- Food & Drink
We had a regular roster of meals when I was growing up. If there was roast chicken on Sundays, then there was always chicken soup on Mondays, with fat cloudy dumplings bobbing in the stock. One night would be shepherd’s pie night. A triple layer affair, with a pool of mince and gravy topped with a seam of buttery mash and a final hard crust of Cheddar.
Wednesdays were almost always cod in white sauce. Boil in the bag fish that came in identical squares, soaking in milk and flour. We ate it with mash and peas and I still remember with guilt the night mum made an extra effort with the mash, pounding it down to a silken purée. We all refused to eat it, preferring our mash rough and flaky, with streaks of butter.
On shopping day we’d have spag bol. This was my favourite, partly because shopping day meant French stick. If you’ve never piled strands of hot spaghetti and bolognese sauce onto a thickly buttered piece of French stick, then you have missed out on the best ad hoc open sandwich in the world.
I also loved it because spag bol is, for a child, fun to eat. You can slurp the pasta up from your plate in long, sucking mouthfuls. Or better still, twirl it around your fork, twisting and twisting it till the prongs are thickly turbaned with pasta and it’s hard to fit in your mouth.
And it was English spag bol that we ate, not Italian ragù. Beef mince cooked with onions, carrot, celery, mushrooms and garlic in a tin of chopped tomatoes and served with parmesan. At first it was that parmesan dust that came in long life tubs and smelled vaguely of baby sick. Then, as we got grander and more sophisticated, and the supermarkets did the same, there was grated parmesan from bags in the fridge. Then finally, actual blocks of the stuff.
I’m very grand and sophisticated these days, so I make ragù. Slow cooked for hours till all the parts of the sauce have collapsed into one whole, and served with shaving of parmesan’s cheaper cousin, grana padano. I’m still English enough to serve it with spaghetti, even though I know tagliatelle would be better. A defiant little nod back to the joy and comfort of my childhood dinner.
This recipe is based on Elizabeth David’s recipe for ragù alla Bolognese and I was asked to develop it as part of Waitrose’s Autumn Warmers campaign. Waitrose are celebrating the sort of comfort food that makes autumn’s chill enjoyable and want you to share your favourites. Simply Tweet or Instagram a pic of your favourite autumn warmer to @waitrose, tagging it with #autumnwarmers and you could be in with a chance to win a multi cooker, baking bundle, vouchers or, brilliantly, a roast dinner. For more details of the competition and terms and conditions, click here.
Ox cheeks are a brilliant cheap cut for cooking on cold days, not least because they take hours so your kitchen will be warm and steamy all afternoon. For this sauce I chopped them because I wanted to make sure they’d fall apart into threads, but you do need a sharp knife and the upper arms strength of a shot putter to hack your way through them. If you’d rather save yourself the work, fry them whole for a few minutes to brown them, then follow the recipe but add on a little extra cooking time. It may take nearer four hours than three to cook them down. Keep pressing them with a spoon to check if they’re done.
Spaghetti with Slow Cooked Ox Cheek Ragù
Butter and olive oil for frying
200g unsmoked lardons
2 ox cheeks, weighing roughly 700g, roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
250g chicken livers, roughly chopped
100g tomato purée
250ml dry white wine
Nutmeg, for grating
Spaghetti (or tagliatelle), around 100-120g per person
Sage leaves and grana padano or parmesan, to serve
Melt a small chunk of butter in a casserole dish with a splash of olive oil – you don’t need lots, just enough fat to encourage the lardons along. Add the lardons. Fry over a medium heat for 5-8 minutes till they’re pale golden. Lift out of the pan and pop on a plate.
Add the chopped ox cheeks to the pan. Fry them for 5-6 minutes, stirring now and then, till the ox cheek chunks have browned. Lift out of the pan and add to the plate of lardons.
Add the onion, carrot and celery to the pan. Season well with salt and pepper. Turn the heat down and gently fry and stir for 8-10 minutes till the veg are soft and golden.
Add the lardons and ox cheeks back into the pan. Stir in the livers, tomato purée, white wine and water. Grate in some nutmeg – around half a nutmeg should do it. Pop on the lid and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 3 hours till the sauce is thick and the meat collapses when you press it. Give everything in the pan a good stir to break it all down. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Cook the spaghetti (or tagliatelle) in a huge pan of boiling water according to the packet instructions. 8 minutes is normally enough time.
Warm a little oil in a frying pan. Add a handful of sage leaves and fry for 30 seconds to 1 minute to crisp them up. Drain on kitchen paper.
Drain the pasta and toss into the sauce. Muddle up together then spoon into warm bowls. Grate over a little grana padano or parmesan and scatter with the sage leaves to serve.