Tag Archives: pasta

Venison Ragu at Quarter-to-Two

21 Apr

You just can’t help when hunger strikes.  My, uhh, eccentric schedule often leads to late-night/early-morning dinners.  Despite being well-past 1AM, a quick perusal of my dismal food stock left me with a meager line-up of ingredients.  The protein that jumped out at me from the back of the freezer being a pound of ground Italian-style venison sausage, courtesy of my father’s hunterly pursuits.  A humble can of tomato sauce,  a small can of tomato paste, an onion, a little garlic, and a few condiments later had me replete with a rich ragu or meat-based sauce fit for topping any matter of pasta or pasta-like applications.  Just because it’s 2 in the morning doesn’t mean you need to resort to frozen pizzas and Hot Pockets.  Real, simple, tasty food can be made with just a modicum of patience and even less formal training.  Just say no to the jarred stuff.  You can do it yourself, and no jar of Prego is going to give you that rich, savory sense of satisfaction that only comes from a home-cooked meal.

Venison ragù

Ingredient rundown:

  • 1 lb ground venison (Italian-style, if you will)
  • 1 14 oz can tomato sauce (I normally don’t use this and would have made a basic tomato sauce from canned tomatoes myself, but, well, I didn’t have any.  I had this.  So I used it.)
  • 1/2 small can of tomato paste
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 2 tbsp rendered bacon drippings (venison is a very lean meat and can often use some help in the fat department to avoid drying out with cooking.  I save all my drippings from cooking bacon in a container in my freezer for just such occasions)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, for sauteing onions, but also helps with leanness of venison
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-3 large mushrooms, diced (I used baby ‘bellas)
  • 1 tablespoon of capers and their brine (optional, but I think their brininess worked great here)
  • 2 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
  • splash of red wine
  • pinch of dried oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, paprika, red pepper flake, garlic powder
  • salt and pepper to taste

How I did it:

  1. Saute onion, mushroom and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent (~5-8 minutes).  I used a medium cast iron skillet that is quickly becoming my favorite kitchen item.
  2. Add ground venison and bacon drippings, season, and brown for ~10 minutes
  3. Add beef stock, tomato sauce and paste, capers, red wine and parmesan cheese.  Mix well and continue to simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally for at least half an hour, but up to several hours.  It will continue to thicken and develop richer flavors the longer you cook it.  Add more beef stock if it reduces too much.
  4. Serve over pasta, in a lasagna or in any other application where a rich, meaty sauce is called for.

Just like Mom used to make, except for, you know, with deer.  I realize everyone doesn’t have access to ground venison, but this is Wisconsin, damn it.  You know someone who hunts and people who hunt always have extra meat unless they’re not very good hunters.  You could make a perfectly serviceable ragu with ground beef or veal, lamb, heck – just about any red meat – but I hold a soft spot for venison and have a nearly endless supply of it, so I try to use it when possible.  You should, too.  It’s good for you.


Operation Too Much Ham: Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham

10 Mar

OK, so there really is no such thing as too much ham, but 11 pounds of ham don’t eat themselves.  And they take up half of my fridge.  In my quest to find new ways of putting lipstick on this pig, I found a pretty delicious-looking recipe in my boy Mario Batali’s book Molto Italiano.  I am often convinced that I was Italian in another life because I always come back to Italian food for its flavorful simplicity.  While I’m jumping the gun on “Easter” food again, this pasticcio di maccheroni or “pasta pie” is the kind of comforting goodness that needs no special occasion.

Dish: Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham

recipe courtesy of Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano

Ingredient rundown:

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound Italian cooked ham, preferably parmacotto, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 rib celery, thinly sliced
  • (I also tossed in a few diced mushrooms)
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 3 1/2 cups basic tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 pounds ziti
  • 1 pound fresh ricotta
  • 8 ounces caciotta or hard provolone, cut into small dice
  • 1/2 cup freshly-grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • (I also sprinkled some breadcrumbs on top for a little crunch.  Entirely optional of course)

*I ended up making roughly 2/3 of a batch and adjusted my measurements accordingly

How it’s done:

  1. In a Dutch oven (I used my trusty cast iron skillet), heat the oil over high heat until smoking. Add the ham cubes and brown for 5 to 6 minutes. Add the carrot, onion and celery and cook until the vegetables are golden brown, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook until the meat is just about falling apart, about 50 minutes. Transfer the meat to a large bowl. Keep the sauce warm.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.
  4. Cook the ziti in the boiling water for 1 minutes less than the package directions, until still very al dente. While the pasta is cooking, place the ricotta in a small bowl and stir in a ladle of the pasta cooking water to “melt” it.
  5. Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl with the meat. Add the ricotta and caciotta and stir to combine.
  6. Grease a 9-by-12-inch baking dish with extra-virgin olive oil. Place a ladleful of sauce in the bottom of the casserole, followed by a layer of the pasta and meat mixture. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the parmigiano-reggiano over, then repeat with another layer of sauce, then pasta and meat, and parmigiano. Continue until all ingredients are used up.
  7. Bake for 25 minutes, until bubbling and heated through. Serve in warmed pasta bowls.

Is turning 1 pound of ham into 3 or 4 pounds of pasta productive from a fridge-clearing standpoint?  Perhaps not, but hot damn if it wasn’t tasty.  Hard to go wrong with ham, Italian cheeses and wine.  Mario knows things, despite his affinity for tech vests and orange foam footwear.

Let’s do lunch. Or dinner. Anytime, really: Seafood Pasta with Cream Sauce

16 Nov

Simple pasta dishes are always easy to throw together when time/ingredients/motivation/creativity/funds are low.  It’s really not hard to step up from boiled Creamette and and jar of Prego and whip up a homemade sauce in a matter of minutes.

Dish: Seafood pasta with cream sauce

Ingredient rollcall:

  • pasta (long format works well here, though any will do.  I like bucatini)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 1 heaping tbsp AP flour
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • splash of dry sherry or other white wine
  • salt, pepper, herbs to taste (I used some dried herbes de Provence and fresh parsley)
  • few tbsp grated parmesan
  • seafood (I happened to have some frozen shrimp and scallops on hand)

How I do it:

  1. Get that pasta boiling in some salted water.
  2. In a medium skillet, saute garlic in butter over medium heat.
  3. Sprinkle in flour, stirring quickly to create a light roux.
  4. Add cream, wine, cheese, seafood and spices.  Simmer until sauce thickens, 4-5 minutes.
  5. When pasta is about ~80% cooked through, drain and add to sauce for final couple minutes.
  6. Toss to coat pasta and serve.

It’s that simple. 15-20 minutes from start to finish.  Toss in some steamed veggies (peas, carrots, broccoli, etc) and you’ve got pasta primavera.  Add grilled chicken instead of seafood.  Endlessly customizable.  Incredibly satisfying.  No excuses.

Like the back of my hand: Spaghetti alla Carbonara

17 Sep

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

The first in a series of recipes that I have made so many times that I could make them blindfolded – Spaghetti alla Carbonara.  A dish introduced to me by my best high school friend and his Italian mother, I was given this disclaimer beforehand which I pass on here – you might not want to know what goes into the “sauce”.  Forget any ideas you had about having a nice, light pasta dinner.  If I told you a sauce was made out of bacon grease, raw eggs and cheese – is that something you might be interested in?  Well, apparently my answer was something along the lines of Bring it ON, because here I am 7 or 8 years later making this dish a couple times a month.  Traditionally, SaC is a simple sauce of pancetta and its drippings, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and plenty of fresh-ground pepper tossed with hot, al dente pasta which melts the cheese and  “cooks” the eggs just enough to thicken into a sauce.  Of course, I’ve never been one to stick with tradition and tend to tinker and embellish based on what sounds good to me or what I have on hand.  Here’s the version I made tonight:

Dish: Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Ingredient Roll Call:

  • 1/2 lb long-format dried pasta ( I like bucatini)
  • 3-4 strips of bacon (or pacetta or guanciale if you can find it.  Bacon works just fine, though)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • drizzle of olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grated hard Italian cheese (parmesan, romano, etc)
  • salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • My Embellishments:
    • half an onion, thinly sliced
    • half a red bell pepper, thinly sliced
    • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
    • splash each of balsamic vinegar and red wine
    • dash of dried Italian herbs
    • Serves 1 giant plate or 2 normal-person servings.  Don’t judge me.  I’m a growing boy.

How I do it:

  1. Slice bacon into thin strips and saute over medium heat with a splash of olive oil until fat begins to render out
  2. Add onion, red bell pepper and garlic with a dash of salt and balsamic vinegar and continue to saute until softened, 10 minutes or so
  3. Combine beaten eggs, grated cheese, dash of salt and ground pepper in a bowl and set aside
  4. Boil pasta until 3/4 or so cooked, drain and add to saute pan with bacon and other ingredients
  5. Add a splash of wine and cook on high for a few minutes until wine is more or less cooked off.
  6. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 1-2 minutes before adding egg and cheese mixture
  7. Stir quickly until cheese melts and eggs coagulate into a rich sauce.
  8. Warm a plate in the microwave for a minute or two before plating pasta.  It’ll keep your food warm longer.  It makes a difference.  Trust me.

Is this health food?  GOD no.  Is it high brow?  Not exactly (it was named after the coal miners of Italy).  What it is is amazingly simple comfort food that is ready in half an hour and hits all the right spots.  Just don’t think about the sauce.  Some things are better when you just indulge.

Disclaimer: Do NOT eat this every day.  It will undoubtedly make you fat.  It also contains raw/undercooked eggs.  If that freaks you out – first, settle down.  Second, don’t eat it.  Make a nice alfredo or something.

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