In anticipation of true autumn: Duck Ragu with Brown Ale and Pasta

by Marion on September 27, 2017

Ground duck, brown ale and an international mix of umami-rich ingredients put a delicious spin on traditional Bolognese sauce. Recipe (and some substitute ingredients) below.

Duck Ragu with Brown Ale

This recipe shares certain basic elements with last week’s: shallots, onion, carrot, pasta, bay leaf. In fact, as I was assembling it, at one point my hand strayed over to my fallback, tarragon, and I had to tell myself to make another choice.

As I write this, it’s still miserably hot here—we’ve had five days in a row of 90º+ heat. But at night, it cools down, and despite what the thermometer says the leaves are starting to turn and the songbirds are heading south. We know the crisp sweater-weather days are just around the corner. Something—the shorter days, the way the clouds look in the Midwest in September—is making us think of hearty, homey meals with big comforting flavors.

We were at the grocery store on the weekend, and the butcher was putting out whole ducks. But he was also setting out an array of packaged duck parts—breasts, legs, and, nestled among them, ground duck. The giant lightbulb (the one shaped like a dinner plate) came on over my head.

This recipe took its inspiration from wood-fired duck hearts eaten at the bar at Duck Duck Goat, a pasta dinner at the counter at Osteria di Eataly and a recipe on BeerAdvocate. It begins with the typical Bolognese technique, then gives the globe a spin, pulling in ingredients from all over to build depth and enhance umami. It’s got tomatoes, it’s got bay leaf, it’s got dried mushrooms, and it’s also got miso and anchovies and, instead of wine and stock, it’s got brown ale. The ale is surprisingly just right with the duck, flattering and enhancing beautifully.

Please don’t be put off by the volume of anchovies in here. They really do disappear into the whole, becoming one more umami building block. The same goes for the mushrooms. BTW, rather than buying dried powdered mushrooms, we recommend that you grind them yourself at home, just ahead of cooking. Basic dried porcini are ideal.

When choosing the ale, go for something brown to deep brown, with lots of caramel and toastiness. For this dish, we used Bell’s Best Brown Ale, a great option here in the Midwest. There are dozens of wonderful beers that would work beautifully in this recipe, from Scotch-type ales to bocks and stouts. Pick the one you want to drink with dinner.

When choosing the pasta, go for something as hearty as the pasta. We chose a penne rigate, but a pappardelle or some curly weirdo cavatappi would be terrific too.

Finally, this is pretty thoroughly wonderful served straight off the stove. But it’s even better when it rests for at least a day. Cook it on the weekend and have it during the week.

Duck Ragu with Brown Ale and Pasta
Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped shallots
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped carrot (slice into thin coins, then chop)
3 bay leaves
3 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
1 pound ground duck
5 or 6 anchovy fillets, chopped
3 tablespoons white miso
3 or 4 tablespoons mushroom powder
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes—juice and all
2 tablespoons tomato paste
12 ounces beer (or more)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Italian parsley, finely chopped

Heat the olive oil in a big heavy-bottomed pan—we used our copper Dutch oven. Add the shallots and onions, stir well, then sauté them until they start to turn light gold—about 12 to 15 minutes. About 10 minutes in, add the carrots and herbs. When the onions have started to turn golden, add the garlic. Sauté for another minute or so, then add the duck, stirring and breaking up the meaty bits and mixing everything together. Cook, still stirring, until the duck starts to actually brown (after three or four  minutes, I became impatient and turned up the heat for about 30 seconds to blast it there).

Add the soy sauce, the miso and the dried mushroom and stir everything together well, then pour in the tomatoes, including their juice, plus the tomato paste and the anchovies, and stir well again. When everything is nicely incorporated, add the beer. Stir, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer.

Simmer for at least an hour, stirring now and then to make sure it doesn’t stick. An hour in, add the parmesan and stir it into the sauce. (Pro tip: if, like us, you save your Parmesan rinds, toss one in at the same time that you add the beer, and just let it simmer in there throughout.)

After at least an hour (and you can go way longer if you feel like it) cook the pasta. Finally, plate the pasta and sauce—at the very last moment, just before carrying it to the table (or even right at the table), scatter on some finely chopped parsley. The bitter deep green scent will be one more wonderful note rising up with the whole. Also yes, you can offer your guests more Parmesan cheese at table.

Kitchen Notes

Can’t find ground duck? Yes, you can replace the ground duck with other meats. We particularly recommend lamb.

A little cream? Taking cues from the Bolognese playbook, you may add cream during the cooking if you like. Add about 1/2 cup or so, right after you add the beer.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anita September 27, 2017 at 4:28 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever seen ground duck for sale. Thanks for the alternative. (p.s. icky hot here, too – but not like what you are getting. Tomorrow the temps start dropping, though. Yay!!)

Dani H September 27, 2017 at 10:47 pm

This sounds delicious, Marion! I love a recipe that is better a day or two later.

Happy autumn!

Marion September 28, 2017 at 11:08 pm

Anita, look in the meat department ‘s freezer case, where they keep the frozen fowl. This was right next to the whole frozen ducks. It’s Maple Leaf brand, which is widely available. And today it became pleasant – low 60s in the morning, high in the low 70s – I’d like it a bit cooler, though.

Dani, thanks! We finished off the leftovers tonight and they were super yummy, if I say so myself.

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