Linguine with Ragu Bianco and nose-to-tail tales

by Terry B on December 12, 2012

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

I’ve been having offal thoughts lately. They started with a piece I recently wrote for the Christian Science Monitor 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. You’ll find the entire article here.

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)
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
chicken stock (or low-sodium broth)
1 cup dry white wine
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. 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 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.

Kitchen Notes

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.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Fork and Whisk December 12, 2012 at 3:59 am

I love the “odd cuts” and think it is important for people to become familiar with them. Instead of just eating the what would be considered the best cuts from an animal, their are so many other tasty parts to eat. I think when we do the nose to tail eating we show the animal more respect and value its life even more.
Your picture looks great, nice post.

kitchenriffs December 12, 2012 at 4:20 pm

I don’t believe I’ve ever had pork liver. And I used to hate liver when I was growing up — my mom would cook (overcook) thin slices (maybe a third of an inch?) until they really did resemble shoe soles. All of that changed about a year out of college when I was dining in a French restaurant in Fez, Morocco (I was teaching English as a foreign language there) and for some reason I decided I wanted liver. No clue why, because I really hated the stuff. Anyway, I was served this magnificent piece of meat, a bit over an inch thick, and it was pink inside. I didn’t even know that was legal. It was wonderful, and I’ve been a fan ever since. This has very little to do with the dish at hand, of course! And the dish at hand looks terrific — I totally love the flavors. But I’ll have to cook it when my wife’s not in the kitchen, because she doesn’t like liver. At least that’s what she thinks. 😉 Good post — thank you.

randi December 12, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Apart from liverwurst and pâté, I am not a fan of offal meats despite having grown up eating them as my family enjoyed most of it. Just not me. I only go as far as making soups from beef bones and chicken feet and bones.
I do like what you and Fork and Whisk wrote about honouring the animal. Such a shame to waste anything. That really rings especially true for my parents in war time. Nothing was wasted. My father has a very fine palate and he absolutely loves to order in restaurants what most would turn their nose at like calf brains with brown butter.

Terry B December 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Thanks, Fork and Whisk! Among the “odd cuts” that used to sell for cheap or practically get discarded are chicken wings and short ribs. Now both sell at a premium. If you have a local butcher, ask about odd cuts of steak that may require a different cooking technique, but are full of flavor. Better yet, if you can get some filets of beef heart, just cook it medium rare in a hot skillet with butter and/or oil like a steak. Deglaze the pan with a little wine and done. It’s delicious, with just a hint of wild game to it, and full of iron.

Randi, we would love to sit down to dinner with you and your dad! From other comments here, you have plenty of his adventurous approach to eating.

Kitchenriffs—What a great introduction to liver. I still need liver to be part of something, not the thing itself. But who knows, I may get there.

Anita December 13, 2012 at 12:15 am

See now, I was thrilled about the liver, but wrinkled my nose at the fennel!

kitty December 13, 2012 at 4:36 am

I love liver! Like Anita, I’m not so sure of fennel, though. I may just make this one weekend (will let you know how it goes!)

Terry B December 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Anita and Kitty—Ha! I have to admit that I only recently started cooking with fennel. It looks pretty strange as a whole object, but is really easy to work with. And I’m a total convert—this is the fourth time I’ve cooked with it here on the blog since August.

dennis kauppila December 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Hi Terry. I read this in Christian Science Monitor this morning, and thought this might be you. It is you! Great article, very easy to read. Hi to your Lovely Wifey.

Terry B December 13, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Dennis! So great to hear from you—and thanks! Marion says hi.

Marion December 14, 2012 at 12:18 am

And hi to YOUR lovely wifey!

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