Lamb Ragu for the American Lamb Pro-Am

Photo courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Rigatoni with lamb ragu
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie

Author’s note: This post is for the D.C. American Lamb Pro-Am competition. The task: come up with a lamb recipe for the competition for readers like you to vote on here. If I make it to the top 4 contestants, I get paired with a DC chef, go on to rep We Love DC and cook a lamb dish for 200 people!

Any time I cook for a big group of friends or take a stab at concocting my own recipe, I try to remember this tiny little truth: stick to what you know. Of course, I take that with a grain of salt, but the principle remains the same. Hosting a dinner party for eight, especially if you’re aiming to impress a certain member of the crowd, means that it’s probably not the right time to try your hand at that chocolate souffle recipe you’ve never made or even tasted. I’m all for taking risks in the kitchen. But there are times and places when it’s better to do so.

Photo courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Lamb Ragu
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie

So when I started thinking about what the heck I was going to make with leg of lamb, my mind went in about 80 directions at first. I was like a kid who’d consumed an entire box of pixie sticks as I sat wide-eyed laptop in one hand, assorted cookbooks in the other, searching for ideas to get me started. “Mint! YEAH, lamb is often served with mint! But we won’t be doing any of that mint jelly shit. Or wait, no, no. I should TOTALLY try bringing the meat back to its humble beginnings that made it so tasty in the first place by rigging a setup to hay smoke it!” I sound like Kenneth from 30 Rock in that episode when he tries coffee for the first time, muttering and putting a dozen sticky notes on recipe pages. My roommate has learned to ignore me when I get like this. In truth, there will be no hay smoking because I realize that I haven’t smoked anything in my kitchen oven before and now, going on 1:30 AM on a Tuesday, is probably not the time to investigate how to do so.

After the dust from the cookbook shelf settles, and I’ve returned to sanity from whatever manic, excited state I’ve thrown myself into at the prospect of cooking something completely new, we hope for a moment of clarity. That time when I sit back, gaze over my shoulder from the living room into the kitchen and think, “I know what we’re going to do here.” It takes a little while, but once I get into a certain groove in the kitchen with different elements being prepped on the two tiny portions of counter space I have to work with, I’m golden.

After ruining a perfectly lovely cut of meat I decided to practice on, I solicited the advice of two of my friends on what I should make. Both immediately said ragu. And it turns out those two ladies know me (and the food I know how to cook best) better than I realized. Ragu, of course. The best thing I’ve got up my sleeves is my grandmother’s recipe for “Sunday gravy”–a monstrous pot of meatballs and sauce. I can get any friend with an Italian family from the northeast to enjoy it–without even the thought of comparing it to their own family recipe, a point of pride in my book. So why wouldn’t I go for something in the same vein? Stick to what you know, right? I’m confident in my ability to make a tomato-based sauce and creative enough to come up with a little something different on the fly. And so my lamb ragu was born.

Below you’ll find the recipe. Big thanks to Border Springs Farm and Craig Rogers for supplying us with the lamb, and a big thanks to the American Lamb Board for inviting me to participate. I’ll post the link on where you can vote for my recipe in the comments section later today. Get cooking.

Photo courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Rigatoni with lamb ragu
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie

Rigatoni with Lamb Ragu
Serves 8-10

3 lb. boneless leg of lamb
4 carrots peeled and roughly diced
3 celery ribs, roughly diced
1 medium yellow onion, roughly diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 28 oz. cans of whole tomatoes (I use San Marzano)
2 6 oz. cans of tomato paste
1 cup of red wine
4 basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning herbs
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Dash of red pepper flakes
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1lb. box of rigatoni

Photo courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Border Springs leg of lamb
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie

Photo courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Start of a mirepoix
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie

1. Peel and roughly chop the carrots, yellow onion and garlic. Clean the celery ribs and roughly chop. Set aside.
2. Add the tomatoes (not including the juice in the can) to a blender and blend until almost smooth. The goal here is not to puree the tomatoes, but to get them to a consistency that’s finer than diced tomatoes.
3. Heat a large pot with enough extra virgin olive oil to lightly coat the bottom. Season the leg of lamb with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the lamb to the pot and on a medium-high heat sear all sides until it is well browned. Remove from the pot and set aside on a plate.
4. In the same pot, add about a tablespoon of EVOO and the mixture of chopped carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Cook on medium-low heat until the vegetables are tender, onions translucent.
5. Add the red wine and simmer for 2-3 minutes.
6. Add the tomato paste, blended tomatoes and the tomato juice from the cans. Add the basil, red pepper flakes, Italian seasoning and any extra salt or pepper as desired. Stir to combine all ingredients.
7. Add the leg of lamb back to the pot along with any drippings that accumulated while the meat was resting.
8. Cover the pot and allow the ragu to cook on low heat for approximately 3 to 3 1/2 hours on low heat. Stir occasionally (every 45 minutes or so) and season with extra salt and pepper according to taste.
9. After approximately 2 1/2 hours, remove the leg of lamb from the pot and shred the meat with a fork. The meat should be tender and should shred easily. If it doesn’t, allow the lamb to cook in the sauce more. Return the shredded lamb back to the pot to finish cooking in the ragu.
10. After the ragu has finished cooking, cook rigatoni according to box instructions.
11. Mix the rigatoni with the ragu and serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top. Enjoy!

Marissa was born and bred in New Jersey, but moved to DC for undergrad at GWU (Go Colonials, go!), fell in love with the District and learned that there was life and civilization beyond New York City. She loves eating at white-tablecloth-three-forks-at-your-place-setting restaurants, but she’ll also be the first to suggest we scarf down some chili dogs at 2 am. Simply put, she loves all things food. You can also read about why she loves DC. Follow her on Twitter and email her at mbialecki (at)

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