Italian Table Talk: Ragu di coniglio, a family recipe
It’s perhaps a tad stereotypical but the idea of the family recipe and Italian cuisine really go hand in hand – that idea of the Italian nonna, apron on, standing over bubbling, steaming pots, weaving magic without the use of recipe book, putting her secret touches here and there, getting ready to feed an army, even if there are only four of you eating. It may not be everyone’s nonna, but some still remember her like that.
After much discussion, it was decided that “the family recipe” would be the topic of this month’s Italian Table Talk. A chance to talk about something cherished, a more personal post, something that inspires nostalgia, something that you could even call an heirloom and passed around the family or simply shared with friends. It’s also a window into Italian home life and culture. Take a peek: Valeria talks about family recipes she never knew and remakes a classic, pasta e fagioli, Giulia does her nonna’s choux pastries filled with lemon-scented crema and Jasmine does a humble spezzatino meat stew.
I don’t actually have an Italian nonna, but I almost feel like I knew my husband Marco’s nonna, Lina — a pint-sized, tiny woman who laughed easily and would have done anything in the world for Marco and his sister — even though she passed away just two months before I met Marco. In many ways she lives on in recipes that Marco cooks. It’s a strange thing, since Marco never cooked before he met me (for those of you that know him, this is almost hard to believe as he is the one that does most of the cooking around here these days), so he never learned how to cook from her while she was around.
In fact, apparently no one else really cooked when she was around as she was such a good cook and so ruled the kitchen that no one else really needed to be in there. This may explain why Marco’s mother, Angela, does not have the knack that his nonna did in the kitchen. She certainly has a few good dishes up her sleeve – the classics that she pulls out for every special occasion – but what she lacks in skills in the kitchen she makes up for in remembering every dish that Nonna Lina was known for and how it was made.
Whenever we mention a particular dish we’re cooking, Angela pipes up with Nonna Lina’s version. It’s like having a walking, talking recipe journal. A treasure really. Recently, we mentioned we’d bought some rabbit, which Marco was planning to turn into ragu. “Do Nonna Lina’s battutino,” suggested my mother in law. The battutino was one of those secret touches. In addition to the regular battuto (a soffritto of minced onion, celery, carrot and parsley stalks, left to sweat a little in the pan where the rabbit, cut into chunks, had been seared), a “little” battuto of garlic and rosemary was added towards the end of cooking, after the stew had plenty of time to braise, the wine and tomatoes had reduced into a thick sauce and the meat became so tender it was practically falling off the bone.
Marco remembers his nonna making this ragu di coniglio, dressing thick, fresh pappardelle or maltagliati pasta, bought from the pasta shop across the road. She would leave the large chunks of rabbit with the bones in (which happens to give a great boost of flavour), so you could fish them out of your plate and chew on the bones – something Marco’s father and aunt relished doing. Sometimes the dish is not fully enjoyed if you don’t have to lick your fingers.
It’s a good dish. Delicious, hearty, satisfying and homely. A dish I hope my daughter will soon be devouring, and will later hear about or maybe even learn.
Ragu di coniglio di Nonna Lina
Nonna Lina’s Rabbit ragu
- 1 rabbit
- 2 slices of pancetta or rigatino, chopped
- 1 small brown onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
- a few parsley stalks – the part right below the leaves – chopped
- 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
- 1 wineglass full of dry white wine
- water or stock
- 1 400 gr can chopped tomatoes
- a handful of chopped parsley leaves
- salt and pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or finely chopped
- a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
Chop the rabbit into large pieces (like in this recipe for cacciatore, hunter’s stew). Sear in a well-heated casserole pot in some olive oil. When browned on all sides, remove the rabbit pieces, turn down the heat to low-medium. Add the pancetta or rigatino, saute for a minute or two, then add the soffritto vegetables – the onion, carrot, celery and parsley stalks. Let sweat on a low heat until the vegetables turn soft and the onion transparent.
Add the tomato paste, let it combine completely with the soffritto, colouring the mixture. Then add the glass of white wine. Cook until the wine has reduced completely, then place the rabbit back in the pot and cover with water or stock. Place the lid on top and braise on low heat until the meat is tender – depending on the quality of the rabbit this could take a couple of hours. Add water as necessary.
When tender, remove the meat from the pot and remove the bones from most of the meat, leaving the shoulder and legs if you like chewing on the bone. Watch out for any little bones (particularly the rib bones) as they can be deadly in this ragu! Place the meat back in the pot, season with salt and pepper, add the tomatoes and the battutino of garlic and rosemary.
Remove the lid and reduce until you have a thick, silky sauce and a chunky ragu. Serve with fresh pappardelle or maltagliati and don’t be afraid to get your fingers dirty.
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