Slow-Braised Lamb Ragu with Rigatoni and Whipped Ricotta by Dana Frank and Andrea Slonecker
Barolo is a very special wine, and one that’s worth the extra money it costs to enjoy. Made entirely from nebbiolo grown in Italy’s Piedmont region, it’s a wine of strength but also of elegance. While nebbiolo has a long history in the Piedmont, Barolo only poked its head into the spotlight in the forties, and it’s had a tumultuous and interesting seventy years since then. Barolo has traditionally been made by allowing the nebbiolo grapes to macerate on their skins for extended periods of time, sometimes for weeks, and then slowly aging in large, old barrels to help calm the harsh tannins. But the eighties and nineties gave rise to the Barolo Boys, a group of young winemakers who wanted to revolutionize how Barolo was made. Consumers across the world were drinking rich, juicy, oaky red wines, and the Boys decided to upend the old style of nebbiolo production for something more modern and international. This ignited a storm of controversy with the traditionalists in the region. The Barolo Boys used a host of methods to make their wines more immediately drinkable, including shorter maceration periods and aging in new, small barrels, and the international market took notice. They completely flipped custom on its head, and money poured into the region. Today, you can find wines made in both styles. Traditional wines will have a good grip of tannin to them when young, plus floral and savory characteristics and notes of warm cherries. In modern Barolo, you’ll find richer, darker berry fruits, softer tannins, and vanilla and baking spice notes from new oak barrels. Our preference lies with the traditionalists. By law, Barolo must be aged a minimum of three years before release. Young Barolo will drink with a mouth-puckering dryness, lively red cherries, and berries, and it really benefits from decanting. If you can find a bottle that has ten years or more of age on it, you’ll be in for a treat. As Barolo ages, you can expect the fresh fruit notes to settle into flavors of black tea, wet leaves, and dried roses. Look for wines simply labeled Barolo if you’re trying to mind your budget. Bottles with vineyard names listed will open your wallet a bit more. And those labeled Riserva are a definite splurge.
Nothing says “comfort food” like a bowl of pasta in a long-cooked lamb ragù with a spoonful of creamy ricotta. The meat has braised to textbook tenderness so it pulls apart with a fork, the pasta is perfectly al dente, and the tomato sauce is deeply fragrant with oregano and rosemary. Combined with a splurge-y bottle of Barolo and a movie on the couch, you’d almost wish every night was a cozy night in. This pasta is a go-to for us because it checks off all of the boxes: hearty, flavorful, textural, and soul-satisfying. When we cooked this for our guys, they admitted that if it were healthy to eat a third bowl, they would.
1 (2-pound) boneless lamb shoulder roast, halved (see Note)
21⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
1⁄2 cup water
1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
11⁄2 pounds dried rigatoni
1 tablespoon minced rosemary
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup whole-milk ricotta
1⁄2 cup whole milk
1⁄2 cup packed freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
Season the lamb on all sides with 1 teaspoons of the salt. Warm a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the oil, and when you just begin to see wisps of smoke, add the lamb. Sear on all sides until a deep brown crust forms, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer the lamb to a plate and set aside.
Add the onion to the pot and cook until just softened and lightly browned, adjusting the heat as needed, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring almost constantly, until it darkens slightly and a deep brown crust forms on the bottom of the pot, about 2 minutes.
Pour in the wine and scrape up the bits from the bottom of the pot. Stir in the tomatoes, water, 1⁄4 cup of the oregano, the garlic, red pepper flakes, and remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Nestle the seared lamb back into the pot and bring to a rapid simmer. Decrease the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover, and braise until the lamb is tender and easily shreds apart, about 2 hours.
Remove the lamb from the sauce and shred it into bite-size pieces using two forks. Return the shredded lamb to the sauce. (It will be quite thick now, but will be thinned with pasta water later.) Taste and adjust the seasoning. (At this point the ragù can be cooled to room temperature, then covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days before serving.) Return the ragù to a gentle simmer and keep it warm over low heat.
Cook the rigatoni in boiling salted water until al dente according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 2 cups of the cooking water, and return the rigatoni to its pot.
Stir some of the cooking water into the ragù to loosen it and add the remaining 2 tablespoons oregano, the rosemary, and vinegar. Add a few ladlefuls of the ragù to the pot of rigatoni to lightly coat. Place the rigatoni pot over medium-low heat and cook, stirring often, to allow the pasta to absorb some of the sauce, about 2 minutes.
To make the whipped ricotta: In a medium bowl, whisk the ricotta with the milk, cheese, pepper, and salt until it is loose and creamy, about 30 seconds. Use immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Serve the rigatoni in warm bowls, with a ladleful of the ragù spooned over each portion. Top with the whipped ricotta and a drizzle of oil.
Note: Special-order a boneless lamb shoulder roast from your butcher, or substitute cubed stew meat and decrease the braising time by up to 30 minutes.
Reprinted with permission from Wine Food, copyright 2018 by Dana Frank and Andrea Slonecker. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.