I think it is finally safe to say that spring has arrived, even in Boston. Which means we've come to a very special time of the year. No, I'm not referring to asparagus season. I don't mean artichoke season, either. And while I usually go on a quest for English peas for risi e bisi right around this time, I'm not talking about that, either. You see, before I revel any of this spring produce, there remains one minor, nagging detail.
I need to clear out my freezer.
It's not completely out of control (it's a small freezer), but it did get quite full over the winter. Multiple cartons of ice-cream. Various Ziploc freezer bags full of herbs and root vegetables for stock. A lot of Tupperware and yogurt containers that I really should have been better about labelling.
It's mostly that last group that has been targeted for cleaning-out. Ice-cream is ice-cream, and if necessary, its age may be estimated by the quantity of ice rime on its surface, but a container of dark liquid could be anything from meat stock to crazy water, and who knows how long it's been there?
After some puzzling (and, where necessary, taste-testing), the inventory came out to beef stock, duck stock, watermelon puree, shepherd's pie, chicken pot pie, and braised duck legs.
The pies have been moved to the fridge, and they'll become lunch over the next few days. The watermelon puree has been tossed, because I can't remember how it got there in the first place. The beef stock will become the base for a vegetable soup.
The leftover braised duck legs and duck stock, however, were a little more challenging. The braised duck legs were from an experiment: mulled-wine braised duck with celery root puree. The outcome wasn't bad, but it was far from great. (The best part of the dish was the celery root puree.) The duck stock came from the carcass of the duck I roasted for Novel Food a few months back, and while it seemed a good idea to make it at the time, it came out a little too strong to be a good soup base.
I ended up shredding the duck legs and throwing them in a pan with onion, celery, carrot, and some fresh herbs. The duck stock went in too, followed by a can of tomato paste, and after a long, slow simmer, I had duck ragù.
A thick meat ragù pairs perfectly well with a wide pasta like pappardelle, but I decided I wanted to make a pasta I'd read about and wanted to try for its name alone: strozzapreti.
Strozzapreti are a kind of rolled pasta from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, and their name translates literally as "priest-choker." As you'd expect of such a colorful name, there are multiple stories surrounding its origin: some say that it comes directly from a greedy priest who ate too quickly and choked himself to death, and others say that it has to do with the fact that the pieces of pasta are "choked" to produce their twisted shape.
The explanation I like best, however, is that when the housewives of Emilia-Romagna had the village priests over for dinner, they would make these thick, chewy ropes of pasta for the first course, so that the priests' appetites would be "choked" and they wouldn't eat much of the expensive meat course that followed.
I didn't prepare a meat course to follow my strozzapreti, but I can tell you that they're quite filling. Paired with duck ragù, they were a satisfying lunch, and an excellent reward for getting my freezer clean.
Now that that's out of the way, where can I find fresh English peas in Boston? There's risi e bisi calling my name...
Strozzapreti with Duck Ragù
This dish works just fine with pappardelle if you’re not in the mood to roll strozzapreti. Also, if you’re not making this with leftover duck, you’ll probably want to spread the process out over a few days.
(Serves one, with leftovers. Both the finished sauce and the uncooked pasta will freeze.)
First, the duck. If you have leftover duck, you can skip this part and get straight to either the sauce or the pasta. If you’re starting from scratch, read on.
Preheat the oven to 300F.
Take three duck legs, give them a quick rinse, and pat them dry. Prick them all over with a skewer or a sharp knife.
Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot with lid over low heat. Arrange the duck legs in the pan, skin side down. Cook until the duck legs start to release their fat, about five minutes, then flip them over and give the other side another five minutes. Pour off the fat (save it for cooking potatoes), prick the duck legs again, and give them another five minutes. Repeat this process, draining off the fat, until the duck legs are a nice rich golden brown all over. Set the duck legs aside.
In the same pot, cook two finely sliced onions (or four finely sliced shallots) until caramelized. Pour in two cups of cheap red wine, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom, and throw in a teaspoon of mulling spice (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel.)
Bring this mixture to a simmer, and slide the duck legs in. (Add a little water if they’re not fully covered.) Once you no longer smell alcohol fumes when you stick your head over the pot, put the lid on and move the pot to the oven. Leave it there for at least an hour and a half.
Once the hour and a half have passed, remove the pot from the oven. Carefully lift out the duck legs – they shouldn’t be falling apart, but the meat should come easily off the bones. Set the duck legs aside. Reserve a half-cup of the braising liquid (or whatever’s left, if you have less than a half-cup), being careful to strain out the mulling spices. The duck and the braising liquid can be frozen at this point.
To make the sauce, heat a little olive oil or duck fat in a heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Add one finely chopped onion, four finely diced celery ribs, and three finely diced carrots. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent. Throw in a few sprigs of thyme and a few whole leaves of sage; stir until they release their aromas.
Remove the meat from the duck legs and break it into smallish pieces. Add them to the pan. Add your reserved duck-braising liquid (or a splash of red wine, if you’re doing this with leftover duck.) Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Add either a sixteen-ounce can of tomato puree, or a six-ounce can of tomato paste plus two or three cups of duck stock to the pan. Stir the mixture until it is smooth, and keep it at a low, steady simmer for at least an hour and a half.
Once the contents of the pan are a thick, aromatic sauce, turn off the heat. Salt to taste. Fish out the thyme stems and sage leaves. The sauce may be left to cool, then transferred to containers and frozen.
To make the pasta dough, it’s the standard recipe: two cups of flour with a well in the middle, add four or five egg yolks, a glug of olive oil, and water as necessary. Stir until it comes together, then knead until smooth and elastic. (Detailed instructions here.) Allow to rest for at least an hour in the fridge before rolling.
To make strozzapreti, start by rolling and cutting your pasta dough into lengths a little wider than fettuccine. (Or just cut them into fettuccine, if your pasta machine is a basic model like mine.) Cut these lengths into short strands, about double the width of your palm.
Pick up one strand and double it over. Place it between the palms of your hands and roll, applying firm pressure, to produce a twisted rope of pasta. Keep going. Your first few might look a little odd, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. Repeat this process until you have twisted lengths of pasta laid out on all available surfaces. (You can lay the strozzapreti out on baking trays and freeze them at this point, if you’re not going to cook all of the pasta in one go.)
To put it all together, start by having your duck ragù warm (or warmed up) over low heat in a pan big enough to hold however much pasta you’re cooking.
Set a big pot of salted water on to boil. Once it hits a rolling boil, drop in your pasta. Cook for six to seven minutes (add a few extra minutes if frozen), then drain and add to the pan with the duck duck ragù. Toss to coat; cook, stirring occasionally, for another minute or two.
Turn off the heat. Ladle up the pasta in big bowls (a little finely-chopped flat-leafed parsley is a nice finishing touch.) Serve immediately.