These are the last breaths of winter. These final days of February and first few weeks of March. Winter is on the way out; Spring, with her cheery flowers and fresh greens, soon upon us. But though the skies are a crisp crystal clear, the days still feel cold – and I find myself craving the kind of nourishing comfort food that has been my culinary staple through these past months of cold weather: piping hot minestrone with loaves of crusty bread, baked pasta swimming in a satisfyingly thick, creamy sauce, and good, solid puddings. Food that warms the body and the soul. A current favourite at our dining table are tagliatelle tossed in a rich duck and white wine sauce.
The sauce is one of those labours of love, as are all good ragú sauces: first you sear the meat gently on all sides to brown off any excess fat; then a soffritto – that mix of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery which pan fried in lashings of olive oil lies at the heart of all good, Italian homecoming. And finally the meat is left to simmer in a sauce of chicken broth, white wine, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and sage until it is so tender it melts in your mouth. It is the kind of food that fills the kitchen with the irresistible lingering scent of wine and roasting meat, and the comforting hum of bubbling juices. One of those dishes that is as much a joy to cook, as it is to eat.
Pappardelle con Ragù di Anatra in Bianco
(Pappardelle with a White Wine Duck Ragù)
If you are making this ragù with with farmed duck, rather than wild duck you will find the meat to be a little fattier. To keep the sauce light, spoon off and discard the excess fat left in the pan after searing the legs and before adding the chopped vegetables. You can make this sauce ahead of time and freeze for up to three months, or just store in the fridge for a couple of days and reheat before serving.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 2 hours
1tbsp olive oil
4 duck legs
2 celery stalks
1 small onion
2 cloves of garlic
good sized bunch of sage
good sized bunch of rosemary
good sized bunch of thyme
2 bay leaves
250ml white wine
1.5l chicken broth
Drizzle the oil into a large, heavy based casserole and set on a medium to high heat. Season the duck legs with a little salt and pepper, then arrange them in the dish skin side down. Cook for roughly 7 mins, until golden brown on the skin side, then turn them over for another 3-4 mins on the other side.
While the legs are searing, finely chop the celery, onion and carrot, and peel the garlic. When the duck legs are browned on both sides, lift them out of the pan and set them to one side on a dish. Toss the chopped vegetables and the whole cloves of garlic into the pan, and lower the heat. Roughly chop the herbs and add them to the pot also. Cook, stirring regularly, for 7-8 mins until the vegetables soften and the onion becomes translucent. Pour in the white wine and the broth, and turn the heat up to high to bring to the boil, then return the duck legs to the pot. Now lower the heat to keep on a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 1 1/2 – 2hrs, until the duck meat becomes mouthwateringly tender. Remove the duck from the pot and set to one side until it is cool enough to touch. Meanwhile, turn the heat up on the sauce and reduce until thick. Tear the skin off the duck and discard it, then shred the meat with a fork, and toss it back into the casserole dish, lower the heat and simmer gently for a further 15-20 mins, giving the sauce a good stir now and then.
Fill a medium sized saucepan with cold water, add a pinch of water and set on a medium to high heat until the water comes to a boil, add the pasta to the water and lower the heat a little so that the pot doesn’t boil over. Cook for 7-8 mins or as per the instructions on the box, drain, drizzle the pasta with a little oil and add to the sauce. Give it all a good toss and serve while still piping hot.