This Lamb Ragu is a colorful and flavorful introduction to Fall.
Chef Micheal Mina’s recipe for Lamb Ragu is a keeper. It starts with a bouquet garni of fennel and cumin seeds, Aleppo pepper, and whole black peppercorns. This gives the dish a hint of spice for warmth. Onions, fennel, and tomatoes round out the vegetable ingredients—including cherry tomatoes that brighten the look of every plate. It is then topped off with mint leaves, that classic pairing with lamb. But is this dish Italian simply because it’s a Pasta Sauce? The Aleppo Pepper and Harissa should have been the giveaway. Michael Mina’s roots are in the Middle East. So this pasta is more Mediterranean than strictly Italian. Mina is an extraordinarily busy Executive Chef. His 19 restaurants crisscross the country from California to Baltimore. Chef Mina has cooked for 3 US Presidents. He is co-author of his cookbook, “Michael Mina: The Cookbook” (Bulfinch 2006). And he somehow found time to create the digital media firm Cook Taste Eat. And when he made this recipe, he relied on truly Italian pasta.
This recipe had me at Strozzapreti, the pasta that means “Priest Strangler” or “Priest Choker”.
If you love a good legend, this one’s for you. There are actually three of them. They are all rooted in a distinct dislike for the clergy in Emilia Romagna where Strozzapreti was invented. When the Papal States took over control of the province, the clergy confiscated meat, milk and eggs from its local farmers. Their wives were irate at having to make pasta without eggs. One legend says that the name refers to the rage they felt at the local priests. So they named the pasta Strozzapreti hoping the priest who came over for Sunday lunch would choke on it. A second legend says gluttonous priests were so keen on the savory pasta, that they did choke on it by eating too fast. The final legend is the kindest of them all: Strozzapreti looks like a clerical collar, which is commonly referred to as a “Priest Choker”.
Lamb and Mint is a Classic Combination. Is it Italian? Or Universal?
Apples with pork, lemon with fish, cranberries with turkey, and mint with lamb—how do these pairings come about? How did these fruits become associated so strongly with one protein? A lot of it had to do with what was growing at the same time as pig-killing time. Or when the lamb was butchered. Mint grows all over Italy. It’s planted as a ground cover to prevent soil erosion. It’s used as a garden decoration interplanted with flowers and vines. And it is very commonly found virtually year-round in window boxes. Since human taste buds have not changed over the centuries, our ancestors’ goal was much like our own: To make recipes that play with sweet, salty, sour, bitter the umani that we seek today. Lamb being fatty meat required some acid ingredient to ‘cut’ the fatty taste. A mixture of chopped fresh mint and vinegar is almost universally served with lamb. Here is the recipe. And after it, some other takes on Lamb you might want to add to your fall menus.
Strozzapreti with Lamb Ragu from Chef Michael Mina
A Mediterranean Pasta sauce robust in flavor, warmed with spice, and as colorful as it is irresistibly good.
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper or 1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 pounds ground lamb
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 6 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 large fennel bulb—halved, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
- 2 tablespoons harissa
- One 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped, liquid reserved
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 pound dried strozzapreti pasta
- 1-pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 6 scallions, chopped
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced mint leaves
- Freshly grated sheep milk cheese, such as pecorino, for serving
- Step 1 In a large enameled cast-iron casserole, combine the fennel, cumin, Aleppo pepper and peppercorns and cook over moderate heat until fragrant, 2 minutes. Let cool, then wrap in cheesecloth and tie into a bundle.
- Step 2 Add the oil to the casserole and heat. Add half of the lamb, season with salt and pepper and cook over high heat, breaking it up with a spoon, until browned, 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the lamb to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining lamb.
- Step 3 Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the casserole. Add the garlic, onion and fennel and cook over moderate heat until softened, 8 minutes. Stir in the spice bundle, paprika, harissa, tomatoes and their liquid and the stock. Return the lamb and accumulated juices to the casserole and bring to a simmer.
- Step 4 Cover the ragù and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and simmer until thickened, about 50 minutes longer. Discard the spice bundle and season the ragù with salt and pepper.
- Step 5 In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until al dente. (About 12M) Drain and return to the pot. Add the ragù and stir. Fold in the cherry tomatoes, scallions and half of the mint. Season with salt and pepper
- Step 6 transfer to a large bowl. Top with the remaining mint and serve, passing the cheese at the table.
- Step 7 The lamb ragù can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat gently.