Food. Story Telling. Discovery.

Lamb Ragu

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Ground meat often gets a bad wrap. Often associated with meatloaf, forgotten rather than rhapsodized about, or those unassuming grey burgers of school lunches, we tend to forget it's often the basis of the most comforting, filling and easy recipes. Most of its life, it lives in the dark cold of the freezer. Case in point: Lamb Ragu. I know. I cheated. But that's part of the deal when you're on a budget: you forage into the icy crevasses of the freezer and in the dark corners of the cabinet to figure out what else to transform into your next restorative. In my case, it was a couple of nests of fresh pasta, delicately frozen, and a block of good, organic, grass-fed lamb.

Who knows what would've happened to that lamb had I never been hit by this economic wake-up call? It could've remained untapped, like a wooly mammoth under yards of ice, undisturbed until something cataclysmic finally revealed its priceless remains. Perhaps I'm being dramatic about the emotional effects of the freelance life, but at times, it sure as hell feels like the earth beneath your feet is giving way. When that feeling kicks in, it's time for ragu AKA bolognese.

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A while back, Andy and I had experimented with fresh pasta using some eggs from a local farm. Thanks to my friend Rob's motorized pasta maker, Andy and I felt like kids at pre-school, mangling the yolk-infused Play-Doh until it was satiny smooth. We made enough for us, his family and the freezer. Bundled up in little nests and wrapped in plastic wrap, I put them away not really thinking of when I would re-discover this little kitchen experiment.

I found it in front of the frozen lamb.

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I haven't been in the market for ground, grass-fed, organic lamb lately, so I can't tell you the market/commodity price for such a thing. So don't send me angry emails accusing me of already eschewing the affordable ethic. I found it in my freezer, my possession. That's cost effective enough for me. When I did find it, it was as if I'd found a $20 bill in the pocket of some freshly laundered jeans. This small little victory made it so that I felt like, for once, I came out on top.

Lava Lake Lamb is GREAT STUFF. Actually, the whole Rocky Mountain region's lamb scene produces meat that echoes the sage, the wild grasses, the hills, the air. Last fall, I was able to visit Lava Lake while working on a story for Relish magazine. They're part ranch, part non-profit of the land preservation and restoration sort. At times I think what they do is like warding off a tidal wave with a plastic spoon, but these phenomenal people have kept and re-created pockets of beauty in the middle of nowhere. And the proof of their efforts, so to speak, is in the lamb. Wine geeks call it "terroir." I'll just call it delicious.

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The recipe itself is pretty easy. Of course, when you can't unearth a block of ground, frozen lamb, by all means, use beef. Pork. A mixture of both. If you have veal in your freezer and you didn't know about it, call me. I'll come over and help you excavate the rest of your freezer.

Soffrito is the melange of chopped onions, celery and carrot that'll saute up gently in a pot, oozing its sugars and compounds and forming the basis of the sauce. The holy trinity, so to speak. In this case, I didn't have the celery and proceeded anyway. I've never been one to stick with holy convention, anyway. Besides, this comfort could not be delayed. I also added what I believed to be the remains of a stump of pancetta, again, lost in the nether regions of the fridge.

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In my book, bacon makes everything better. Especially when paired with a can of Strianese tomatoes, again, a cupboard find.

Combine all of this in a pot and let simmer for a bit and serve with pasta, by its lonesome, like a sort of bastardized Italian chili to be served with a bit of hot sauce and cheese. No one could ever blame you for willingly eating such a thick, rib-sticking and consoling thing. It's also a great as a base for one of my favorite dishes (it actually was a stapel in my college diet, other than the EasyMac and Domino's Pizza) uove affogate or eggs poached in a tomato sauce, only this time the tomatoes have got some lamb (maybe beef) and bacon cavorting in it. 

But on this occasion, it was a quick boil of fresh pasta, frozen, and quickly cooked in a cauldron of salted boiling water.

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Lamb Ragu for anything, especially noodles

1 lb. or so of ground lamb (beef, pork, veal ... perhaps even turkey? No, scratch that. Forget the turkey. Go only with four-legged animals on this one) * 1 carrot, peeled * 1 yellow onion, peeled * 1 stalk of celery (optional for me since I didn't have the luxury of celery) * 2 cloves of garlic * a handful of chopped pancetta, bacon, guancaile (optional) * olive oil to saute * 1 28-ounce can of whatever tomatoes that are in the cupboard *  1 dry or fresh bay leaf * a splash of marsala, vin santo or red wine * 1/2 cup of milk (I plead for full fat) * a pat of butter * salt and pepper to taste

Combine the carrot, onion, garlic and celery in a food processor and press the button until all the manual is done for you -- a fine mince. If you don't have a food processor either 1.) go get one from Costco. It's really worth the money to add it to your kitchen arsenal OR 2.) have fun chopping. Come back to the recipe when you're done.

Heat a large sauce pot over medium-high heat. Add some olive oil and once it's heated through (my gague: I flip a smidge of the chopped veg into it, once it sizzles you're good to go) add the bacon and chopped veg. Stir and saute so that nothing browns. What you want is for the vegetables to sweat like it's getting a good detox steam/sauna session. When it gets to that point, douse the lot with the marsala/vin santo/red wine and get a good sizzle going, scraping off any browned bits that may have settled at the bottom of the pan. Everything will be part of the sauce.

Once the veg has softened (about 15 minutes of gentle cooking for me, your stove may vary) add the ground lamb and stir until browned. Add the tomatoes. If they aren't chopped or diced, do a bit of menial manual labor and take a wooden spoon and bash them gently against the bottom or sides of the pot to avoid stewing whole tomatoes. Add the bay leaf. If it's fresh, take a moment to break the stem and notice the soft, almost bubble gum scent coming out of the elusive herb. Let it get to know all the other ingredients in the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so that it simmers, like it's carrying on a quiet conversation with itself under the pot's lid.

After about an hour of gentle simmering, add the milk and stir. Cook for another 15 minutes. The sauce should be ridiculously thick and more dense with meat than with tomatoes. Serve warm with anything you please. Or nothing at all. A little pecorino cheese, like the ancient and remarkably affordable Fiore Sardo will do wonders to a warm little bowl.

Makes enough for six to eight pasta servings, countless bowls of comfort, or three recipes of poached eggs mentioned above. And yes, it also freezes beautifully. Just don't forget about it.

RecipesVanessa Chang