10 March 2010

Field to Table III: Tuscan Lunch

In Tuscany, they eat meat. The Tuscans are also very proud of their meat. The famed Chianina breed of cattle hail from Tuscany. Naturally, Tuscany is host to some of the best butchers in the world. It also host some of the best wineries in the world (think Chianti and Brunello). They seem to have it made in Tuscany. It's no wonder that there is such romance surrounding the area in Italy known as Tuscany. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that there are lots of deer and wild boar roaming the Tuscan countryside.

So Tuscany is the inspiration, and perhaps the origin of this recipe I will be discussing today. The recipe, in fact, is an adaptation of one I picked up from a chef in Tuscany. The original recipe called for wild boar but the chef told me that venison could be easily substituted. If neither of those are available then beef would work, too. Like many Italian recipes it is very forgiving and relatively easy. In spite of it's simplicity the flavors are deep and wonderful.

A long cooking time of 3-4 hours is imperative to developing the deep flavor. There are also some steps in the assembly that help deepen the flavor. Getting a good sear on the meat is very important. Also, slightly caramelizing the tomato paste is something that you don't want to overlook. Keeping some of these simple steps in mind will give you a ragu you won't soon forget.

Because I have so much venison on hand I chose to use this. I also chose to use the rib cuts that I like to get. This allows me to add a little more flavor to the sauce by letting the rib bones cook in the liquid.

Either way, you want to cut the meat into manageable pieces so that you can sear the meat without crowding the pan. I can't stress this enough. You don't want to crowd the pan when browning the meat. If you put too much meat in the pan at once it will steam rather than develop a good brown crust. If you are using odd cuts like ribs (as I did) then just brown as much of the exposed meat as you can.

When the meat is browned remove it to a plate and let it rest while you prep the rest of the ingredients. While the meat is resting you want to prepare your aromatics. What we are using is called a mirepoix. This is simply a mixture of carrots, onions, and celery. My mirepoix also contains some minced garlic. Chop the vegetables as small as you can.

Sauté the mirepoix in EVOO until the vegetables start to soften just a bit.

During the sauté process you may notice that the pan is starting to develop some browned bits (also leftover from the meat) on the bottom. This is called "fond" (my apologies for all of the French terms used on such an essential Italian dish). As long as the fond is not black and burned smelling then you want it to hang around. Manage your heat source so that the fond does not burn but just accumulates and gets dark. Now that the vegetables are soft squeeze in some tomato paste (I buy the stuff in a tube so I don't have to deal with moldy containers of tomato paste in my fridge).

Stir the tomato paste in and let it cook so that it starts to add to the fond in the pan. By doing this you are caramelizing the sugars in the tomato paste and further deepening the flavors. After about two minutes you will see a lot of caramelized tomato paste and fond on the bottom of the pan. Now pour in the red wine to "deglaze" the pan and loosen the fond from the bottom. Now all the flavor of the fond will be in the sauce. Nice, huh?

At this point you want to take the meat and add it back to the pan. If any juices have accumulated on the plate while the meat was resting be sure to scrape those in, too. Pour your tomato sauce over the meat and add the last of the aromatics; herbs and spices.

The herbs and spices we are using are bay leaf, sage leaf, and juniper berries. Lightly crush the juniper berries with the blade of your knife before adding them in.

Cover the pot and allow the ragu to simmer for 3-4 hours. The longer you let it go the more tender the meat will be.

When the meat is tender enough to fall apart at the touch gently remove it to a plate and shred it. If you are not using ribs or cuts with bones in them then you can probably skip this step and just smash the meat with the back of your spoon against the side of the pan. Or you could leave the chunks as large as you cut them for a bigger texture.

Stir the shredded meat back into the sauce and let it simmer some more. While the sauce is simmering you can cook your pasta.

Or you can make a little appetizer to munch on. I made bruschetta three ways: traditional; topped with caponata; topped with roasted red peppers, tomatoes, rosemary, and white anchovies. Yum.

Dang, that was tasty! Now that my pasta is cooked I can top it with some of the ragu and a little (or a lot) of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Remember, if you don't have a source for venison (I hunt my own meat) then you can use beef stew meat or beef chuck cut into pieces. But I encourage you to find some venison or wild hog and try it. You won't regret it.

Venison Ragu

2 # Venison, cubed or ground
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
2 carrots, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 cups red wine (chianti)
1/2 cup or more olive oil
2 bay leaves
4 sage leaves
5 juniper berries, crushed (available at Central Market's bulk dept. or Whole Foods)
2 Tbsp. parsley
1 28oz. can Crushed Tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste

     Sauté the meat in a large pot with a small amount of olive oil until the meat is browned, remove the meat and set aside (brown it in batches to avoid over crowding the pan). Add the carrots, celery, onion, and garlic to the pan and sauté in olive oil over medium heat until softened but not browned. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook another 5 minutes. Return meat to pan, add salt and deglaze with red wine. Cook 5 minutes, add tomatoes, salt, pepper, and herbs and allow to simmer, covered, over low heat for about 3 hours. Stir occasionally, being careful not to allow the bottom to stick or burn. Serve over pasta or polenta with a good amount of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.


  1. Wow that sounds fantastic! Nice presentation of the process, too. Would fat excess be a problem with some cuts here? If so, would you just spoon it off the top before serving over the pasta?

  2. John, venison is very, very lean. You usually have to add a little fat when cooking with it. But in this case fat is not an issue and you will find that there is little, if any, fat to skim from the surface after cooking and refrigeration.

    If you work with very fatty cuts of pork (shoulder) or beef (chuck) then you may have some to skim. You can refrigerate the sauce first and then skim it. Or you can do as you mentioned and just spoon as much off the top just before serving.

  3. Complimenti! congrats it's very close to our hare or wild boar....there's only one tiny detail differing the parsley! Thanks for giving real italian recipes out and notjust re-interpretations of memories.... oriana of tuscanycious.com

  4. Thanks for the compliments, Oriana. That's high praise, indeed. I try and keep it as real as I can.

    I love your cardoon posts on your website. Very overlooked vegetable, the cardoon is.