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Linguine with Ragu Bianco and nose-to-tail tales

Ground pork and pork liver are cooked with mushrooms, shallots, garlic, fennel, and thyme, then finished with cream in this traditional Italian pasta sauce.

By Blue Kitchen / January 2, 2013

Ragù bianco simmered in a traditional Italian “white” sauce has many variations, but most use more than one kind of ground meat. This version combines ground pork trimmings and ground pork liver.

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I’ve been having offal thoughts lately. They started with a piece I recently wrote for The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine on nose-to-tail eating. The current trend of using the entire animal – and indeed, the phrase nose to tail itself – began with publication of Fergus Henderson’s seminal cookbook, "The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating." As chefs are increasingly embracing the idea of cooking and serving “odd cuts,” the CSM editors wondered if diners and home cooks were taking to those odd cuts. The short answer is yes.

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Blue Kitchen

Terry Boyd is the author of Blue Kitchen, a Chicago-based food blog for home cooks. His simple, eclectic cooking focuses on fresh ingredients, big flavors and a cheerful willingness to borrow ideas and techniques from all over the world. A frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, his recipes have also appeared on the Bon Appétit and Saveur websites.

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When I got the assignment, I immediately thought of Rob Levitt, owner of Chicago’s first whole animal, locavore butcher shop, The Butcher & Larder. We met Rob when he was chef at Mado, one of the city’s first whole animal, locavore restaurants. Rob and his staff butchered, cooked and served pretty much every part of every animal delivered to the kitchen. 

Besides serving up odd bits – pan seared beef hearts and pig head stew – Rob turned internal organs and trimmings into charcuterie, terrines and silky pâtés. Fat was rendered into lard for cooking, and bones became stock for sauces and soups.

In older, more practical, less squeamish times, using every bit of the animal was just what was done. Food was often hard to come by, especially meat, and you didn’t waste it. Today, chefs, butchers and a growing number of home cooks are returning to cooking everything, partly to honor the animals. It makes good environmental sense, too. More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock; the more we use of the animal, the better the use of our resources. As a bonus, diners and home cooks are discovering that these odd bits are full of flavor and cheaper.

When Marion and I visited Rob at his butcher shop to discuss the nose-to-tail trend, he reminded us of a dish he often served at Mado, ragù bianco. This traditional Italian “white” sauce (white only in the sense that it doesn’t have tomatoes in it and therefore isn’t a red sauce) has many variations, but most use more than one kind of ground meat. Rob’s version combined ground pork trimmings – the various leftover muscle parts that don’t neatly divide into chops or ribs or hams and such – and ground pork liver. Before we left The Butcher & Larder, we acquired a half pound each of ground pork and ground pork liver to make our own ragù bianco.

Liver lends the dish a nice gamey complexity that the ground pork alone wouldn’t deliver. Fresh fennel, wine, and cream help tame the overall liver flavor. Carrots are often an ingredient in this ragù; I substituted mushrooms cooked in brandy to add an earthier note. Also, I substituted linguine for the more traditional penne pasta. Feel free to ignore this switch.

Linguine with Ragù Bianco
Serves 4

1/2 pound sliced mushrooms (I used crimini)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

olive oil

1/4 cup brandy (cheap stuff will do just fine) [editor's note: substitute with 1/4 cup fruit syrup]

1/2 pound ground pork

1/2 pound ground pork liver (see Kitchen Notes for substitutes)

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