According to Bill Buford (the author of one of my culinary touchstone books, "Heat"), a ragu bolognese sauce is supposed to be "more dry than wet, a dressing more than a sauce, or, as Mario [Batali] describes it, a "condiment"". I'm quite sure (although I can't find the exact reference) that I've also seen Mario Batali describe the proper ragu bolognese as having the consistency of "gravely dirt". These heavenly concoctions, of course, are a far cry from the tomato-based plonk that shows up in the Italian aisle of your local Piggly Wiggly sporting the "Ragu" label on its jar. I think it was last year that one of my Wine Spectator issues had a feature on Mario that included his classic ragu bolognese recipe. Being adventurous and naive, I attempted this same recipe in the commissary, which turned out, well, just ok. The resulting ragu was really dried out, more so than I expected it would, and I fear that I either didn't get the right ingredients and/or just plain screwed something up along the way (after adding a little Mexican seasoning, it didn't make bad tacos, though).
Fast forward to last Sunday. I am now armed with another ragu recipe from Wine Spectator, this one completely lamb-based (instead of a beef/veal/pork combo like Mario's). How'd it go? Much, much better. The end product wow'ed both me and Mrs. Hackknife, with the Hackknife progeny happy to just eat the cooked pappardelle noodles with a little butter and grated Pecorino. Here's the full recipe:
Pappardelle with Lamb Ragu, Mint, and Pecorino
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 lbs ground lamb (preferably shoulder, but take what you can find)
1/2 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup finely diced onions
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry red wine (I used a Chianti)
1 cup imported canned cherry tomatoes
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground fennel
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp salt
1 lb pappardelle noodles
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese
1. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large stewpot over high heat. Break the lamb into small bits, add it to the pot, and brown. If the lamb gives off a lot of liquid, drain it off and continue to brown.
2. Add the carrots, onions, and celery, and stir together. Cook until the vegetables start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste, stirring, and cook for another minute. Add the red wine, stirring, and cook until it evaporates completely. Scrape off any bits that are sticking to the pot to prevent them from burning.
3. Add the canned tomatoes, broth, and all of the seasonings. Reduce heat to medium-low to cook at a simmer. Continue scraping the sides and bottom of the pot at regular intervals to avoid burning. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, or until most of the liquid evaporates. The meat should turn dark brown. The liquid should turn dark orange in color first, then thicken into a dark brown, textured sauce.