Reinvent the classic Italian sauce with recipes that swap the classic beef for chicken, duck and lentils
There is nothing quite like the slow blip of a meaty ragu sauce cooking away in a heavy-based pot and steaming up the kitchen windows on a cold autumn day to make you feel instantly at home.
My approach to cooking changes dramatically throughout the week, and weekends are a chance for food lovers to sink our teeth into cooking projects the busy week doesn’t allow time for.
A braised ragu is more than the sum of its parts, and its core ingredient is time, transforming it into an ideal weekend pot of joy. Enjoy it with wide-cut pappardelle, baked into a dish with fresh sheets of pasta and cheese sauce, or even served simply with a spoon alongside grilled sourdough slices rubbed with garlic and a few glugs of your best extra virgin olive oil.
While I know better than most about the perils of playing with an Italian classic, I typically stick to a braised beef shin ragu, but there is, of course, room for variety, and this week, I have three ragu-inspired recipes that provide just that.
The first is a rich meat sauce made with tender duck, a favourite from Hippo restaurant in Highland Park, Los Angeles. Tender duck meat is shredded and folded through a slowly braised rich tomato, red wine sauce before being mixed into freshly cooked pasta. You do need to trim your duck legs of excess fat, but don’t discard it — render it down because the fat makes for the most delicious roast potatoes.
Next up is a slightly speedy option in the form of a ragu made rich with chicken thighs, double cream and dried porcini mushrooms. It would make a delicious pie with a crust of rough puff pastry but is particularly delicious with fresh penne pasta if you can track it down.
Finally, red lentils form the core of this ‘ragu’, and although they take time to cook, they are a wonderful meat-free alternative. This hearty ragu can be served folded through freshly cooked pasta or courgette noodles, which I now see regularly in supermarkets.
Cook time: 40mins Serves: 4
30g dried porcini mushrooms
3 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, bashed
2 large skin-on chicken thighs, finely chopped
2 skin-on chicken breasts, finely chopped
Good pinch chilli flakes
200ml white wine
200ml fresh chicken stock
4 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves stripped
50ml double cream
50g grated Parmesan
400g fresh penne pasta
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
1. Put the porcini in a bowl and cover with 200ml of boiling water and set aside to soak.
2. Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a pan and gently fry the onion, carrot and celery with some seasoning for 10 minutes. Add the garlic and the remaining oil and cook for a minute more.
3. Add the chicken, season again with salt and pepper, and brown all over.
4. Add the chilli flakes and the mushrooms with the soaking liquid and cook off.
5. Pour in the white wine and bubble for 5 minutes. Then add the stock and oregano and partially cover and simmer for 25 minutes.
6. Remove the lid, drop down the heat and add the cream.
7. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes, then scoop out with a slotted spoon and put it straight into the ragu. Mix well and serve scattered with the Parmesan and some extra black pepper.
Cook time: 120mins Serves 4
4 duck legs, trimmed
2 celery sticks, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
250ml red wine
50ml balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp tomato purée
1 x 400g tin finely chopped tomatoes
250ml chicken stock
500g pappardelle pasta
25g Pecorino shavings
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the duck, skin-side down, in a cold frying pan. Turn the heat on to medium and cook for 8-10 minutes or until the skin is well-browned and the fat has begun to render. Set the legs aside on a plate and drain off excess fat but leave a little of the fat in the pan.
2. Sauté the celery, onion, carrot and garlic. Stir occasionally for 6-8 minutes until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the red wine and vinegar, simmer for 3-4 minutes until slightly reduced and add the tomato purée, chopped tomatoes and the chicken stock back along with the duck legs. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 1.5 hours until the duck is tender.
3. Once the duck is almost cooked, place a pot of salted water over a high heat and, once boiling, add the pappardelle and cook according to packet instructions.
4. Remove the duck legs to a plate, bring the sauce to a boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes until slightly reduced. Shred the meat off the bones, discarding any skin and bones. Return the meat to the pot, tossing through the sauce. Toss the pasta through the duck ragu, leaving a little duck behind to garnish. Serve in bowls topped with some of the remaining duck and shavings of Pecorino.
Cook time: 60mins Serves: 4
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
300g dried red lentils
2 x 400g tins plum tomatoes
1 litre vegetable stock
Sea salt & ground black pepper
A good handful of fresh basil, roughly torn
Pecorino cheese, grated, to serve
Wholewheat spaghetti or courgette noodles, to serve
1. Add the oil to a large saucepan over a medium-high heat and fry the onion, carrots and celery for 8-10 minutes until softened.
2. Stir through the garlic, oregano and chilli flakes and fry for a further 1-2 minutes.
3. Add the lentils, tomatoes and vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Using a fork, mash the tomatoes so they break down slightly. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper, lower the heat slightly, and continue to cook for 40 minutes or until the lentils are tender.
4. Check the seasoning again before stirring through fresh basil and tossing through wholewheat spaghetti or courgette noodles.
5. Serve in bowls with grated Pecorino cheese.