Add the spaghetti squash, separating the strands with forks as you mix it in. Finally, add the cheese, and stir one last time!

Ragu + Salad = Dinner

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One Response to “Beef and Onion Ragu with Spaghetti Squash”

  1. Lisa Watson November 20, 2013 at 3:03 am #

    Wow! this looks delicious! Very interesting about the onions! I’ve always food processed them because my husband’s Italian grandmother told me to (you don’t argue with and Italian grandmother!), but I never knew why!

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