Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bolognese, the Right Recipe for Lamb Neck

Lamb bolognese.
Previously, I wrote about an attempt at braising lamb neck that didn’t come out with the right balance of flavors.[1] It didn’t stop me from using lamb neck, because I found that there was another dish where it worked nicely. The only problem is getting the meat off.

I often make a bolognese with stew beef. It’s convenient and quick. Many recipes call for ground beef (i.e. hamburger), but I find that the meat has been ground too fine, leading to a somewhat gritty texture. So, instead, I throw the cubes of beef into the food processor, pulse, and then I have my chopped up meat for the sauce.[2] If I’m up for a little more work, I do it with lamb instead.

Consider the lamb neck: meat, fat, and connective tissue wrapped around a funny-shaped bone. It’s actually a bit of work to get the meat off these things. But, on the other hand, it’s just the sort of meat you want to send into a bolognese. You cut as much of the fat off as you can, then clean the bones of as much meat as you can (there’s always going to be some left connected, but I’ve saved the bones for stock[3]).

Lamb neck. Lots of knife work ahead.
For me, making a bolognese is one of those autopilot dishes. I’ve done it so many times, I don’t think about the process, I just do it. Give me a pound or so of suitable meat, some carrots, celery, onion, pancetta, olive oil, wine, tomato paste, and milk, and I’ll turn out a bolognese (after several hours, most of that spent check the pot only occasionally). Getting the meat off the bones is tedious and time-consuming, but not difficult.

Many recipes for bolognese suggest starting out by rendering some pancetta and then sweating your vegetables in the pork fat. Mmmm. Sounds delicious. I don’t do that. I actually render my pancetta in a separate pan, saving the crispy meat and getting rid of the fat. I start things off with olive oil.

Brown and delicious. But you want
to drain and discard that fat.
In another, larger pan, I brown my meat. When I’m doing beef, the meat comes out and goes into a heavy pot of hot beef broth and wine.[4] When I’m doing lamb, after the meat goes into the broth (still usually beef), I get the fat out of the pan before the vegetables go in. There’s a lot of opportunities in this dish to incorporate large amounts of heavy animal fat, all of which I decline to the greatest extent possible. At the end I have a bowl with a congealed mixture of pork and lamb fat. Give that one look and you know you don’t want that hiding in your dinner.

I’ve seen recipes that call for sweating the vegetables before you cook the meat; this makes no sense to me. I do it after, using a trick I saw on a Jacques Pepin show: a little water in the pot helps the vegetables get to temperature without browning. Then from there, you finish the sweat. Once you’ve cooked the moisture out of the vegetables, they’re reading for the pot. This also picks up any of the leftover brown bits (flavor!) in the pan.

These need to be cooked before they
go into the pot.
The vegetables go in and the whole thing stews for about three hours (five would be good). I like to cook it slowly, and if the liquid gets low too quickly, I add a little water to slow things down (don’t let it go dry). After many hours of cooking (during which you were watching tv, reading a book, or maybe even writing a blog), the liquid is nearly gone. Now you add pepper (say about 2 teaspoons) and nutmeg (about a half teaspoon), stir that in and add some tomato paste. I’m probably on the heavy side of tomato use, since I use a can for about a pound-and-a-half of meat. Finish with milk, bring to temperature (just below a boil), and serve (preferably on fresh pasta, but just about any flat pasta will do)[5]

Okay, here’s the part where I pretend to turn this into a recipe. I’ve been happiest with the sofritto (the veggies)[6] that weighs roughly the same as the meat. I aim for about 1.5 lbs. of meat, so that means 8 ounces each of carrot, celery, and onion, with a lot of room for fudging things (oh this onion is only 7 ounces, all of 9 ounces, that’s nice). What I’m pointing out here is that other than my obsessive weighing of things, I don’t actually measure anything else. It’s a couple of carrots.[7] About 6 stalks of celery. A medium onion.
About 1.5 lbs. of meat (beef or lamb)
8 ounces carrot, finely diced
8 ounces celery, finely diced
8 ounces onion, finely diced
4 ounces pancetta, finely diced
Olive oil
2 cups beef broth
1 cup red wine
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 can tomato paste 1 cup milk

Coarsely chop the meat in a food processor. Set the pancetta in a small skillet with some olive oil. Cook to render the fat and crisp the pancetta. Set a heavy pot over a low flame with the broth and wine.

Brown the meat in a large skillet with olive oil. When meat and pancetta are each brown, transfer to the broth, leaving behind as much fat as possible.

In the large skillet, sweat the vegetables. When they are softened and reduced in volume, add to the stock. Simmer for about three hours.

To finish the dish, add the pepper and nutmeg, mixing well. Add the tomato paste. Finally, add the milk to bring the sauce to the desired consistency, about a cup. Heat through and serve over pasta.

  1. If you’re disinclined to click the link, the short version is “way too much lemon in the dish.”  ↩
  2. From time to time, I contemplate doing this by knife work, but that’s probably an idle fantasy.  ↩
  3. The time to roast those bones and throw them into a stock pot is coming soon.  ↩
  4. As with almost any wine-based dish, there is some dissension about the wine, with some sources calling for red and others for white (the same is true, for example, with coq au vin). In both cases, I am a partisan of using red wine. My preferred wine is a Sangiovese. (And for a coq au vin, a Bordeaux.)  ↩
  5. Failing that, I suggest penne, since the sauce gets trapped inside. Pappardelle (really wide pasta) tends to be problematic; I find the sauce slides off it, just as it might with spaghetti. I once had a bolognese served on bucatini. Given that the restaurant was a short trip from Bologna, it’s hard to argue against it. (I’m now imagining someone from Bologna saying “Where was that? Pisa! Like they know what to do with bolognese in Pisa!”)  ↩
  6. Indistinguishable in this dish from a French mirepoix.  ↩
  7. Unless your carrots are massive, and I have seen (and used) half-pound carrots, or small. The actual number of carrots I’ve used ranges from one to four. Large stalks of celery weigh more than the small ones. And so forth.  ↩

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