Spaghetti Squash al Ragu'

Leave it to an Americana to insert turkey and squash into an otherwise classic Italian recipe! In the Old World this dish uses pasta and beef, but even Italians are choosing to avoid one or both of them these days, for a number of health reasons. I tend to view recipes as flexible templates, and health is an excellent excuse to vary from tradition.

The most famous ragu' recipe comes from the city of Bologna (called Bolognese), and also contains both pork belly (pancetta) and milk. Ideally, it should cook for several hours on a low heat, but it's also common to make a quick ragu' on weeknights without those two ingredients.

Last spring I went on a road trip through northern Italy with my friend Shayna. We didn't go to Bologna, but we did visit some other towns closeby, in the region of Emilia-Romagna.  We stayed in a fabulous Airbnb in the countryside, and learned how to cook authentic ragu' from a local.

We learned almost everything there is to know from one local in particular: Enrico Codelupi, a country music-loving jokester and fourth generation Parmigiano cheesemaker. He served as both cooking instructor and tour guide during our stay. Actually, he wasn't even our Airbnb host--just a friendly neighbor who is passionate about food.

Enrico really is an expert in his regional cuisine. He ages culatello in his basement, which we tried (and trusted that it was sanitary). I'm not really a fan of prosciutto, but it was still impressive. When I told him that I'd never eaten snails in Itay, he pulled some out of his freezer to defrost, which he'd collected from his garden the week before. He also managed to find us frogs legs, which have been diminishing in the area year after year. 

Enrico making the ragu, with plenty of panache.

Bellow is a basic ragu recipe that can be prepared relatively quickly on a weeknight, using ground beef or turkey. You can serve it with any type of long pasta, in lasagna, over zucchini noodles, or as I've pictured here, with roasted spaghetti squash. It may not be Bolognese, but it is simple, clean, and delicious.

Spaghetti Squash al Ragu'

1 large spaghetti squash

1 stalk of celery, peeled and diced

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 onion, diced

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp butter

1 sprig of rosemary or thyme, or both, destemmed and chopped

1 pound of ground beef or turkey

1/2 cup red wine

26 oz marinara sauce, homemade or storebought (Trader Joe's organic marinara works well)

1 6 oz can of tomato paste

1 cup of broth or water

salt and ground pepper

For the spaghetti squash:

  • Preheat the oven to 400°F while you prep the squash.
  • Use a chef's knife to cut the spaghetti squash lengthwise.
  •  Scrape out the seeds and stringy bits of flesh from inside the squash. Discard the seeds.
  • Place the squash halves cut-side down in a roasting pan.
  • Pour a little water in the pan, enough to cover the bottom. The water helps the squash steam and become more tender. You can also cover the pan with aluminum foil to keep the steam in.
  • Transfer the squash to the oven and cook for 30 to 45 minutes. Smaller squash will cook more quickly than larger squash. Check the squash after 30 minutes to gauge cooking.
  • The squash is ready when you can easily pierce a fork through the flesh all the way to the peel. The flesh will also separate easily into spaghetti-like strands. You can also taste it right now — if the noodles are still a bit crunchy for your taste, put the squash back in the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Use a fork to gently pull the squash flesh from the peel and to separate the flesh into strands. The strands wrap around the squash horizontally — rake your fork in the same direction as the strands to make the longest "noodles."
  • Toss the squash in some good olive oil before serving with the ragu'.

For the ragu':

  • In a large skillet, saute the onion, celery, and carrot with the olive oil and butter. 
  • When the have onions have become translucent, add the ground meat and chopped herbs, along with some salt and pepper.
  • Once the meat has begun to brown but has not lost all of its moisture, add the wine and simmer.
  • When all of the liquid has evaporated, add the marinara sauce, tomato paste, and broth or water. 
  • Allow the mixture to simmer until it has reduced, and thickened. 
  • Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve over the roasted spaghetti squash.

Enrico and Shayna dancing to Dolly Parton.