For those of us not born into an Italian family, it’s easy to wish we had an apron-touting nonna nearby who’d pass down her wealth of culinary knowledge. Fortunately on The Chefs’ Line this week, two of our home cooks – Anna and Nathan – come with all the insider advice. Both born to Italian parents, these talented contestants were quoting their mamas and nonnas left, right and centre while cooking a quintessential Italian weekend dish, polenta with ragù. And in case you haven’t watched the show yet, the results were incredible!
Here's what we learnt...
1. Set the alarm
“My grandmother would start a sauce at 5 o’clock in the morning for us to have lunch at 1 in the afternoon,” says Nathan. “You want it to really reduce so those flavours intensify.”
For a slow-cooked sensation, try this garganelli with rabbit ragù.
2. Build your flavour
Along with the usual sauce-making ingredients – onion, garlic, chilli and so on – Anna adds fresh bay leaves for “a beautiful flavour” that beats the dried version. Apparently, it was her mum’s special trick, so we’re taking notes!
3. Pack a spicy punch
“Nduja is this amazing Calabrese ingredient,” says Nathan. “[It’s] traditional Italian sausage meat and they grind it with a lot of chilli and a lot of oil into a paste. It becomes like a pâté.” A fiery pâté, mind you, and one he says boosts the flavour of (almost) everything!
4. Tomato tips
“I love using fresh tomatoes because it’s a bit lighter and sweeter,” Anna says of her special sauce. “A little old Italian lady once told me seeds make sauce bitter. Ever since I’ve squeezed out seeds.”
5. Secret ingredient
When making a ragù or rich tomato sauce, Nathan swears by one (not so) secret: “My mum will hate me if I tell you this, but a teaspoon of sugar is the magic ingredient.”
6. Mighty meaty
There are a great many proteins that shine in a ragù. Goat belly, for instance, works wonders in this layered lasagne; while pork shoulder, duck marylands and rabbit ragù deftly pair with pasta and potato gnocchi. The secret – no matter your meat preference – is cooking the sauce long enough for rich, complex flavours to develop.
In The Chefs’ Line challenge Anna steered away from these classic meaty cuts to make a sausage ragù. Clearly it was a good call because her dish took home the trophy, beating the mushroom number made by Osteria Oggi’s sous chef Josh.
7. Preparing the polenta
“I made my polenta by adding one cup to a litre of water – I salt the water,” explains Anna. “People do it with milk, a lot of people do it with stock [but] I just kept it really simple.” Simple, sure; cheesy, most definitely! After her polenta had reached a soft, creamy consistency, Anna added pecorino and Parmesan for extra delicious bite. Find her recipe here.
For O Tama Carey's take on the Italian staple, check this out.
For more ideas check out our ragù collection here.
Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? It's all about Italian cuisine on this week's episode of The Chefs' Line airing weeknights at 6pm. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.