Move over Bolognese, this lamb ragu pasta sauce is even more delicious and comforting. Packed with rich flavor, it’s easy to make and perfect for making ahead.
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If you’re a regular here, you’ll know I am a big fan of lamb. It’s one of the things I am a little conscious of in the US. As a Brit, especially a Scot, I grew up eating quite a lot of lamb but it’s far less popular in the US.
I always remember my now mother in law visiting the UK for many reasons, but food is one of them. I think I made her two lamb dishes that week (moussaka and a version of lamb tagine with apricots). Up until then, she hadn’t had lamb so I guess I changed that!
Now we are living in Australia for a little while, I’m back in lamb-loving country. And I have to say, I’m pretty happy about it. I’m still sorting out what I need or can live without in the kitchen here so haven’t got a food processor to make our fallback arugula pesto yet.
So, I took the opportunity to make something different recently. We all loved it, and it will definitely be on our menu more.
What is a ragu?
Ragu is the Italian word for a meat sauce, generally served with pasta (although not always), with Bolognese being one of the best known (“ragu alla Bolognese”).
You’ll find differences around the country using different meats and different additional ingredients, particularly between North and South.
In the North, ground meat or small cut meat cooked in a range of liquids from wine to broth. Most usually saute vegetables as part of the sauce too and while there may be some tomatoes, you won’t find too many, if any.
In Southern Italy, the meat is still the main event but it’s more likely to be a bigger piece. You typically braise it with vegetables and other ingredients. Tomatoes are more common and can make up a bigger part of the sauce. The slow cooked meat might be served as a dish in itself here, too.
What’s the difference between ragu and ragout?
The main difference is ragu is Italian and ragout is French. The Italian ragu actually derives from the French ragout,. They are similar in some ways, being a slow cooked stew, but they can have very different ingredients.
Ragu is pretty much always meat, while ragout can be made with fish or just vegetables.
The idea and name came to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy during Napoleonic times and evolved from there. It’s probably fitting Bolognese is the best known version of ragu and comes from that area (see more about food here in my food in Bologna post).
I’ve had lamb ragu a couple times semi-recently at restaurants in the Boston/Cambridge area before we left so it was on my mind to make myself.
I make a version of Bolognese relatively often, and this has some similarities, but I have to say I think this wins for depth of flavor. Or maybe I’m just biased in my love of lamb, but I promise, it’s worth trying either way.
I’m sure the decent amount of red wine helps, but the long slow cook also creates tender lamb that melts in your mouth, much as another of our favorites, braised lamb shanks. Make sure you don’t skip searing the meat and adding a little color to the vegetables to really add to the flavors.
One of the great things with a slow cooked dish like this is it’s perfect for making ahead of time. You can easily make the sauce a day or two in advance, refrigerate, and then just warm when you need it and mix with freshly cooked pasta.
The sauce will freeze as well, but pasta doesn’t tend to freeze well, so I’d recommend you still cook that at the time you want it. The ragu sauce works with pretty much any kind of pasta, as well as gnocchi.
Lamb ragu is one incredibly comforting and delicious dish that’s worth adding to your regular rotation. Easy to make, perfect for preparing ahead, it’s packed with flavor everyone will love.
Try these other tasty pasta dishes:
- Spaghetti alla carbonara with mushrooms
- Scallop pasta with garlic and white wine
- Pasta puttanesca
- Plus get more comforting winter recipes and Italian recipes in the archives.
- 1 ½ lb lamb shoulder 675g
- 1 onion or ½ large onion
- 1 carrot
- 1 rib celery
- 3 cloves garlic (or 2 if large)
- 1 tbsp olive oil (or a little more if needed)
- ¾ cup dry red wine 180ml
- ¼ cup stock or water, 60ml
- 14 oz tomato passata 400g (or use finely chopped tomatoes)
- 1 ½ tsp mixed herbs (or use blend of approx ½ tsp oregano, ½ tsp thyme, ¼ tsp sage and ¼ tsp marjoram)
- Trim excess fat from the lamb and cut into approx 1in/2.5cm dice. Cut the onion, carrot and celery into a small dice and finely dice the garlic.
- Warm roughly half the oil in a medium heavy-based pot/pan over a medium-high heat. Brown the lamb on all sides in batches to make sure you don't overcrowd the pan. Make sure you get a nice sear on the meat, at least on some sides, and transfer to a plate once they are browned on all sides.
- Reduce the heat slightly (to more of a medium heat) and add the remaining oil. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook around 5-8 minutes until the vegetables are starting to brown slightly, adding the garlic once the vegetables have softened.
- Add the lamb back into the pot then add the wine to deglaze the pot (you want it to start to simmer, while you scrape any browning from the bottom of the pot which adds flavor to the sauce).
- Add the stock/water, tomatoes and herbs. Stir and bring to a simmer then reduce the heat. Cover with the lid slightly open to let it reduce a little and leave to simmer gently for approximately an hour, possibly longer, until the meat is very tender.
- Break up the meat by shredding against the side of the pot or with forks (you can also leave in larger pieces, but I find it works better as a sauce when broken up).
- You can either leave to cool and then pack up to store for later/freeze at this point, or keep warm while you cook pasta. You can either serve it over cooked pasta or mix it through, as you prefer.
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