I know what you're thinking: A massive platter of pasta smothered in some kind of luscious sauce would make everyone feel really good this weekend.
Sure, you can always simmer up a dependable beef bolognese, but maybe you want to branch out, take your ragu game up a notch. This sumptuous lamb bolognese is the answer.
Start thinking now of your favorite people: That's who you'll want to make this for. Nibbles to start, then salad, then the massive plate of pasta. Red wine. The sauce's simmer may be long and slow, but this the easiest kind dinner to execute. Zero stress involved. And the flavor payoff is huge.
It's the kind of thing you want to make on a lazy weekend, when you want the kitchen to fill with dreamy aromas. Once you've put it together, you leave it to bubble quietly why you catch up on your reading. Or eat bonbons. Or paint your toenails. Or bake bread. OK, maybe baking bread doesn't count as lazy, but fresh-baked bread (or any good crusty loaf) would be just thing thing to sop up all that wonderful sauce. Or maybe this is the moment to make your first homemade pasta.
But you don't have to: This bolognese is splendid on the fettuccine or pappardelle from a box, too. You can make the sauce a day or two ahead of serving, or put it on the table as soon as it's done.
It all starts with lamb shanks, a relatively inexpensive cut. If you've ever made them, you know what happens to them in a long, slow braise: They become incredibly tender to the point of falling off the bone. That's the idea here, but you keep braising past that point, until the meat completely falls apart, melding gorgeously with the rest of the ingredients – wine, tomatoes, broth, aromatic vegetables, dried mushrooms.
In order to easily brown the meat a bit before the braise starts, I cut it mostly off the bones, into large chunks. But what follows is not a major browning operation: just give the chunks a spin in a pan of shimmery hot olive oil rather than searing them hard. The idea is to get some of that nice caramelized flavor but keep the softness of the meat. It's quick and painless and you don't wind up spattering your kitchen with oil. Toss the bones in the pan, too, for added flavor, and since there's still plenty of meat clinging to them. No need to be careful when you cut the chunks.
After the meat is browned and set aside, next comes the soffritto: You know, that aromatic trio of carrots, onion and celery. Cook them with a little pancetta in a splash of olive oil till they're soft, toss in a few lightly smashed garlic cloves and you're nearly there (work-wise, anyway).
Next you deglaze the pan with red wine – just about any old kind will do. (Not familiar with deglazing? It's a fancy word for adding wine and scraping up the browned bits sticking to the pan and sending them into the sauce.) Add broth, a can of tomatoes, bay leaves and rosemary, a handful of dried porcini mushrooms and a lemon peel.
That's it. Leave it to simmer – and simmer and simmer – until your kitchen smells wonderful and all that meat relaxes into deliciousness with all those supporting flavors.
So, what do you think? Is this the day you're going to make fresh pasta? It's probably easier than you think. Here's the technique and recipe:
Or not. Either way. But if you're buying the pasta, considering splurging on the one that looks the best and most artisanal. Not sure? See if you can see the texture through the package: You don't want it to look too slick; go for one with some texture. Rustichella d'Abruzzo is a great Italian import you can sometimes find in really good supermarkets.
Now let's go check on the sauce.
Wow, look – it's nearly done! Hey – did you think about wine? This would be the moment to open that great-looking Barolo your uncle gave you for your birthday. In fact, pretty much anything Italian would be fabulous with it, especially if it starts with a B: Barbaresco, Brunello (yeah, yeah, I know – they're expensive). Barbera! Bingo. Or Chianti, or Rosso di Montalcino, or just about anything, really. This is not a moment to be fussy.
Are you wondering what would make a great starter? How about an escarole salad with crispy prosciutto, egg and parm?
I just happen to have the recipe for you . . .
OK. Time to eat. Aren't you excited? I know I am. Drop that pasta in the boiling water. Cook it till it's al dente. If your pasta's fresh, that'll just be three minutes or so. Pull it out of the water and drop it into that wonderful sauce. Give it a stir, let it simmer in there for a minute or three.
Now onto the giant platter it goes. Don't forget the big chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano to pass with a grater at the table.
Oh, I almost forgot: Here's the recipe:
Now start rounding up those friends. And try to save me a bite.