Buccatini with Lamb and Walnut Ragu
Well, the 24, 24, 24 posts just keep on comin’! Hot on the heels of our Lebanese “Caprese” salad and mini falafel kebabs with lemon dill tahini, we were ready for the first course. I think this pasta dish is best described as the Bolognese sauce of the Middle East, a rich and smoky spiced tomato ragu with meaty lamb and walnuts.
When I think of my father’s Lebanese fusion comfort cooking, the food that I was raised with, this is truly the quintessential dish. I grew up wondering why everybody else’s spag bol sauce tasted so bland, not realizing that what I was craving was the sweet scent of cinnamon and the quiet warmth from a touch of cayenne. Isn’t it just grand that something as simple as spaghetti sauce can transcend cultural borders to find it’s way onto the family table?
As for the walnuts, well, they may sound out of place, but let me tell you, those brainy beasts were constantly sneaking into many a surprising meal. Twice the protein with half the meat? Maybe, but I think it’s more likely that they ended up in ragu partially because of the natural affinity between red meat and walnuts, but also because the pairing was so common as a stuffing for kibbeh. Ooh, and walnuts in your meat lasagna? Simply delightful. In this sauce, the walnut pieces are about the same size as the pieces of lamb mince, so at first you’re not quite sure what feels different. The texture of the nut doesn’t stay crunchy, but it’s not soft or mushy either. The best I can do is to call the dense texture ‘toothsome’ and hope you won’t mock me off the internet.
One last note about this ragu. After almost 30 years, I am still convinced that pasta night in our house was really just an elaborate ruse to trick us into eating vegetables. It was years before I caught on to his wicked ways, but that thick and hearty meat sauce that we loved so much was actually sheltering half a garden. I’m certain that my father meted in almost as much grated carrot as he did ground meat, and depending on what we had available it wouldn’t be uncommon to see half a zucchini shredded up or a fine dicing of peppers. Looking back, however, I think he’s genius. The sauce is so rich, so meaty with the long slow simmer, that it’s the perfect arena to court mistrust from your offspring by feeding their naivete with…..CARROTS (*Pfft! Pttuhhh!!).
Gosh, you know once in a while when I forget to take my anti-baby venom in the morning, I panic at the thought of one day being a mother. But then, just every now and then, I think it maybe wouldn’t be so bad. I’d have a mini Tina sous-chef with tiny little fingers that would be just perfect for shelling peas, stripping parsley stems for tabbouleh, or stuffing small things into other small things. Oh, and I could totally trick them into eating things just because. That’s like, unfettered control. I bet it would be almost as much fun as tormenting my cats with the laser beam, or shrugging and looking confused every time Mike asks, “But, are you SUPER SURE, like REALLY SURE that I didn’t lock the door when we left an hour ago?!” Huh. No, actually I don’t think anything could be more fun than that.
Buccatini with Lamb and Walnut Ragu
Serves 6-8 as a first course
- 1.5 lb (about 700g) lean ground lamb *
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 5 cloves garlic
- 2 large ribs celery
- 1 large carrot (or 2 small)
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 cup finely chopped walnut
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1.5 lb buccatini **
*If you’re not a fan of lamb you could substitute with lean ground beef.
** From a distance, buccatini noodles look like spaghetti on steroids. They’re actually long tubular noodles that are better thought of as macaroni which escaped the knife. I love pairing buccatini with a rich tomato sauce, because the hollow tubes get all vampiric and try to suck it up from both ends….which, as far as pasta goes, is pretty hot.
Heat the olive oil up in a large, thick bottomed pot over a medium low heat. You want a hefty pot because the sauce needs to simmer for a fairly long time and you want it to cook evenly without fear of scorching on the bottom.
Peel the onion, top and tail it, and chop the flesh into a small dice no more than 1/4″. Finely chop the garlic as well. Start to gently sweat the garlic and onion in the oil for about 5-7 minutes, making sure that the temperature stays fairly low. The onions should gradually be turning translucent, but you don’t want the onion and finely chopped garlic to brown or burn.
In the mean time, chop the celery into a small dice (no more than 1/4″) as well. Peel the carrots and shred them using a box grater.
When the onions and garlic are softened and fragrant, add the celery and carrots to the pot. Season lightly with salt, give it a stir, and seal with a snug lid. Let the vegetables sweat steamily away for 12-15 minutes, or until the carrots are well cooked and limp. The slow cooking and sprinkling of salt will encourage the cell walls of your vegetables to break down, so that when eventually the sauce starts to stew away they’ll just melt right into it….particularly the carrots. After all, no kid worth his or her salt would say, “gee Dad, can I have more of that carrot sauce for dinner?” It just doesn’t happen. They will, however, say, “I wants more pasghetti, please.” Not that I had an embarrassing speech impediment or anything when I was eight. Shut up.
Add the ground lamb to the pot and work it into the vegetables with your wooden spoon. Keep breaking up the meat so that there are absolutely no large chunks and let it cook slowly, uncovered, until no more pink remains.
Dollop the tomato paste into the meat and vegetable mixture, and stir for about 2 minutes so that the paste can cook down and lose that raw tomato flavor.
Pour over top the entire contents of your 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes and add the bay leaves and spices. Give it a quick stir so that everything can combine before reducing the heat to very low and setting the lid back on the pot.
Let the sauce simmer away, stirring only intermittently, for at least 1.5 hours but preferably 2-3. If the sauce looks thin after an hour, which it might depending on how fluid your tomatoes were, you can uncover the pot and let it continue to cook until some of the moisture evaporates.
Finely chop the walnuts into small pieces, each no larger than a pea. My parents used to do this with a 70’s throwback baby-puke-yellow hand cranked nut chopper (that I adored, obviously) but my kitchen is sans such luxuries so I use a large chef’s knife to do the deed. As long as you have a nice big cutting board and a ‘kitchen helper’ to sweep the pebbles of nut up off the floor when you’re done, this is an entirely adequate method. Anyway, you want to make sure that the walnuts are slightly smaller than your pieces of meat but you certainly don’t want them ground.
When you put your salted pasta water on to boil, which will be about 10 minutes before you’re ready to eat, add the walnuts to the rest of the slow simmered sauce.
Give that luscious, meaty ragu some final seasoning with salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta until al dente, which is usually about 8 minutes but a bit of discretion goes a long way. You know, I never really knew -or appreciated- what the difference was between al dente pasta and Frankie Tomatoes, until I was in Italy. Then….I got it. Quickly. It’s not just the texture of pasta which suffers when it’s over cooked, but also the flavor. You don’t think of plain pasta as being flavorful? Neither did I, until I started cooking it as opposed to boiling the hell out of it. Funny thing, that.
Oh, and don’t rinse the pasta under cold running water unless you’re planning to dress a pasta salad. Italian grandmothers the world over will start spontaneously keening with misery but have no idea why. Marcella Hazan actually just stopped dead in her tracks and cocked an ear to one side, trying to pinpoint where that dreadful buzzing sound was coming from. She’s still not sure if it’s a leaky tap or the seven furies screeching overhead. Don’t worry though, it will all be okay as long as you remember that starch is your friend, and will actually help the sauce to adhere to your pasta.
Do you see those sneaky buccatini noodles down at the bottom? See how each one is trying to do a solo recreation of Lady and the Tramp? I’m telling you, buccatini are just greedy for the sauce, which is great because that’s something that we have in common.
And yes, I used parmesan from a can instead of quality parmigiano reggiano. There is a reason for that, and it’s nostalgia. I don’t think that my affection for a quality parmigiano could possibly be called into question. However, cheese powder is what I grew up with. I didn’t even know that parmesan could be grated off a wedge until the first time I was in the OLIVE GARDEN, for god’s sake, so that’s still not saying a lot. Anyway, you can eat the pasta with cheese, that old cheese powder, or simply dressed in that luscious meat sauce. Either way, it’s Lebanese-Canadian comfort cooking at it’s best.
In case you were wondering what Mike was doing in between courses, here’s a hint: you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and apparently I can’t make a decent meal without using every pot and pan that we own….twice. And yes, indeed we do have a dishwasher (an actual device, in addition to a henpecked fiancé). It was already full. That’s what I bring
Oh, and tomorrow! I’ll show you some pictures of The Most Amazing Care Package In The World. Truly, there’s a prisoner in Tadmor who paused in writing his letter home to say, “That last shiv was sweet and all, but I’d really much rather that you send me a package like Tina got…” And yes, I am officially comparing my Canadian grocery stores to a depraved prison in Syria, but that will totally make sense when you see the Box’o’Awesome that arrived last week….