One of life's great pleasures is a plate of homemade pasta with duck ragu' - it's everything winter comfort-food should be; nourishing, rich and warming. Far from being difficult or time-consuming, using duck breasts in place of whole duck shortens the cooking time and everything is ready in just over an hour-and-a-half. As with all recipes that are this simple, the secret lies in the careful sourcing of ingredients - ethically raised duck*; organic, free-range eggs; grassy, extra virgin olive oil; and the best tinned tomatoes from Naples.
By keeping the skin on and cooking the duck breasts gently in a bath of flavourful stock they remain tender and moist. I find that the finished dish is fattier with whole duck, but if this is what you have, cut it into six pieces and cook until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.
While nothing compares to making pasta with very fresh eggs from your own hens; if you happen have access to a few duck eggs, they make a beautiful, rich pasta that is perfect with this sauce. Potato gnocchi is also wonderful with duck ragu'.
Pappardelle with Duck Ragu'
500 g (2 - 3 large) duck breasts
1 tablespoon (20 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, flattened with the back of a knife
8 sage leaves
small handful Italian parsley
1/2 cup (60 ml) white wine (optional)
2 cups (500 ml) duck or chicken stock
400 g tin San Marzano tomatoes
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino (optional)
400 g '00' flour
4 organic, free-range eggs, at room temperature
Semolina for dusting
Preheat oven to 160C.
Trim duck breasts of a little of their excess fat and season them lightly with sea salt. Place skin-side down in a cold, heavy-based frying pan and brown on all sides over medium-high heat. Remove to a medium-sized French oven laying them skin-side up. Lower the heat and tip off most of the fat in the frying pan. Warm the olive oil and gently cook the onion and garlic until very soft (about 10 minutes). Add the herbs and wine, if using. Increase the heat to cook off the alcohol, then add the stock and tomatoes, breaking them up in the liquid. Bring everything to a boil and season lightly with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour the stock over the duck and check that the liquid level covers the flesh. Cover and cook in the oven for about 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile make the pasta. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the eggs. Breaking them up with a fork, combine them with the flour until it has absorbed the egg - noting you may not need all of the flour. Knead the dough for 8 - 10 minutes. Cover with plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes, before rolling as per the instructions of your pasta machine (for pappardelle, I stop at setting # 5 - 6 on a Marcato Atlas machine). Cut into to 2 - 2.5 cm ribbons and dust with semolina.
Remove the duck and discard the skin. Carefully shred the meat and set it aside. Boil the remaining sauce rapidly to reduce until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, return the meat and warm it through.
Cook the pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water until al dente (about two minutes). Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce making sure it is well-coated. Serve immediately in warmed bowls, with some grated Parmesan or Pecorino if you wish.
"Life is a combination of magic and pasta", Federico Fellini
*With special thanks to Luv-a-Duck for generously sending me the duck breasts, duck stock and French Oven for this recipe.