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Penne with Lamb Ragù and Mint

In various regions of Italy, especially around Rome and in Sicily, fresh mint is used as a flavoring for meat, vegetables and fish dishes. The mint most often used is a wild herb that has a sophisticated and mellow taste, unlike spearmint or peppermint, which can be too sharp. Blending spearmint with basil gives a flavor similar to this herb, known as nepitella in Italian. When shopping for mint for this recipe, pass over dark green, strongly scented peppermint in favor of milder, lighter green spearmint.

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole lamb shanks, each about 1 lb.
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 3 leeks, white portion only, cut into small dice
  • 1 carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 cup full-bodied dry red wine, such as Chianti
  • 1/2 cup light meat stock or chicken stock
  • 1 can (35 oz.) plum tomatoes, chopped, with juices
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 long strips orange zest
  • Small handful of fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus 3 sprigs
  • 12 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 lb. penne or cavatelli
  • 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions:

Preheat an oven to 350°F.

Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or heavy flameproof casserole dish over medium heat, warm the 1/4 cup olive oil. Add the lamb shanks and brown them well on all sides. Transfer the shanks to a plate.

Pour off the excess fat from the pan. Add the leeks and carrot and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute; do not let it brown. Return the shanks to the pan, pour the wine over them and cook until the wine is reduced by about half. Add the stock, tomatoes with their juices, bay leaf and orange zest. Bring to a boil, then cover the pan and transfer to the oven. Braise until the lamb is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Transfer the lamb to a cutting board and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Skim the fat from the surface of the sauce. Add the chopped mint and basil. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Generously salt the boiling water, add the pasta and cook until al dente, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain well. Put the pasta in a warmed large, shallow bowl. Add about 2 Tbs. of the cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and toss to combine. Pour on about three-fourths of the sauce and toss again. Garnish with the mint sprigs. Pass the remaining cheese at the table.

Slice the lamb thinly and arrange on a platter. Pour on the remaining sauce and serve as a second course. Serves 4.

Serving Tip: This dish is designed to be served in two courses, as a pasta course followed by a light meat course. Serve the second course with a green salad or vegetable.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Collection Series, Pasta, by Erica de Mane (Simon & Schuster, 2001).