LOOKING out of the window today it is about as miserable as it gets. Sleet is cascading over the moors and it’s windy and cold. Gloomy isn’t the word. And I’m going out in it soon.
In my quest to become a little more active and healthy (a shudder just passed through me) I’ve taken to going for a short daily walk, and it was strolling along the road above Slaithwaite the other day that I came upon the idea for this week’s recipe.
Descending home from Pole Moor, just as I reached the end of the road, I was startled by the arrival around the corner of the neighbour’s five large white Embden geese.
I’m sure that goose-fanciers would be the first to admit that, of all the domesticated fowl, geese are possibly the most unpleasant.
Brilliant guard-dogs, of course, being fiercely loyal and territorial, but they really can be nasty little pieces of work, waddling about belligerently, with those gimlet eyes, hissing at anything that passes by.
Naturally, my chef’s training kicked in and, as I bid the geese a cheerful good day, I was already mentally plucking them and imagining how delicious they’d taste with a little bread sauce and some roast apple.
My mind wandered naturally to other good roasting birds, and to ducks, with their many culinary uses, and I had my recipe.
It’s one we cook at home a couple of times a year, and it’s always a treat.
Today, we’re having a crack at a classic Italian ragù sauce, made with loving care over a couple of days.
As I invariably say for many of these saucy, slow- cooked dishes like stews, curries and pie fillings, it always pays dividends to cook the sauce one day and leave it to spend the night in a cool room or the fridge, letting the flavours mingle and develop.
This sauce, often made with minced pork or beef, and on very rare occasions, horsemeat (if my equestrian neighbours are reading this, please don’t worry! Your pets are quite safe!), is absolutely wonderful spooned over pasta of any kind, though I’m currently going through a period of enjoying proper long spaghetti, which it is absolutely perfect with.
I eat plenty of pasta throughout the year, but spaghetti is one that I rarely choose.
It was bought on a whim a few weeks ago and has remained a supper-time favourite ever since.
The “premium” brands, such as Garofalo and the famous yellow-bagged Martelli are worth splashing out on for this dish; you really can taste the wheat.
Fresh egg pasta is, in my opinion, just not the same at all.
That’s fine for ravioli or on the occasions one makes one’s own pasta, but for ragù dishes, we need the smooth texture and bite that can only be delivered by simple durum wheat pasta. And remember that this sauce is incredibly rich, so don’t smother your pasta.
A few spoonfuls of sauce to coat each noodle is all that is required, plus a little dusting of Reggiano Parmesan and perhaps a little fresh black pepper and a lift of fresh sweet basil.
For the ragù:
4 large free-range duck legs
5-600g duck fat
500g duck livers, trimmed
140g pack of pancetta or diced smoked bacon
1 tin of tomatoes (ideally super-tasty San Marzanos)
1 Bottle passata
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, finely chopped
½ bottle red wine
Splash of Marsala or Madeira
750ml duck or chicken stock
Extra-virgin olive oil
5-600g pasta (penne or spaghetti are ideal)
Fresh Reggiano Parmesan cheese
First, you'll need to confit your duck legs. I skip the traditional pre-salting for this particular recipe, as it's really not necessary.
Heat the duck fat gently in an ovenproof dish until liquefied and, lower in the duck legs. Cover with a lid or foil, and cook at 150°C / Gas 2 for 2-3 hours, until the meat is almost falling from the bones.
Strain the fat - of course you should pour this into a Kilner jar or similar receptacle and store in the fridge.
It will keep for months and nothing makes roast potatoes more crunchy or delicious.
Take the meat from the duck legs, extracting every succulent little nugget. Shred the meat into strands.
Finely chop the duck livers. Now for the sauce.
We begin, as do most Italian tomato-based sauces, with what’s known as a soffrito, the foundation upon which a great sauce is carefully built.
Heat a good slug of olive oil in a deep pan, and gently sauté the onion, celery, fennel and carrot until the onion is soft and translucent.
Add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the pancetta and cook until nicely browned, then tip in the duck livers and sauté quickly until cooked on all sides.
Add a good splash of Marsala, and allow to reduce completely.
Add the red wine and allow this also to reduce to almost nothing. Add the stock, the tomatoes, the passata and the shredded duck meat.
Cover the pan and simmer very gently or bake in a low oven (150°C / Gas 2) for a couple of hours.
Leave the pan to cool overnight, and the next day, reheat gently for another couple of hours.
The sauce should be deep-coloured, rich and chunky. Season if necessary, and add a handful of chopped basil before serving.
Spoon a little sauce over your freshly-cooked al dente pasta, and garnish with some extra basil and a few shavings of proper Reggiano Parmesan cheese.
A nice big red, like an Amarone or a Barbera d’Asti would be perfect as an accompaniment.