Pasta with Duck Ragu

Duck is a bird which doesn’t belong to the British culinary tradition as much as it is present in the Italian one, especially in the North. More expensive than a traditional chicken, its meat tends to be more gamey and rich in flavour and, unlike chicken, ideally lends itself to lengthy and stew-like dishes. In Italy, the origin of this ragu, as always, is very disputed. Some believe that in the sixteenth century duck was first used by Catherine de’ Medici who, thanks to her mixed Italian and French background, was more open to culinary innovations. The river Arno, in Tuscany, was home to plenty of birds which were not exploited in the kitchen before and her idea was to make ragu out of them. However, others believe the recipe actually originated in the Veneto region, where the so-called anatra muta (muscovy duck, Cairina muschata) had been long domesticated and a lighter version of the modern ragu was eaten with bigoli, a type of pasta which resembles spaghetti, only thicker and hollow inside.

It’s interesting to notice how the Venetian vernacular word for ‘duck’ is ‘arna’, which bears a strong similarity to the name of the Tuscan river. I wonder whether this might explain a couple of things. Nevertheless, duck in the UK is commercially available either in supermarkets or from your local butcher. For this recipe, I suggest going for breast rather than leg. Although the original recipe (from the BBC Good Food magazine) suggested to use leg, I find it too fatty, not meaty and not suitable for this sauce. Duck breast has the advantage of having a very stringy texture, which resembles that of pulled pork. I find it very satisfying to bite into a shredded piece of meat in a ragu, but be free to experiment with leg as well. In addition, as with all ragus, this is a slow cooked sauce. Ideally, you want to cook it for a minimum of 2 hours, although I slowly simmered for 4 hours and the meat was succulent, tender and juicy. You don’t have to do much in the meantime either, just stir it occasionally, which means you can get on with your domestic chores and still enjoy a wonderfully rich meat sauce with your pasta.

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Ingredients

  • 4 duck breasts
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp plain flour
  • 250ml full-bodied red wine
  • 2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
  • 250ml strong chicken stock
  • 3 rosemary sprigs, leaves picked and finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 600g pasta (I used manfredine, but any tubular or long pasta would do)
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • Parmesan, to serve

Method

  1. Heat some olive oil in a large pan. Add the duck breasts and brown on both sides, then set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Add the onions to the pan and cook until softened, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the cinnamon and flour and cook for a further minute, stirring frequently so as not to let it catch on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Take the skins off the duck breasts and return them to the pan, then add the wine, chicken stock, tomatoes, herbs, sugar and some seasoning. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and leave to cook for 2 hours, stirring every now and then.
  4. Lift the duck breasts out of the pan and put them on a plate/chopping board. Using two forks, pull the meat apart, then return to the sauce. Add the milk and simmer, covered, for another good hour.
  5. Remove the lid and simmer, uncovered, for another 45 minutes, until the sauce has thickened nicely and is not watery anymore.
  6. Cook the pasta according to packet instructions, then drain and toss with some of the sauce and a cup of the reserved pasta cooking water. Sprinkle with some parsley and decorate the plate with either grated Parmesan or cheese shavings.

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Baci di Alassio

Do you have your boarding card? Have you packed your suitcase? Perfect. So let’s fly to Liguria, a coastal region of north-western Italy which is probably known for pesto, Genoa and the aquarium. Very few do know that these region is also well known – at least in my country – for these sweet little ‘kisses’, as the name goes, which come from Alassio, a city on the western coast of the region. Lore states that they were invented in the ’20s by Rinaldo Balzola, the then patissier of the House of Savoy, who modified the traditional recipe for Baci di Dama. The biscuits then became very popular, so much that by the end of the ’50s, every single bakery in the region had their own version. What with the authentic recipe being a jealously guarded secret, the different interpretations all differ because of the quantities and the ingredients used.

These Baci are oval-shaped and composed by two biscuit halves, which are then sandwiched together with a whipped ganache. The biscuits are made with hazelnuts (possibly from Piedmont), sugar, cocoa, egg whites, flour, butter, vanilla and aromas. The ganache is ‘whipped’ because the quantities of cream and chocolate are 1.5:1, which allows to whip the ganache and make it into a mousse-like consistency. The recipe below is one of the many adaptations available and I found it in an Italian recipe book about biscuits. I modified the recipe slightly and adapted the cooking times. Traditionally these biscuits are left to dry out overnight or for at least 12 hours. If you want to skip this step, like I did, follow the recipe below. Otherwise, increase the temperature to 200C and bake for only 12 minutes.

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Ingredients

  • 150g ground almonds
  • 100g ground hazelnuts
  • 375g icing sugar, sifted
  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 30g honey
  • 35g cocoa powder, sifted
  • 90g egg whites, at room temperature
  • 100g dark chocolate (70% cocoa content)
  • 150ml double cream

Method

  1. Line two baking trays with parchment and set aside. Equip a piping bag with a star nozzle and also set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer (or in a normal bowl), combine the ground nuts, icing sugar and cocoa powder. Add the egg whites and use the paddle attachment to mix the ingredients together. Once you have a homogeneous mixture, add the butter and the honey and keep on mixing until thoroughly combined.
  3. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag. It will be firm, so no panic there. Squeeze out little mounds or rose-shaped mounds on the baking parchment, then transfer to the fridge to set for at least 30 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  5. Once thoroughly chilled, transfer to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Check the biscuits: if you see any dark wet bits, return to the oven for a further 5 minutes at 150C.
  6. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely. In the meantime, start with the ganache.
  7. Finely chop the dark chocolate either by hand or in a food processor. In a saucepan, bring the double cream to the boil, then remove from the heat and pour onto the chocolate. Use a whisk to mix the cream in and allow the chocolate to melt completely. Set aside and cool slightly but keep on mixing to avoid the mixture separating.
  8. When you are ready to assemble, either use a freestanding mixer of electric whisk (I did it by hand) to whisk the ganache. You’ll need a good 10 minutes and the result should be a light and mousse-like chocolate ganache. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle.
  9. Use the ganache to sandwich two biscuit halves together by squeezing some on one biscuit and topping this with another half. Repeat until you have used all of the biscuits, then transfer to the fridge to firm them up.

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