lamb ragu. no jar required.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought ragu simply meant jarred tomato sauce, like the way Sanka meant decaffeinated coffee or Xerox meant a copy. Well, my hand is in the air. I don’t think I’ve yet to explain my aversion to store-bought tomato sauce—an omission I will have to rectify soon—but let’s just say I don’t see the point. What that means for this story: all those times we popped open a jar I was missing out on the joy that is a wonderful, slow-cooked, savory meat sauce, one that is simply perfect for fall.
There are many types of ragu, from a basic meat sauce with ground beef or sausage or both, to a delicious almost stew-like concoction made with a big, gamey meat like boar, goat, or the more readily available lamb. Someday, I’d love to make a wild boar ragu, but since wild boar is somewhat hard to come by, I’m quite happy to settle for the lamb version.
Any ragu starts with the meat, and this lamb ragu starts with lamb shoulder. I like to get lamb shoulder chops on the bone and slice the meat into half-inch cubes and save the bones to place in the pot to add to the meaty flavor.
Some ragu recipes call for a lot of tomatoes to form the base of their sauce. I happen to prefer a lamb ragu in which the meat is the star; if you add too many tomatoes they can end up dominating. I prefer to use one can of diced tomatoes, drained, chopped up some more, then drained once again. You could use crushed tomatoes, but I like the little bit of added texture of the double-diced tomatoes.
You certainly need more liquid in order to slowly braise the lamb, allowing it to cook down and become tender. Some chicken broth – and if you use canned chicken broth be sure it is low-sodium – and a little red wine will usually suffice. But I like to add some earthy flavor to our sauce. I get that by using dried porcinis reconstituted in hot water, reserving that water and adding it to the braise towards the end of the cooking process. Throw in some diced onion and garlic, a couple of bay leaves, some sprigs of fresh thyme, and let it cook for a couple of hours. That’s it, you’re done.
For a ragu this rich pappardelle is the way to go. Sprinkle the dish with some shaved parmesan or some salty pecorino, top with some toasted bread crumbs to give it a bit of crunch, and you have a fantastic fall feast.
Lamb Ragu with Thyme-Toasted Bread Crumbs (serves 2 to 4):
- 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 ½ to 2 lbs bone-in lamb shoulder (depending on size of bones), cut into ½ inch cubes, bones reserved
- 1 14-oz can diced tomatoes, drained, chopped, and drained again
- 2 cups low sodium chicken broth
- ½ cup red wine
- 1 oz dried porcini mushrooms
- 2 cups water, divided
- 1 medium onion, diced fine
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh thyme plus two sprigs for the pot
- 4 slices high quality white sandwich bread
- Pecorino cheese, shaved
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lb fresh pappardelle
- 1 coffee filter
- Place dried mushrooms in one cup of hot water; set aside.
- Heat oil over medium high heat in a dutch oven or a large, deep sauce pan or stock pot. Season the lamb cubes generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place lamb in pot in one layer with some space between the pieces and brown on all sides—if you have to do this in two batches, its fine, just be careful not to burn the browned bits (aka, the fond) on the bottom of the pan. Remove the lamb and set aside.
- Reduce heat to medium. Place onion in pan and soften, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for about one minute, or until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, and cook until slightly darkened and thickened.
- Remove the mushrooms from the water and pour the liquid through the coffee filter to remove and dirt and grit. Chop the mushrooms and set aside.
- Return the lamb to the pot, still at medium heat. Add the red wine and let the lamb absorb some of the wine, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock slowly while stirring vigorously to pick up any remaining browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Add the lamb bones to the pot (be sure to count them so you know how many to take out at the end!).
- Add the diced mushrooms, diced thyme and thyme sprigs, and bay leaves. Add about half of the mushroom soaking liquid and cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, stir occasionally to make sure the lamb is cooking evenly, and slowly simmer for about an hour.
- Cut the crusts off the bread, tear into pieces and pulse in a food processor until small crumbs form. In a dry pan, toast the bread crumbs until golden brown. Set aside.
- After an hour, check the pot and add some plain water if the liquid has reduced too much. Cover again and cook for another half hour.
- Remove the lamb from the pot and shred with two forks – it should be suitably tender at this point, but if you’re having trouble shredding the lamb, simply return to the pot and cook a little longer.
- Return the lamb to the pot and add the remaining liquid from the mushrooms and cook another 30 minutes or so. If during this time the sauce reduces more than you’d like, add some of the plain water until it reaches your desired consistency. Prior to serving be sure to remove bay leaves.
- Boil some salted water and cook the pappadelle (per the package instructions) until al dente – it should just be a couple of minutes – and drain. Put a portion of the pasta on a plate and ladle a good amount of the ragu over it. Top with the cheese and bread crumbs. Enjoy!