KC 162 - One Pot, No-Recipe Ragu

KC 162 - One Pot, No-Recipe Ragu

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, the ongoing prank that is definitely going to be hilarious when it pays off, just you wait. I’m your angel of the morning, Jon O’Guin. Happy April Fool’s Day, the day where everyone fibs just a little, to feel better about the thousand little lies they tell themselves and their loved ones every week.  In honor of that wacky tradition, I’m going to give you a recipe that isn’t one. What does that mean? Is it edible? Why does everyone decide to deceive come the start of April? These answers and more will be unveiled to you. However, if you wish to remain behind the veil of ignorance a little longer, you can instead jump to the not-recipe through this link.



So, where exactly did April Fool’s come from? The Answer to that is…really dumb, actually. See, the most common explanation for it is that in the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, the start of the year moved from April 1st to January 1st, and that those who didn’t change with the calendar were mocked and bullied. The only problem with that statement is the centuries of counter-evidence. Because the Julian calendar DOES start on January 1st. And it’s not like that was hard to find out, it’s called the Julian calendar because Julius CAESAR came up with it, in the year 45 BC. And it was used until 1582 AD. That’s over 1600 years of the same Calendar, so it’s not like people didn’t NOTICE.

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Kind of wild that the longest-lasting thing he touched was the Calendar.

So where does it come from? Well, the earliest confirmed tradition is from France. And let me tell you, historically, France and Calendars do NOT get along great. The last time France tried to rework the Calendar, they were really into decimals. And the Guillotine. It didn’t go great.

Anyway, at some point, France started a tradition called “poisson d’avril” , or, “April Fish”, which is, today, their form of April Fool’s. However, the first time it’s ever used is, and I promise you this isn’t a joke, but is instead what appears to be an accurate recounting of history…in a Middle French book of poetry about Satan and Lucifer joking to each other about their upcoming schemes, which is interrupted every now and again for the author to note who he thinks the great composers of the age are.


I heard “Satan” and “Composers”, and immediately thought of Don Giovanni, partly because of last week’s Parmigiana discussion, and partly because I’m an egotistical dick.

The line is tricky to translate, because as I’ve noted before, I don’t speak French, so I sure as Sorbonne don’t speak MIDDLE French, a dialect of it that has been obsolete for 300+years. However, the line in question appears to be talking about a pimp. Again, this is NOT me making shit up. I often find the most ridiculous jokes are the simple facts of real situations.  The line, according to some translations, is basically, “come on, chief of the thugs, procurer of men and women, you April’s Fish, come to me.” That’s the first WRITTEN example, and it seems to be tied to…the calendar.

Remember when I said the Julian calendar didn’t start the year on April 1st? Well, apparently, some of THE PEOPLE USING IT didn’t know that: that France in the Middle Ages had a longstanding connection between the end of celebrations of the vernal equinox (normally around March 25that the time), and the start of April, and sometimes Easter.  Indeed, many European countries had similar traditions, one of many ways of quietly letting Pagan traditions and ideals match up with Christian holidays, to keep things from getting too antsy. Sometime in the late 1400s, the idea of ‘those pagans are big dummies’ crept in, and now we’re here.

It’s a mess, really. There’s not really a rhyme or reason to the history, it just kind of happened. Which is a useful point of relation, because I want to talk to you about cooking without a recipe, or the “grammar” of cooking.


Send the Fool To Grammar School

Now, I’ve talked about this a couple times on the site before, but let’s brush up on what I mean when I talk about the “Grammar” of cooking, or cooking “grammatically”. And the best comparison I have for this is a joke I once heard from a comedian that I’ve never been able to locate again: “I don’t trust people who say they can’t cook, because what that really means is “I can’t follow a set of written instructions.” ‘ 

And there is some validity to that admonishment, but there is of course, nuance. I mean, I’ve fucked up a bowl of Easy Mac, a product whose instructions are “add water, heat, and stir.”. (I…uh…skipped the first step.) And some instructions aren’t particularly useful. “one medium onion” is a useless descriptor, if you don’t know the relative size of onions, or which TYPE of onion you’re supposed to be using.


I don’t even know if these are all ONIONS, let alone if they’re big or small.

However, there’s a growing theme/movement in cooking sources to work on the “grammar” of cooking, by which they mean “teaching people the implicit and explicit links between ingredients, techniques, and methods”, rather than “giving them specific lists of ingredients”. If that sounds confusing, then let me give you an example:

I COULD tell you how to cook a pork chop, by telling you

Season it with X tablespoons of Y, and W teaspoons of Z, Cook at THIS TEMP for THIS LONG

…but that’s not going to give YOU the best pork chop.

Why? Because, for one thing, I’m not in your house. There are a lot of details that change cooking: things like the local humidity can fuck up baking recipes, because there’s too much water in the air. Or your oven might run hotter than mine does, or have better air-flow. Maybe you’re like me, and have a brother who doesn’t eat cilantro, so whenever it shows up, you have to switch it out for something else. So all my rules have all these exceptions.

OR, I can tell you this:

Pork Chops are a relatively lean cut from the otherwise fairly fatty pork. Pork is a little sweeter, and a little less salty than beef, in general. When overcooked, it becomes a little more ‘rubbery’ versus beef’s ‘chewiness’. Pork, flavor-wise, goes well with salt, fruit, fennel/anise flavors, strong herbs like rosemary or sage, and fat. It also works with aliums (onions, garlic, leeks) and most root vegetables or tubers (parsnips, rutabagas, potatoes, etc).

Now, that didn’t tell you the methods of cooking the pork, but it’s given you a better idea of what you should cook. Now, I haven’t given you the specifics, but my general overview will let you tweak other recipes a little more into something you’ll enjoy.   

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Here we have a pork-chop topped with a leek-and-mustard sauce, with Rosemary. Which, I’ll note, I tagged half of that in the above paragraph. (Credit to Delicious Dishings for the pic, who took the recipe from Bon Appetit Magazine)

That’s because, in culinary circles, the idea of telling someone ‘how’ to cook something like a pork chop is absurd, because you cook it like every other solid chunk of meat: you sear it in a hot pan and put it in an oven somewhere between 350 and 400 degrees until it’s the right internal temp. That’s the foolproof way to cook ANY chunk of meat, from a chicken breast to a beef roast. The trick is not communicating the method, but rather the ELEMENTS.

So this was an idea I approached recently while making a thing of Ragu. Let me talk you through it, and hopefully we’ll see the results of the processes.


More Fool Me

As with many other O’Guin dinner recipes, this started with a spur-of-the-moment decision. My mother saw a roast at Costco that was too well-marbled to ignore.


I mean, you tell me that marbling isn’t appealing.
Nate, I can HEAR you starting to lie.

And as we were in the throes of late winter-early spring in Western Washington, that meant we were beset on all sides by dreary grey skies, sudden rain storms, and other days that fill one’s bones with a sense of cold. AS such, my mother requested I make some sort of slow-braised beef dish with the roast. I agreed to make Ragu, as I’d been looking for an excuse to make polenta for some time, and this seemed an appropriate combination.

Ragu is the Italian version of French Ragout (and you thought there would be no relevance between our discussion of April Fools and France and an Italian entrée! I TOLD YOU: I don’t need to plan jokes, Life writes them for me.) and whereas French ragout is a meat and vegetable stew, Ragu is instead a meat sauce for pasta. However, it is MADE like a stew, it’s then just served over noodles or other starches. Since the intent is to have the large roast break apart in the sauce, that means we want full penetration of the meat, and also a lot of meat flavor built into the sauce. This is pretty easy to achieve by quartering the 3-ish pound roast, and browning the quarters on all sides.

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These look almost good enough to eat! But don’t. We have…plans…for them.

Then, of course, if you’re going to make a European stew, that means you’re starting with mirepoix: Onion, carrot, and celery, sliced, and softened in the left over beef fat and juices from the browning. Also, salt. You should always salt every step of a recipe like this. IN fact, you should have seasoned your beef with salt and pepper before browning, but I forgot, so now you’re more likely to forget too.

 Since this is an Italian sauce, it’s going to be tomato-heavy, so once the mirepoix starts to  soften and get translucent, hit it with some umami in the form of a tomato paste. A pro move would be to clear out a space in the middle of the pot, and let the tomato paste brown for 30 seconds to a minute before stirring it in, but I didn’t feel like it, so don’t push yourself to do it if you don’t want to,


I accidentally sprayed a lot of my tomato paste around, which you can kind of see on the handle of the spoon. It was the last little bit from the tube, and it collapsed on me weirdly.

Hopefully at this point the mirepoix has scrubbed up all the browning in the pot from the beef, but it’s going to start laying down more with the tomato paste, and it’s time to bring in an important player here. Since we’re working with a well-marbled hunk of beef, that means this recipe is going to have a solid amount of fat to it. And that fat is going to be a problem if you don’t balance it with other elements. And here, that means you’re going to want acid. Yes, the tomato sauce will add more, but that acid will be used mostly to break down the connective tissue, and penetrate the meat. You want something to brighten up the sauce.

To that end, I used two different vinegars: a glug of red wine vinegar, to deglaze the pan, and a swirl of balsamic vinegar, for sweetness and acidity.

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Pro-tip: Vinegar tastes better if it looks like it houses a genie.

If you’re not hugely into sweetness, you could add some more herbs, a bit of red-pepper flakes, and so on to change things up, but for something like this, which is supposed to be warming, I like just a bit of sweet in the back.

Then, I just dumped in a Costco jar of herbed tomato sauce, and another jar of water. I added a little more salt and pepper, and a couple bay leaves, brought it up to bubbling, then popped it into the oven for 3ish hours at 350.


The beginning of a saucy stay, and a meaty journey.

During that time, I made polenta, but we don’t really have time to get into that, as we’re running a little long. So you can make pasta, or mashed potatoes, or any other starch you think will work well with the dish.

After somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 hours, your beef should be fork tender, meaning it can easily stabbed into, and pulls apart when you wiggle the fork.  At that point, you pull the meat out of the sauce, and move the pan back to the stove-top on medium heat. You’re trying to reduce the simmering liquid into a true sauce. As it reduces, you can taste the sauce, and see if there’s anything you need to add, salt, pepper, maybe an extra drizzle of vinegar, some fresh herbs to add another layer of complexity.

While the sauce is simmering down, shred the beef quarters into bite-sized chunks. It’s okay if you hit some pockets of fat/gristle that didn’t cook out, and need to be discarded, this is perfectly normal.


If you end up eating a notable amount of the meat as you shred it, that is also normal.

Once the meat is shredded and you think the sauce is reduced enough (it doesn’t need a lot, maybe reduce it by a third), you dump the meat back in, stir it all to combine, and ladle over your starch for dinner.


Be sure to not take a CLEAR picture of the food, to retain some of the mystery.

The result is quite delightful. It’s not perfect, of course. I probably could have seasoned with a little more salt, and maybe added just a touch of red pepper flakes to make the sauce a touch more complex. But what it is, is black-tar comfort food. It’s soft, warm, and meaty, over a soft starch that’s a little sweet and buttery. It received entirely positive reviews, and was, in the words of Andrew Rea, a recipient of the Clean Plate club: it was one of relatively few things my family made that we actually consumed ALL of. Normally, we get to the point where there’s at least 1-2 servings left, but it’s been a week, so we throw it out. Not so this dish. We made it on a Wednesday, and it was gone by Sunday. So make it yourself. Or make something else. The point is to explore the general rules, not the specifics.

I’m running late, no plug today, which I also just realized I didn’t do the links for last Thursday. Look, it was a busy weekend. I’m sorry to not sell myself to you all as thoroughly as I could. I swear, we’ll get back on track.




Really more of a guideline, than a


 No-Recipe Ragu

Serves 4-8



A plorp of vegetable oil

A big ol hunk of well-marbled roast, cut into quarters

A couple cups of Mirepoix (that’s 2 parts onion to 1 part carrot and 1 part celery)

A hearty dollop of tomato paste (roughly 1.5 tbsp)

A glug of red wine vinegar (say 2 tbsp)

A drizzle of balsamic vinegar (1 tbsp)

A couple to a few bay leaves

1 big jar tomato sauce

Salt, pepper, whatever

A starch.



1.       Heat your plorp of oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Drop in two of your roast quarters, and sizzle those suckers until they look tasty all over. Remove, and add the next two quarters, sizzling again.

2.       Reduce the heat to medium, and toss in the mirepoix. Let it cook for a commercial break, until sorta-see-through, then add the tomato paste. Stir and let cook for another commercial break. Then add the red wine vinegar, scraping to get the gunk up. Drizzle in the balsamic to feel fancy,

3.       Shit, I forgot to season any of this. Add salt and pepper to everything.

4.       Add the tomato sauce jar to the pot. Then take it out, and dump the sauce OUT of the jar, and into the pot. Fill the jar with water, swish it around to get all the tomato sauce, and dump the tomato water into the pot. Recycle the jar, don’t be a dick.

5.       Add the meat back in what is currently basically un-blended V-8, and wiggle it around until it’s mostly in the mixture.

6.       Put in a 350 degree oven for 3 hours. Go watch like, Cloud Atlas or something.

7.       Make the starch. I don’t know how you do that, because I’m not actually a prophet, so I don’t know what you’re making, just do it right.

8.       Take your hot pot to the hot top, and plop your meat on a plate. Simmer the sauce and rip the roast until both as as thick/thin as you like. Mix back together, and slop on your starch.

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