Easy Entertaining: Pappardelle with Duck Ragu

I’ve said it before; entertaining on a weeknight requires advance planning. While some dishes can be thrown together last minute, you need a least a few minutes for that. And my mission this Friday was woefully short on minutes for last-minute prep. In fact, I didn’t really have a minute all week.

I started a new job, and within a day found myself clumsily attempting to man the site’s main queue while my new coworkers traveled to Austin, California, Seattle, Chicago, Madison, and other places. (Yes, they went to ALL of those places this week. It’s madness in the name of a looming book deadline.) It was a trial by fire for me, which is likely the best way to learn (and to figure out what I need to learn), but then all of a sudden it was Friday and my husband Matt’s birthday and there was a dinner party to be thrown.

Enter the freezer. You can make this umami-rich duck ragu the weekend before (or even earlier than that) and pop it in the freezer till the morning of the party. Defrost the sauce, boil some pasta, throw together a quick salad, and dinner for eight is served, your title as Kitchen Master retained.

I kept my crown. This dish is a winner, savory with slow-cooked duck and earthy mushrooms, and quite a bit of wine. I must apologize: the recipe below is a little loose, but it’s more or less what I did. Be sure to salt the final dish, it needs it. The secret ingredient is a package of frozen porcini I found at Buon Italia in Chelsea Market. I wasn’t sure how good they’d be, but chopped finely enough, they add a serious hit of flavor. Dried porcini simply do not compare.

This is a perfect dish to serve with Pinot Noir—the duck and the mushrooms bring out the delicate earthy qualities of the wine, and the wine cuts the richness of the sauce. We savored a wedding-gift bottle from Patricia Green Cellars—magic.

Looking for other make-ahead dishes for weeknight entertaining?

Try this lamb and duck cassoulet or these port-braised lamb shanks.

My mom’s chili is another great choice, as is this Moroccan chickpea stew.

Duck Ragu

1 duck plus 1 duck breast, defrosted if frozen
1 carrot
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1 two-inch chunk of guanciale
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms
1/2 cup diced frozen porcini mushrooms (fresh would be lovely, of course.)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bottle dry red wine (I used shiraz)
1/4 cup red wine reduction (optional, but awesome)
1 24-oz can diced tomatoes
1 16-oz can cherry tomatoes
salt to taste

Let the duck defrost if it’s frozen—this takes awhile, a day or two in the fridge.

Remove giblets and cut the duck into 8 or more pieces. (I left the skin on for browning.) In batches in a large dutch oven, or in one dutch oven and one heavy frying pan, brown duck pieces thoroughly. Discard most of the fat. Set duck pieces aside.

Chop a two-inch chunk of guanciale and render it slowly in a large dutch oven. Meanwhile, chop carrot, onion, and garlic. Sauté along with guanciale until onion is transluscent. Add fennel seeds and shiitakes and saute for two minutes, then add diced porcini and tomato paste. Saute, stirring frequently, another minute and then deglaze with a little of the red wine. Continue sautéing and deglazing a few more times, letting the wine nearly evaporate. (If you have any red wine reduction on hand, this is a good time to add it.)

Remove most of the skin from the duck then add duck pieces back to the pot. Add diced tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and the rest of the bottle of wine. Cover and cook on low, about two and a half hours. You can leave the lid slightly ajar to let the sauce thicken slightly. Check the duck—it should be tender and falling off the bone. When the duck is cooked, remove duck pieces and set aside to cool slightly. Using an immersion blender, blend the sauce slightly. It can still be a little chunky. Pull the duck meat from the bones (using a knife and fork may be necessary) and return it to the pot. Chill overnight.

In the morning, remove any fat that has solidified on the top of the sauce. At this point, the ragu can be reheated, seasoned with salt, and served over pasta, or frozen for up to three months.

In birthdays, braising, duck, ducks, mushrooms

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