Lamb Stuffed Zucchini

The last week of summer is a curious avalanche of light melancholy and nervous action. I’m caught between the post-vacation-slump of wanting to curl and laze and bake my mind in nothing, and the deep itch of my protestant work ethic demanding I Get. Things. Done. before school starts.

So I cautiously plan in small doses, and I soothe the anxious itch that rears up when I am “wasting” time by consuming novels in gulps, to make up for reading little during the rest of the summer. I’m struck by Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange, and just this morning I fell back down into the entrancing, haunted wonderland that is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, inspired in part by this suggested reading list for white Americans assembled by a group of black writers. When I saw Morrison’s perhaps most famous novel on the list, I was brought back to an interview she did with Stephen Colbert in which she describes looking through her book for the right page to autograph for a reader, telling him “I looked down and there were these sentences.” I needed to read those sentences again. I burrowed through the first fifty pages this morning and now that itch is to open the book again.

But I do have other obligations, and one of them is to the final, late summer push of my miraculous zucchini plant. It flourished in our absence, our friend who was on plant-watering duties taking home several swollen specimens, and offering another few to our neighbors, and then suddenly, with only two large, hidden bats remaining, took a gasping breath and shuddered to a… pause? A stop? I think it will produce a few more, maybe, but its time seems limited.

That being the case, there was little time to waste in sharing my biggest zucchini triumph of the summer with you, in case you, too, have a few dark green baseball bats you aren’t sure how to consume.

Rather than an accompaniment or a burying-ground, this recipe uses the zucchini as a vessel. Ground lamb, seared and spiced and liberally tossed with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, chick peas, preserved lemon, feta crumbles, and as much grassy, bright dill as you can handle, gets piled into the scraped-out cavity of the monstrous squash. A mound of oiled breadcrumbs on top is not a necessity, but what a luxury.

This may seem like a lot of ingredients, but they really play together well. Lamb with dill is obviously a winner, but if you haven’t tried lamb with golden raisins, I insist that you make it a priority – they add a perfect sweetness and here, soak up some of the fat from the meat so they are juicy and plump in the final product. The feta and preserved lemon each contribute a nice brininess – I wouldn’t forgo either, though if you don’t have preserved lemon (and are unwilling to make it yourself), plenty of zest might fill in reasonably well. I initially added chick peas as a way of stretching the lamb, and you certainly don’t need them, but they provide a nice lightness of their own and, I think, eradicate any need for a side of starch. Though we ate ours overflowing segments with garlic-rubbed toast and were quite happy.

I like to think this filling has a life of its own beyond zucchini, which is what makes it so nice. A well-hollowed eggplant would work nicely as well, maybe a cored bell pepper, and as the days shorten and hopefully cool, a carefully carved butternut or kabocha squash. Or you could just ignore the vegetables entirely and use the lamb mixture (maybe minus the chick peas) as a loose filling for a take on stuffed shells, or ravioli, or just tossed gently with rigatoni and a few glugs of sauce.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini
Serves 6-8 with filling left over
About an hour
1 very large zucchini squash
a maximum of ½ cup olive oil (you probably will not use all of it)
salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup pine nuts
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
2-3 tablespoons finely diced preserved lemon
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill (you could sub with an equal amount of mint or about half as much oregano, if you don’t like dill)
4 ounces crumbled feta
¾-1 cup panko bread crumbs

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a large baking tray with aluminum foil. Split the zucchini in half lengthwise so you have two long, rounded planks with seeds exposed. Scrape out the seeds and some of the interior flesh with a metal spoon. Discard the scrapings and place the remaining “boats” on the baking tray. Lightly coat them with olive oil before seasoning liberally with salt and pepper. When the oven is preheated, put in the zucchini-laden baking tray and let them roast about 20 minutes while you start the filling. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • To make the filling, first heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium pan and add the pine nuts. Toast over medium heat, stirring and checking often, until they are nicely golden. Be careful; they burn quickly. When toasted to your liking, set them aside.
  • In the same pan, still on medium heat, add a little bit more oil and then your ground lamb. Use a flat-sided wooden spoon, if you have one, to break it up, then sprinkle over the allspice, cayenne pepper, and a bit of salt to season. Let it cook, stirring and turning and continuing to break up large chunks, until no longer pink in the center.
  • When the lamb is just cooked through, stir in the chick peas and the golden raisins, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let it go another five minutes. This lets the new additions pick up some flavor. After five minutes, remove from heat and drain off any excess fat.
  • To the now-cooked lamb, add the toasted pine nuts, the preserved lemon, the dill, and the feta, stirring well to combine everything. Taste for seasoning and add salt and more cayenne pepper, if needed. When you are satisfied with the flavor, scoop the filling into the empty, partially-cooked zucchini halves. I like to mound it up a bit. It will be crumbly because there is no binder.
  • In a small bowl, toss the panko bread crumbs with enough olive oil to coat them well. Pack spoonfuls on top of the lamb filling and exposed zucchini flesh.
  • Carefully place the laden tray back into the oven, turn the temperature down to 375F, and roast for 25-35 minutes, until the panko is deeply bronzed and the flesh of the zucchini pierces easily with a fork.
  • Let cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving large segments.

 

Stone fruit and herb sangria

Summer is here. All that stands between me and falling deeply, fully, thankfully into it is one class of final essays and a little bit of paperwork. And then! It’s all soaking up sun and aimless wandering on the beach and all the vacation I can stomach. No, wait, that’s someone else’s life. For me it’s gardening and finalizing an article and planning a class and, well, okay, vacationing. But more on that later…

In celebration of the summer hanging just out of reach, I thought a nice little beverage might fit the bill. The inspiration for this one came a couple of Sundays ago, as we had lunch with M., a friend from graduate school who happened to be in town for an extended birthday voyage. We decided the occasion merited drinks with lunch, and I had a sangria that, oddly, is NOT the direct inspiration of this one. Rather, as we clinked forks and glasses, M. told me about her favorite way of making the drink in question, which involved stone fruit and herbs – her preference is sage; here I’ve used thyme as I tend to find sage a mite strong, but you could easily do both. This drink is easy to play with.

Typically sangria involves wine, fruit, and something a touch stronger to fortify it like brandy or liqueur. It gets lightly sweetened, and the fruit is allowed to steep a while to soak up some of the liquid. M. replaces the typical apples and oranges with stone fruit, and rather than the usual simple syrup she uses a spoon or two of apricot preserves, which very cleverly reinforces the stone fruit flavor while sweetening the drink.

Between the preserves and the fruit pieces, which break down a little bit as they sit in the wine, this isn’t a crystal clear brew. But it is crystal clear that it deserves to be drunk. It is bright and light – a perfect aperitif – and would pair well with almost any snack you can think of: flatbread, crostini, savory cheeses, maybe some cold salmon, and definitely the wine-soaked fruit at the bottom of your glass. As my sister noted when I sent her a preview photo, “Looks delightful. A+ Would drink.” Some people like to top up their sangria with sparkling water or lemonade. I do not, but you can if you want to. This is, after all, your summer.

* a note for serving: I used a champagne glass here for presentation purposes and loved the look of it, but once loaded with fruit, it held an unsatisfying quantity of actual drink. I’d suggest a wine glass or even a tumbler. Additionally, while the slices of peach looked very pretty, smaller chunks are a little easier to navigate both while pouring and in the glass itself.

 

Stone Fruit and Herb Sangria
I wouldn’t dare estimate how many people you like to serve out of one bottle of white wine…
At least 2½ hours (mostly time chilling), but could be prepared as much as a day in advance
750ml bottle crisp white wine (I used a vinho verde from Portugal, which was slightly effervescent)
2 tablespoons peach or apricot preserves
3-4 large sprigs of thyme or sage
3 ripe peaches or other stone fruit, pitted but not skinned, cut into thin slices or chunks as you desire
½ a lemon, thinly sliced or cut into chunks
optional: ¼ cup orange liqueur or limoncello
ice plus extra herb sprigs to serve
sparkling water or lemonade to serve, if desired

 

  • In a small pot, combine the preserves with about ¼ cup of the wine and the thyme or sage. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the preserves melt down and emulsify, so to speak, into the wine.
  • While this mixture is simmering, put the peaches and lemons into a large pitcher or punch bowl, then add the hot wine and preserves mixture, including the herb sprigs. Add the remaining wine and the liqueur, if using.
  • Refrigerate until cold; at least two hours is enough, but overnight is even better to let flavors mingle.
  • Serve over ice, being sure to get some of the fruit into your glass. Add an extra sprig of thyme or sage if desired, and top up with sparkling water or lemonade if that’s your thing.

Chopped Challenge #4: Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: sourdough bread, buttermilk, mayonnaise, ginger

Unlike other Chopped Challenges N. has issued me, this one emerged Athena-like: fully formed and near immediately (though admittedly without the headache). Though the most commonly recognized form of gazpacho is tomato-based, as I offered to you last fall, a green version, usually blended with bread for viscosity and sometimes with some kind of acidic dairy product (more typically yogurt), is also reasonably well known. Thus two of my requisite ingredients were already attended to.

Though the green iteration of this cold soup can include anything from tomatillos to green bell peppers, I decided on cucumbers for the crisp, liquid coolness, and grapes for a sweet touch that I thought would go well with the ginger. To keep things feeling savory, a few scallions made their way into the mix, as well as a handful of parsley for an herbaceous flavor and a more brilliant green color.

As for the mayonnaise, a traditional gazpacho incorporates generous glugs of olive oil, and what else is mayonnaise if not another fat source, already emulsified in itself? The few tablespoons I decided to allow in the soup didn’t feel like adequate representation of the ingredient, so I sliced up the other half of the sourdough batard, slicked it with a thin layer of mayo, and toasted it under the broiler for a warm, crunchy accompaniment to provide contrast. For aesthetic value and interest, as you can see, I dolloped in a touch of yogurt and a few halved grapes just before serving.

We found this tasty, and I think it would be an incredibly refreshing first offering at an outdoor gathering, particularly fun served in tall shot glasses (perhaps without the garnish) for cool, quick sipping. It wasn’t our absolute favorite, though I must admit its flavor improved given a night in the fridge to let the flavors intensify. Straight out of the blender it will taste quite sweet, but after the requisite minimum of two hours’ chill time, it edges back toward the savory side as the cucumber asserts itself. We found the buttermilk needed a touch of help from some vinegar for the right tang, and the ginger in my version was surprisingly mild, so I’m offering a range in my ingredient list below; aim high if you want a more assertively spiced soup.

Green Gazpacho “Shooters” with Mayonnaise Toasts
Serves 6 as an appetizer
2½ hours (includes chilling time)
For gazpacho:
1 cup crumbled or torn sourdough bread
1 cup buttermilk
3 small seedless cucumbers (I like the Persian variety)
1 cup seedless green grapes
3-4 scallions, white and pale green parts
⅓ cup parsley leaves and stems, or a combination of parsley and mint
1-2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
For toasts:
Thin slices of sourdough
Mayonnaise to spread
To serve:
Dollops of yogurt, optional
A few additional green grapes, halved, optional
Snipped chives, or individual parsley and/or mint leaves, optional

 

  • To make the gazpacho, combine the torn or crumbled sourdough and the buttermilk in a bowl and let sit 10-20 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the cucumbers and scallions into rough chunks and add to a blender with the grapes, parsley (or parsley and mint), ginger, mayonnaise, and vinegar. After the bread and buttermilk have soaked, add this as well and blend until smooth. Return to the bowl (or just keep it in the blender, if you prefer) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight for more intense flavor.
  • When you are ready to serve, preheat your broiler and spread the slices of sourdough with a very thin layer of mayonnaise, being careful to get it all the way to the edges (otherwise burning results, as you can see from a few of mine). Set the toasts in a single layer on a broiler pan or other oven-safe tray and broil just until they are lightly browned and just starting to become crisp.
  • Pour or ladle the gazpacho into small bowls or glasses, garnish with a dollop of yogurt, a leaf or two of complementary herbs, or a few fresh grape halves, and serve with the toasts on the side.

Miso Butter Broiled Shiitakes

It has been a busy couple of months. I’m getting used to the lack of cooking companion in my doorway, watching intently as food moves from countertop to stove (and sometimes to the floor – much consternation resulted!), and I’m slowly regaining that urge to putter around and experiment in the kitchen. I didn’t know how much this part of my life would be impacted by the absence of a big, golden dog.

But anyway, in addition to that change, we’ve also been busy planning our summer (more on that soon…), and working through the semester, and at the end of April, N. crossed a huge item off his bucket list as he successfully finished the Eugene Marathon! Not only was this a major accomplishment for him; it also provided the inspiration for this post. During that weekend, we stayed with our friends S. and M., and as part of a Friday evening happy hour spread, S. made these mushroom caps, smeared with a mixture of miso paste and butter, broiled until charcoal black but so savory and deep and perfect we could barely keep our fingers away long enough to let them cool. They were a restaurant recreation of hers, from an appetizer at a local izakaya, and I haven’t stopped thinking about them since. On a long, slow Saturday, punctuated by errands and an intense summer travel planning session, they seemed the right late-afternoon accompaniment to a glass of pinot noir.

The ingredient list here is unusually short, for me: shiitake mushrooms, miso, butter. Maybe a shower of chives, if you want a little color and hint of onion-y freshness on top. The mushrooms are stemmed, the miso and butter are whisked or smeared or stirred together, the mixture gets liberally frosted onto the gills of the shiitakes, and into the broiler they go. 5-10 minutes later, you are dispensing small, homely saucers approximately the temperature of the molten center of the earth, but so incredibly savory and chewy and crusty and almost too salty in just the right way, that if you are anything like me, you will already have eaten a few in the kitchen before anyone else knew they were ready.

When you broil miso and butter together, some of the intense mixture seeps down into the mushroom as it softens and barely cooks through, but much of it remains trapped in the enclosing folds of the cap, where the butter bubbles and the miso takes on an appealing char not unlike the crusty exterior of a grilled steak.

The trickiest part of the whole procedure is managing your broiler. You want the mushrooms to cook, but you also want the deep browning on top, and since every broiler is so different, I’ve included below only the most basic of instructions. Yours might do best on low, or on high, and it might take as few as four or as many as ten minutes for satisfactory results. In any case, I’d say to let them go a tiny bit longer than you think you need to, because I promise it isn’t burning; it’s just getting better.

Miso Butter Broiled Shiitakes
10-15 minutes, depending on your broiler
For 8 shiitake caps:
8 large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
2 tablespoons red miso paste (or use white for a less intense miso flavor)
4-5 tablespoons softened (not melted) unsalted butter
sprinkle of chives to garnish, optional

 

  • Preheat your broiler. I set mine to low with the rack closest to the broiler element. Broilers are all so different, so you might need to experiment a bit.
  • In a small bowl, combine the miso paste and softened butter with a flexible rubber spatula. Mix and smash and stir until the butter and miso are homogenized.
  • Using the same spatula, fill each cap with the miso and butter mixture. Depending on the shape of your shiitakes, you might have more or less room to fill. Mine were quite roomy and I used almost all of the mixture. If yours are small or flattish, you will probably have miso butter left over. May I suggest an amazing spread for avocado toast?
  • Arrange the filled mushroom caps evenly, with space in between, on a broiler-safe tray or pan. Broil until the miso and butter mixture is bubbly and very, very dark – it will look a little burned – and the mushroom caps have softened and flattened a bit. Again, broilers are so different. On low, mine took about 7 minutes. Play with yours and judge accordingly.
  • Remove from the oven and let sit 1-2 minutes, until they are no longer the temperature of fresh lava. Sprinkle with chives if desired, scoop onto a decorative plate, and consume immediately.

Chopped Challenge #3: Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline

Course: dessert

Ingredients: Hawaiian rolls, chocolate syrup, bourbon, sea salt.

For my first foray into dessert, N. gave me a list of ingredients that, at least in two cases, were deviously chosen with ulterior motives. As he’s currently training for a marathon (twenty-six miles and change! My brain can’t even fathom how long that is!), he is consistently hungry, and always looking for protein-laden snacks. He goes through chicken thighs, hard-boiled eggs, and toasted tempeh at alarming rates. Recently, he decided chocolate milk would be a fantastic mid-afternoon pick-me-up indulgence, and thus the chocolate syrup was assigned. As for the Hawaiian sweet rolls, he let me know in no uncertain terms that the leftovers would be “great for pulled pork!” so, of course, that was also added to our menu for the week…

I have to admit that this quartet stumped me for a while, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. In fact, as soon as N. handed me the post-it note on which he’d written his choices, I had an answer in mind: this screamed bread pudding. The rolls could be toasted, and would be perfect for absorbing a bourbon-spiked custard mixture. The chocolate would make it extra indulgent, and the sea salt could get sprinkled on top, as with my favorite cookies, for a briny unexpected crunch.

But I couldn’t make bread pudding. I couldn’t. As easy as it would be, and as well as the ingredients lent themselves to it, doing so would make me a hypocrite. As N. (or anyone who has had the misfortune to watch the show with me) can attest, bread pudding is one of the dessert choices contestants make that instantly evokes bellows of protest from me. “DON’T MAKE BREAD PUDDING!” I yell. “YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME!” And they usually don’t! Their custards don’t set, their bread isn’t properly soaked, and they usually wind up with runny undercooked messes. I say other things about their choices too, which are even less nice. But we don’t have to talk about that here.

So even though I am not restricting myself to a time frame, I just don’t think I can get away with making bread pudding – not with as rude as I’ve been to the television about it. Neither can I make French toast, nor panna cotta, nor crepes (though this last one is less about not having enough time, and more about me explaining, tiredly, over and over, as if they can hear me, that “of COURSE your first couple are going to be disasters; that’s what crepes DO! Try again!). I had to go with something I don’t, from the safety and anonymity of my living room, routinely take contestants to task for, as natural as the choice might be.

I’m not sure what made me come around to ice cream, but from that point I realized the small size of the Hawaiian rolls might make the dessert a play on sliders. The scoop of ice cream, spiked with bourbon and browned with chocolate, would stand in for the burger patty. There would need to be something bright and acidic to break up the richness, so smashed raspberries might make a fun alternative for a slice or tomato or a slick of ketchup.

As for the sea salt, the only thing I could think of was salted caramel, and this dessert didn’t really need another creamy, drippy, sweet component. I was stumped until I remembered an episode of The Great British Baking Show in which the contestants made hazelnut dacquoise, an elevated meringue cake sweetened by praline, essentially toasted hazelnuts encased in hard caramel that had been reduced to a powder. That would be the perfect place to put the salt and another glug or two of the bourbon, and the powder could be rolled around the edges of the ice cream, like a more sophisticated sprinkle lining to an ice cream sandwich.

So here’s how it went: the ice cream was without question the best component. I’m using here a version of a recipe I’ve played with before – a no-churn, egg-free miracle from Nigella Lawson that, sure, takes about six hours to freeze up and requires one specialty ingredient, but hey, with chocolate and bourbon in there, and since I’ve always been able to find that specialty item at Whole Foods, was no big deal, really. I’d just make the ice cream the day before.

The praline was delicious and surprisingly successful. As I was making the caramel, using bourbon rater than water to help the sugar dissolve, things start to crystallize a bit, but rather than dumping the mess out and starting again, I added about a tablespoon of water, stirred it up, and magically the crystals dissolved and a gorgeous caramel the color of maple syrup bubbled its way into being. With no added dairy, it solidified into a sheet of colored glass around the hazelnuts, and the powder turned out to be equally delightful paired with the ice cream as it was an indulgent sweetener for oatmeal a morning or two later.

As for the Hawaiian rolls, while they made a reasonable vehicle for getting the other ingredients to our anxious mouths, I couldn’t help but feel as though they weren’t really needed. This could just as easily have been an ice cream sundae: smooth, luscious scoops dollops with smashed raspberries, generously sprinkled with praline, then topped with freshly whipped cream. And the rolls… well, since they had to be included, perhaps I could have toasted them, ground them up, and mixed them into the praline.

A project for another month, perhaps. Regardless, my judge says I am “on to the next round,” and now that I’ve done one of each course, April’s challenge is unknown. N. might give me an entrée, or an appetizer, or he might drop another dessert in my lap, considering he’s got twenty-six miles to run and a continually growling void in place of a stomach. We’ll just have to wait and see…

 

Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline
Ice cream adapted from Nigella Lawson
At least 6½ hours, counting time for ice cream to chill and harden
Makes generous 1 pint ice cream and approx. 1 cup praline
For bourbon chocolate ice cream:
⅔ cups sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
6 ounces double cream (I found mine at Whole Foods)
2 tablespoons bourbon
¼ cup chocolate syrup
For spiked, salted praline:
¾ cup whole hazelnuts
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1-2 tablespoons water, if needed
¾ teaspoon sea salt
For serving:
Split Hawaiian sweet rolls, one per person
1 pint raspberries (or fewer, depending on how many are enjoying), smashed with a fork (add a sprinkle of sugar if you want, but the rest of the dessert is pretty sweet)
Additional chocolate syrup, if desired, to decorate the plate

 

  • To make the ice cream, add sweetened condensed milk, whipping cream, double cream, 2 tablespoons bourbon, and ¼ cup chocolate syrup to the bowl of a stand mixer. You could do this in a regular mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer too.
  • Using the whisk attachment (or regular beaters), whip on medium speed until soft peaks form. For me, this took only 3-4 minutes. It may take more or less time for you depending on the speed of your mixer.
  • Using a rubber spatula, scrape the fluffy clouds into a freezer friendly container – I used a clean empty Greek yogurt tub – and freeze for at least 6 hours to let the mixture harden up.
  • While the ice cream chills, make the praline. Roast the ¾ cup of hazelnuts 10-12 minutes in a 350F oven, until they are slightly darker in color and have begun to release their oils. If you wish, dump them into a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to help remove their skins.
  • When the hazelnuts are roasted (and skinned, if desired), stir together the granulated sugar and the bourbon in a small pan or skillet. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is the color of dark maple syrup and almost smoking. If the mixture seems to seize up and crystalize while the sugar is dissolving, stir 1-2 tablespoons water. I found this eliminated the crystals handily.
  • Remove from heat, stir in the sea salt and the hazelnuts, then spread onto a piece of parchment paper and let cool for at least 1 hour.
  • Break up the solidified mixture into smaller pieces and whiz them into a powder in a food processor. Don’t go too far, though; since the nuts contain fat, if you continue processing eventually the powder will turn into a paste.
  • When the ice cream is set and the praline is ready, assemble your “sliders”: place a scoop of ice cream on the bottom of one of the split Hawaiian rolls. Sprinkle it generously with praline on all sides. Spread a dollop of smashed raspberries on the top half of your split Hawaiian roll, then smash together over the ice cream. If you wish, decorate the plate with additional chocolate syrup and maybe some whole raspberries, and eat immediately.

Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.

How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.

No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.

Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.

This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?

Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Serves 6-8
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired

 

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
  • Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
  • While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
  • As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
  • When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
  • In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
  • If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.