Hare ragu – how to cook your way back from disaster, helped by Anna del Conte

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Until last week I’d never cooked a hare, never eaten one, and only ever seen one darting off through a watercress bed in Hampshire.  And then I get hold of four legs, and set about planning. And almost as soon as I get my hare, I read that their numbers are collapsing, possibly catastrophically.  So with the knowledge that I’m about the serve up an unfortunate statistic in this collapse, my conscience demands that I do the beast justice.

I think I’ve found a recipe that sounds perfect.  The weather has turned autumnal, it’s stormy and the rain is flattening what’s left of the veg plot.  This calls for something part broiled/part roasted, something nutty (toasted hazelnuts in this case), root veg and herby.  Throw in a slug of something red and it’s going to be great,  I double check the cooking times, cover the whole thing in a space-age foil wrap to keep in the moisture and the flavour, and wait.  Kale is prepped ready for a short steam and a fry off in butter.  Table is laid. Fire is lit.

I ballsed it up.

Out of the cosseted roasting tin emerge four rigour-mortised, dirty pink admonitions to my cooking pride. You can’t even cut them, they’re so tough you could make a pair of shoes.  My hare died for no purpose, and it’s my fault.

So, here I am, enabler of the hare’s decline, with three choices: bin, dogs, or an intervention from St Lorenzo – patron saint of cooks

Bin would be criminal; dogs, best chums of mine they may be, do not get fed good (if badly cooked) game.  So prayer it is!

I had an idea to try an bring some life back to my hare by making them into a ragu – the Italian meat sauce, not the tomato ketchup sauce out of jars.  This rescue mission needed time, so I started off using the legs, the veg and the nuts to make a stock, cooking them on the lowest of simmers for several hours, and then leaving it overnight to infuse while cooling.

The next day, I scooped out the legs and the nuts, to strip the meat from the bones, which flaked and shredded as I did so.  By the time I’d finished cleaning them, I’d garnered an overflowing bowl of dark, dark leg meat that was no longer shoe leather, and was on its way to being a different, but better dish than the one I’d originally planned.

Then I finely chopped up onion, celery and garlic and sautéed them off slowly, until soft, but without colouring them.  Note, there are no carrots. I’d run out. The Sicilian hit the roof when he discovered me making ragù without carrots. My defence; “I had no carrots’, was met with ‘then don’t make ragù!’ I carried on regardless and added a jar of the allotment passata (see last week’s post about the tomato glut), another glass of red and a bay leaf and cooked this down further for ten minutes.  And then I added in the hare meat and a splash of red wine vinegar for added sharpness (a trick the Sicilian taught me), checked the seasoning and let it gently carry on cooking whilst I got the pasta ready.

Pappardelle is my favourite – I could lie and write prosaically about starchiness and generosity, but the truth is that it’s the one pasta that forgives my non-Italianess, that doesn’t make me look like a toddler with a fork trying .  To over egg my pasta, I cooked it in the stock that had been created by poaching the hare’s legs for all those hours.  Once sauce and pasta were combined I stirred in some crumbled hazelnuts.

Hare ragu and pappardelle with crumbled hazelnuts – it was outstanding, a proper snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  It’s gamey of course, and I want to say it’s ironey, but not in a grilled liver kind of a way.  And whilst I may not treat my dogs to good game, I did let them lick the plates (don’t judge me). Cooking pride restored.

And then the next day, I’m flicking through Anna del Conte – and there it is.  A better, and authentic version of my recipe.  Including the pappardelle and the red wine, but without the tomato sauce.  Whilst it would be wonderful to think that this home cook had independently come up with a similar recipe as his food hero, I think the reality is that things stick, especially when written well.  The more you cook and the more you read; the better you become.  And whilst I may never be Italian and may never master the art of eating spaghetti neatly, it turns out I’ve learnt enough along the way to rescue, at least, a cremated hare.

So, thank you Anna del Conte for giving me the wherewithal to rescue my hare from my own incompetence, once again, you have saved the day in my kitchen.  Her recipe is in her Italian Kitchen book, my half remembered version of it is here.

Anna del Conte inspired Pappardelle with Hare.  

50g butter

50g streaky bacon (smoked)

1 onion (finely chopped)

1 carrot (finely chopped, and appeasing resident strict Sicilians)

1 stick of celery (finely chopped)

Clove of crushed garlic

Bay leaf

300ml passata

200ml good stock (chicken or vegetable)

4 hare legs

Glass of red wine

Splash of red wine vinegar.

400g dried pappardelle

Salt and pepper

50g Toasted hazelnuts 

I’ve omitted the section on nearly ruining your hare legs (that bit is entirely optional)

Melt the butter and fry the chopped bacon until it begins to colour.

Add the chopped onion, celery and garlic, and lower the heat.

Cook until the vegetables are soft, but not coloured and then add the hare legs, browning them on both sides.

Turn up the heat and throw in the red wine to deglaze the pan.

Add the bayleaf and the passata and some of the stock, and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes to an hour. Keep an eye on it and if it starts getting to thick and at risk of drying out, add a ladle of stock.

When the meat falls easily for the bone, remove the legs and strip them, before returning the meat to the tomato sauce (chopping up any larger pieces).  Add your vinegar and seasoning and cook for five minutes longer.  You’re aiming for a thick, dark sauce that won’t turn your pappardelle watery.

When you’re ready, cook your pasta in ferociously salted water in the biggest pan you have, for 5-6 minutes.  No longer, as it’ll keep cooking when you mix it with the ragu.  

Drain, and return to the pan, stirring in your hare ragu until the pappardelle is evenly coated.

Sprinkle over the hazelnuts (you can rub the skins off them by rolling them in a tea towel when they’re still hot from a five minute roasting in the oven)

Serve immediately and eat quickly if you’re expecting competition for seconds

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