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.
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.
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
1/2 pound sliced mushrooms (I used crimini)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
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)
1 fennel bulb, diced, about 1-1/2 to 2 cups (see Kitchen Notes)
2 shallots, chopped (or 1 medium onion)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dry)
2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds
1 cup Chicken stock (or low-sodium broth)
1 cup dry white wine [editor's note: substitute cooking wine or broth]
1/4 cup cream or half & half
1 pound linguine
Heat a large nonstick skillet or sauté pan over medium flame. Add 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil and swirl together. Add mushrooms and sauté, turning occasionally, until they brown nicely and give up their moisture and it cooks off, about 5 minutes. Drizzle in a little more olive oil, if needed – mushrooms are sponges. Remove pan from flame and pour in brandy [or fruit syrup]. Return to flame and cook, stirring, until brandy just about evaporates. Transfer mushrooms to a bowl and set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in pan and add ground pork and ground pork liver. Season lightly with salt and cook, stirring with wooden spoon to combine. Use the spoon to break up the meat as it cooks. The meat will smell very liver-forward at this point, but don’t be alarmed; just use your stove vent and keep your pickier eaters out of the kitchen.
When meat is cooked through, push it to the sides of the pan and add the diced fennel and shallots. Cook, stirring, until shallots begin to soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Create another hole in the middle of the pan and add the garlic. Cook until fragrant, 45 seconds or so, and add 1 cup of chicken stock. Add wine [or more stock] and stir to combine. Sprinkle thyme and fennel fronds over mixture, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour. Stir occasionally, adding more stock a little at a time if sauce becomes too dry (I added stock three different times, but use a light hand).
Meanwhile, start a pot of water for the pasta. When sauce has been cooking for an hour, cook the pasta according to package directions. Remove sauce from heat and stir in cream and the last tablespoon of butter. Taste and adjust seasonings. When pasta is just al dente, drain quickly and toss about half of it with sauce. Add more pasta and toss to combine. If you don’t add all the cooked pasta, that’s okay, but you probably will.
Using tongs, divide pasta among 4 shallow pasta bowls. Spoon remaining sauce in the pan over the bowls of pasta and serve immediately.
Not a liver lover? I’m not either, in the straight up “here’s your liver and onions” sense. I love pâtés and braunschsweiger, though. If that’s your take on liver, you’ll like this dish as is. The wine and, at the end, the cream and butter all combine to tame the liver’s characteristic flavor while still letting it shape the dish. Some recipes use a smaller amount of liver in relation to the other meat or meats. Others dispense with liver altogether, combining different mixes of pork, beef and chicken. At least one recipe includes venison in the mix, providing some of the gaminess I enjoy in this version.
How to prepare fennel bulbs. I’ve been cooking with fennel bulbs a lot lately, so I skipped how to wrestle with one in this recipe. If you’d like a detailed description, you’ll find it in my Caramelized Fennel with Fettuccine and Goat Cheese recipe.
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