Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lamb Ragu with Mint Tagliatelle

Having lived through an earthquake last week, the question I asked myself wasn't much different than every day before.  What should I make for dinner?  Natural disasters can wreck havoc on daily routines such as cooking, usually in a bad way.  There is an article in the paper today describing how federal emergency management officials actually measure the intensity of a disaster by how many Waffle Houses are closed.  Known for reopening quickly after a natural disaster, the fate and health of Waffle Houses will reflect the conditions in that area.  The feds even have a color ranking for severity.  Green means the restaurant is serving a full meal, reflecting little loss of power or damage.  Yellow means that restaurants are offering only a limited menu under the strain of lost power or low food supplies.  Red means that the restaurant is closed, a sure sign after a day or two of extensive damage.  "If you get there and the Waffle House is closed, that's really bad," according to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.
One good thing about an earthquake is that it is relatively fast, and you have a good chance of emerging unscathed, both literally and logistically.  If you're power didn't go out or your gas line break, you're free and clear.  Like a snowstorm, you may have extra time at home while you wait for everyone else to decide things are safe to go out (or back in).  Whether being sent home for work because a blizzard is coming or big office buildings must be checked for damage, these are unique times to try something different, using the extra time to explore cooking techniques requiring time, care or practice.  So it was after an earthquake hit the East Coast that I had the afternoon off.  With this gift of time (and life I suppose), I decided to make the mint tagliatelle with lamb ragu from Mario Battali's The Babbo Cookbook.  The ragu could simmer all afternoon, I could roll out fresh pasta with the leisure of a weekend day, it would be just like being there.  
I also had enough time to dislike just about everything that resulted from this recipe and do it over, from scratch, completely.   One thing some people don't realize is that recipes from restaurant cookbooks are not the recipes they use in the kitchen or the way they would prepare the meal for a customer.  The necessity of proportions and timing dictate that restaurants prepare many menu components hours before they are served.  Finishing touches just before service are both required, and even enhance the flavor and appearance of the dish.  Likewise, the home cook will make ragu for 4, while restaurants must feed a crowd.  Certain techniques are just glossed over or taken for granted by professional cooks.  
Take for example the tagliatelle.  The Babbo recipe includes just the ingredients and preparation of the dough.  "Shaping as desired" is left to the reader's imagination, which in my case failed the first time by not rolling out the dough thin enough.  A thick, unsightly and chewy tagliatelle resulted.  A few settings thinner on the pasta rolling machine did the trick.  Another example was the ragu, which after simmering 2 hours and sitting some more was now not saucy or silky.  The ragu had soaked up all of the good juices and verged on being dry.  Not mentioned in the recipe is the technique of the restaurant cook, who instead of draining the pasta in a colander like a home chef might, instead transfers the dripping pasta and pasta water along with directly to the sauce pan.  They then add butter and more pasta water as needed to produce a silky, glistening sauce.  Whether it was surviving an earthquake or perfecting cooking techniques, eating this dish for dinner sure made me feel alive.  Serves 4.
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lb lamb shoulder, cut into chunks
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 bunch time, leaves left on stem
2 cups dry red wine
1 16-oz can of crushed tomatoes
1/4 lb olives, pitted (if desired)
1/2 cup mint leaves
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp basil, sliced
In a large casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking.  Season the lamb with salt and pepper and brown in the oil, cooking in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding.  Remove the browned meat and set aside.  Add the carrot, onion, celery, garlic and thyme and cook, stirring until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the red wine and tomatoes.  Scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen up the bits and bring to a boil.  Return the meat, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.  Remove the meat again, shred with a fork, and return both the meat and add the olives (if using) to the casserole.  Simmer for another 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the pasta by blanching the mint leaves in boiling water for 45 seconds.  Transfer immediately to an ice bath.  When cool, drain the mint leaves and puree in a blender.  Mound the flour on a cutting board or countertop, forming a well in the middle.  Add the eggs to the middle of the well and beat them lightly.  Add the oil and mint puree to the eggs, mix and begin folding in the flour from the edges of the well.  Incorporate more and more of the flour until it starts to form a dough.  Knead in the remaining flour and then knead the entire mixture for 6 minutes.  The result should be a slightly sticky, elastic ball.  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 30 minutes.  Separate the dough into 4 balls and send each through a pasta rolling machine, lightly dusting with flour if necessary to prevent sticking, several times on the thickest setting, folding back on itself to send through again, and then on increasingly thinner settings one time each until just below the thinnest setting.  Lay the dough sheets on a lightly floured table and cut tagliatelle strips with a pizza roller.  Hang strips on a pasta dryer or just pile on a plate until ready to cook.

Bring a well seasoned pot of water to boil.  Meanwhile, heat a large saute pan over high heat.  Add the ragu to the saute pan and the pasta to the boiling water.  Cook the pasta in the boiling water until al dente, as quick as a minute or maybe a little longer (the pasta will finish cooking with the sauce).  Remove the pasta to saute pan with the ragu.  Add the butter and mix with the ragu and pasta.  Add additional cooking water if needed to further loosen the sauce.  Allow the ragu and pasta to simmer a minute.  Plate and top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and basil.  Serve.

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