Heat in a heavy skillet over medium heat:
1 tablespoon neutral oil such as safflower
Add and brown well on all sides, about 2 minutes per side:
In our neighborhood, snow has given way to an icey, opaque shell. The heavy rains have passed, real winter has begun, and I couldn't be happier to stay indoors, occupied with research, cooking, and plotting future victories. We are nearly done outlining the new edition of JOY---a long, painstakingly-detailed outline---and our excitement grows as the "shape" of it comes into focus. Problems fixed; improvements made... this rhythm may sound boring to you, but after years of living and breathing JOY, it is quite liberating.
To maintain our frail, corporeal needs during weather such as this, a little plotting never hurt. This is the season for stout stews, braises, and other slow-cooking delights that warm up the kitchen as well as the palate. A little effort and a few hours of hands-off time can produce magic results. Abundant leftovers that freeze well are always welcome when work commands most of your waking atention.
Braising and stewing can work magical feats on tough cuts. In earlier times, a long, slow cooking process was often necessary to make meat tender. Of course, modern livestock is butchered at a much younger age than it once was. Now, we choose to use these methods because of how delicious the results can be, not because we have to deal with the tough meat of animals that worked on a farm their whole lives. Of course, there’s always a trade-off: mature animals are simply more flavorful than young ones, tender as they may be.
Ragús are a go-to for us. The tomato-heavy braising liquid provides a nice, sweet-tart punch to the deep, umami backdrop of onions, garlic, and melt-in-your-mouth pork hocks, beef shanks, or lamb shoulder. Refrigerate, skim off the fat, add fresh herbs, adjust the seasoning, and you have many delicious meals nearly ready to go: mixed with ziti, on top of polenta, in a lasagna (another prodigious giver of meals), as a hand pie filling... the possibilities!
This long-simmered ragù is, quite simply, one of the richest, umami-laden pasta sauces you can make. To reap the full benefit of the time you put into it, try seeking out the most flavor-packed meat you can get your hands on: from a mature animal and a well-exercised cut. Though we call for lamb in this recipe, many halal butchers, Latino grocers, and Indian specialty shops will carry mutton, the meat of mature sheep. We highly recommend using mutton shoulder for this recipe: its price will be lesser or equal to that of lamb, the shoulder cut itself is economical, and the flavor will be fuller… a perfect cut for an age-old kitchen trick.
Another trick that many avoid talking about when dealing with stews and braises: for the absolute best results, make this dish one day ahead of time, letting it “rest” overnight. It might sound like a pain, but the difference must be tasted… think of it as a “getting to know you” time for all of the delicious things you put in there. Plus, any fat in the ragù will conveniently make its way to the surface and solidify for easy removal.
If you can, try to find mutton shoulder for this. Lamb is wonderful, but slightly-gamier, more-flavorful mutton will improve this sauce no end. It is under-appreciated, and usually a bit cheaper. You can often find mutton at a Halal market or butcher. Goat shoulder is another good option, which can often be easier to find.
After browning the meat and softening the vegetables, you can finish this ragù a few ways: on the stovetop, in the oven, or in a slow cooker. Simmering on the stovetop is our least favorite, as it is hard to maintain the same gentle simmer for 4 hours, and you need to stir the sauce to prevent it from sticking to the bottom and burning. We prefer transferring the covered pan to a 300°F oven: no counter space taken up, no stirring, no extra dishes to clean, and a constant, low simmer.
Preheat your oven to 300°F (see headnote for other options). Pat dry and season with salt and pepper:
2 ½ to 3 pounds well-trimmed lamb or mutton blade steaks, bone-in and at least 1 inch thick (or 2 pounds boneless shoulder meat, cut into 1-inch cubes)
Heat in a very large, ovenproof skillet or enameled Dutch oven over medium-high heat:
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil, or as needed
Add the meat in batches and thoroughly brown on all sides, being careful not to crowd the pan. Remove the meat to a plate. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add:
2 large onions, chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 medium celery rib with leaves, finely chopped
8 or more garlic cloves, chopped
Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add:
1 cup dry red or white wine
Bring to a boil, stirring and scraping with a wooden spoon or spatula to release any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Stir in:
Two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, with juice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
(4 anchovy fillets, minced)
1 bay leaf
Bring to a simmer, crushing some of the tomatoes against the side of the pan with your spoon or spatula. Add the mutton or lamb back to the pan, cover, and transfer to the preheated oven. Cook, without opening the lid, until the meat is very tender, 3 to 4 hours. Carefully transfer the blade steaks from the sauce to a plate (they should be fall-apart tender) and remove any bones. They will come out very easily. Check the sauce for any stray bones, take the bay leaf out, and return the meat to the sauce. Season to taste with:
Crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and black pepper
Let cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight for best results, removing any fat that solidifies on the surface. Gently reheat and serve with big pasta shapes such as ziti, rigatoni, or penne and garnish with:
Chopped fresh parsley
Shavings of good Parmesan, Pecorino, or Gran Padano