Recipe Review: Canal House Cooking's Serious Ragù

Recipe Review: Canal House Cooking's Serious Ragù

Dana Velden
Jan 6, 2010

In November I reviewed — raved about! — The Canal House Cooking cookbook project by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Read on for a review of one of my favorite (and seasonally appropriate) recipes from their latest volume: Fall and Holiday.

What attracted me to this recipe was its practicality, simplicity and the fact that it's automatically built in that you would make a lot extra to freeze. The only thing I had to go out of my way for here was the lamb neck (more on that later.) Otherwise everything in this recipe is basic to my pantry and vegetable drawer, or can be had at my local butcher.

When I make a recipe for the first time, I try to follow it exactly, so I know what was being attempted and what I would tweak if I made it again. Since this recipe makes so much extra, I haven't made it again but there are a few minor things I would change, as outlined below.

First, I used a large slow cooker which I highly recommend since much of this recipe involves keeping the ragù at a slow simmer, which the slow-cooker does with no fuss. For some reason, I feel I can walk away from a slow cooker with less fear than something on a stove. Anyway, a large dutch oven over a low flame will work just fine, too.

Second, the lamb neck. My butcher (Bi-Rite on 18th Street in San Francisco) had one on hand, no problem. And the price was good, too. But the neck proved to be a little challenging when it came time to pick the meat from the bones and return it to the pot — see fourth step in the recipe below. It was a little difficult to extract all the meat from the neck, which I found to be quite intricate (and a little fascinating/creepy.) Next time, I'll price the chops and if they're not too expensive, I may go with those. But by no means should you skip the lamb — it adds just the right amount of rich, sweet, and slightly wild background taste to the dish.

Speaking of step four in the recipe below: this took much longer, and was more complicated in general, than the simple sentences in the recipe lead you to believe. It really helped to let the meat cool for a few minutes before digging in. And because these are rich, fatty cuts it was quite the effort to pull, pick, cut off and sort out the pieces 'you don't like the look of.' And it's a pretty messy task, which I enjoy, but be prepared to really get your hands in there.

Third, I ended up skimming a fair amount of fat off the top of the ragù towards the end of cooking and it was still a rich, satisfying dish. And I'm not fat aversive, either. So you may want to check this out for yourself.

After all that, how was it? Well, it was amazing, truly living up to its name. The meats and vegetables cooked down to a rich, dense, thick, deeply flavored sauce that paired beautifully with the pasta. I served it to some friends on Boxing Day and everyone raved and took seconds, which is no small thing the day after Christmas.

I highly recommend this recipe for this time of year when it's comforting to have a pot gently simmering on the stove (or countertop in my case), with the added bonus of plenty leftover for the freezer. Thank you, Canal House Ladies!

Serious Ragù

makes 2 to 3 quarts

In the spirit of old-style Northern Italian country cooking, this ragù uses inexpensive cuts of pork, lamb, and beef. These tough cuts are full of flavor but need a long slow cooking to tenderize the meat. The time it takes is worth it as this sauce is seriously delicious. We believe in making a big batch and freezing it in dinner-size portions (allow about 1 cup per person to serve over pasta).

2 pounds lamb necks or shoulder lamb chops
2 pounds pork spareribs
2 pounds beef short ribs
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
2 ribs celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
5 anchovy fillets, chopped
A healthy grating of nutmeg
1–2 cups white wine
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
One 15-ounce can plain tomato sauce
Handful of fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped

1) Use paper towel to dry the meat. Season with salt and pepper. Heat a little oil in very large heavy pot. Brown meat in batches over medium-high heat, removing it from the pot as it browns. Continue until all the meat is browned.

2) Add a little more oil to the pot. Add the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and anchovies. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and nutmeg. Add the wine and cook for about 3 minutes.

3) Return the browned meat to the pot. Add the crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce along with 2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and slowly simmer the ragù for about 3 hours. Give it a stir from time to time and add more water if it looks like it is getting too thick.

4) Remove all the large pieces of meat from the pot to a large cutting board. Discard all the bones and gristle and any of the meat that you don't like the look of. Finely chop the remaining meat and return it to the pot.

5) Put the pot on the stove over low heat and barely simmer the ragù for another 2 hours. Continue to add water if the sauce gets too thick. Just before serving, add parsley. Serve over pasta with grated parmigiano-reggiano, if you like.

Related: Book Review: Canal House Cooking, volumes I and II

(Image: Canal House Cooking)

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