This lamb shoulder ragu, which features the highly flavorful shoulder cut of lamb and the flavor bang of olives and feta cheese, is excellent comfort food on a chilly night.
I love Mediterranean flavors. They really pop in the summertime with the multitude of fresh produce in their long growing season. Ingredients like tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and eggplant rule this cuisine.
But guess what? Winter comes to the Mediterranean too! The fall months there are spent jarring, curing, and pickling, so the harvest will last until the weather turns warm again. Peppers are roasted, eggplants and garlic are confited, and tomatoes are blanched and peeled before they are jarred. These ingredients take on a different flavor profile when preserved. They only lose some of their acidity and bite. Their flavors mellow and even sweeten a touch, making them a delicious addition to warming dishes like this lamb ragu.
Speaking of tomatoes, when in season, fresh tomatoes are fantastic for salads or to slice and put on a sandwich, but you would never want to make a ragu or braise with store-bought fresh tomatoes. Store-bought tomatoes tend to be a crap-shoot for eleven months of the year, and even during the peak months, I’m generally not impressed unless you hit the farmers market, or even better yet, grow them yourself. Canned tomatoes, on the other hand, are harvested and preserved at the height of tomato season. High quality canned tomatoes (I use Jersey Fresh or most any canned tomato from the San Marzano region of Italy) have some salt added. Any tomato lover knows what a little salt will do to the flavor of a tomato. BOOM!
Please don’t buy the pre-diced canned tomatoes, though. Chemicals (calcium chloride) are added, so the tomatoes keep their shape and don’t break down. I always purchase peeled whole tomatoes instead. You can either run them through a food mill or simply break them apart with your fingers, which is kind of fun!
Let’s get into the dish.
This recipe has some ingredients that you might not think belong together: anchovies and cinnamon. I use a bit of minced anchovy—which disintegrates in olive oil—when creating the base for the sauce. Don’t worry, anchovy haters: You will not taste them outright. When used in small increments, this tiny but flavor-packed ingredient adds an umami quality to any dish. Anchovies are a cook’s secret weapon. I have used them in vinaigrettes, stews, and sauces where you would never think they would belong. They are a very similar ingredient to Vietnamese fish sauce in that a little bit goes a long way!
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the cinnamon stick. You will find that it just seems to marry perfectly with the lamb and tomatoes. The flavor is subtle, but it warms you and takes you to that comforting place. You’ll be surprised at how well the spice makes the components like the olives and feta cheese pop.
The slow-cooker is the perfect method for this ragu as all of these flavors need time to blend. Can I tell you how delicious the olives are in this finished sauce? They are like flavor sponges with the benefit of having a firm, salty, explode-in-your-mouth quality.
I love rigatoni with a thick, hearty sauce like this one. It holds its shape and grabs the sauce making sure every bite is flavorful.
I suggest sipping a glass of a full-bodied Italian red wine like a Dolcetto from Piedmont as you dig into this ragu. The wine’s low acidity and full fruit flavors will complement this dish perfectly.