Tom Kerridge is literally everywhere these days. His jolly nature, passion for food and child acting past make him ideal prime time TV fodder. He is also a very good chef, and it’s this side of his work that offers inspiration for today’s dish.
In his book “The Hand and Flowers Cookbook”, Kerridge provides a set of detailed recipes that capture the pinnacle of gastro-pub cuisine served up at his Michelin starred boozer. It contains some of the pub classics, like battered fish, steak and half-chicken, as well as the best of contemporary British future-classics, using the finest produce this country can serve up.
The recipes are intricate - many contain at least six elements. You can tell Kerridge isn’t holding back for the home audience with some instructions advocating the use of the sous vide, dehydrator, blast chiller and pacojet. His oxtail-stuffed red mullet is presented as a full fish, using transglutaminase (aka meat glue) to stitch the fish’s bulging belly back together.
However, through ragù tinted spectacles, it’s his venison saddle “curry” that catches my eye. The dish brings together five elements to provide a kind of deconstructed Indian experience.
Kerridge claims venison carries the spices very well and uses turmeric, coriander seeds, star anise, cumin, curry powder, cayenne pepper, curry leaves and ground black pepper across the various elements of the dish.
The component recipe for venison ragù is relatively simple. Venison mince, salami milano and a rich venison stock combined with a pinch of cumin and cayenne pepper, is presented as a delicate dollop off to the side of the loin.
The ragù has the same basic balance as some of the Bolognan ragùs we’ve sampled previously. Minced meat with cured pork is so often the protein foundation and one we know will work perfectly with any pasta. On top of this I’ll be making a few simple additions to transform Kerridge’s ragù from sideshow to showstopper.
In order to let the meat do all the talking, I’ll be using l’Accademia’s composition of 50g each of onion, carrots and celery.
At the time of faithfully recreating l’Accademia’s 1982 recipe, I had no real understanding nor appreciation for the soffritto elements and what they can bring. I had regularly added to my bolognese creations a token onion, but never really questioned why.
The soffritto should add a mildly sweet and earthy edge to the ragù. A good soffritto will not dominate the dish. It should have onions but not taste oniony. The carrots, when slowly cooked, should bring a deep and minerally flavour. The celery adds a mildly herby tang with a pinch of pungency to excite the palate.
L’Accademia’s even split, by weight, of onion, carrots and celery is amongst the best. Throughout centuries of northern Italian sughi, chefs have had an aversion to adding herbs to a ragù. Being so starved of aromas, and then being provided a soffritto with relatively high celery content, makes one super-sensitive to the role of this humble vegetable in a ragù. Its importance cannot be overlooked.
A consequence of this specific three vegetable concoction is the contribution (or lack thereof) from the onion. Onions are heavy, and so 50gs equates to about a quarter of a medium onion. Given this dish will serve four, we’re only providing one sixteenth of an onion per dinner! It really is there as a subtle edge and a far cry from my onion and mince bolognese mixtures from yesteryear.
I decided to take the very un-Bolognan decision to add a clove of garlic to my soffritto. It is incredible that this decision can be considered heretic in northern Italian kitchens, given what many of us think we know about Italian cuisine.
This carefully measured vegetable mix will be gently fried in 50gs of butter.
Getting hold of salami milano in UK supermarkets is no real chore but you will most likely find it pre-sliced ready for antipasti. I don’t see any reason why this recipe couldn’t be followed using pre-sliced packs but you’d be creating quite a plastic packaging mountain.
I got a helping of the sausage-like, complete and encased variety which is modestly priced and available from Tesco. I was surprised how limited my highstreet options were. There’s plenty of choice if you’re looking for the Spanish and French equivalents of chorizo and saucisson but as a nation, we apparently associate salami milano with pre-sliced pizza toppings.
I’ll be finely slicing this sausage to the point of a coarse mince and expect the chunks of pork fat to render nicely.
The star of the dish is the venison. In the recipe introduction of The Hand and Flowers Cookbook, Kerridge describes his love for game and how there will always be at least one game dish on the menu, with the content dependent on the season.
Kerridge explains how many Brits have had bad experiences with game. The traditional practice of hanging and drying the meat until it is half rotting probably continues for those expecting this “rustic flavour”, but not in his pub. Kerridge’s meat starts with mainstream butchery, and the “gamey taste” of the meat is much more subtle than it could be.
Venison mince is available in Waitrose all year round, coming either from New Zealand or the UK depending on the season. I’d tried a venison mince ragù long before writing the bolognese story through Gary Usher’s take on the classic. The recipe describes this as a “gamey twist”, but I think this is doing venison a disservice.
If you make an authentic bolognese ragù to the letter of the 1982 l’Accademia instructions, you’ll be using a hard-to-find cartello di manzo cow diaphragm (aka thin skirt) in your preparation. The meat is mildly gamey and slightly offaly. My first taste reminded me of Usher’s venison ragù, so it is possibly fairer to describe most other ragùs as having a “beefy twist”.
Whatever your chosen yardstick of a good ragù, I’m expecting the venison mince to add the country rustic flavour I now associate with the Bolognan favourite.
I’ve opted for a sauce base of white wine, pork stock and a few squirts of tomato paste. The added acidity from the white wine will nicely complement the fat from the salami. I’m also matching Kerridge’s spice mix with a small pinch of cumin, cayenne and black pepper.
I’m not expecting the spice mix to pack a huge punch, but will take this ragù in a different direction than it would have left in the hands of our northern Italian friends.
If we’re going to break from the Bolognan norms then we may as well go all in. Introducing a hint of Indian influence allows me to indulge in one of my favourite ingredients - coriander!
After sampling so many ragùs, I’d created my own version of bolognese heaven with my spaghetti al ragù all’inglese. Controversially, at least for those in northern Italy, I’d topped my dish with finely sliced coriander.
I do believe my justification is sound. Coriander usually tops the richest and spiciest Indian curries or Mexican stews. Its fresh and mildly citrusy aroma is a nice micro-calibration to freshen up such strong flavours.
So why wouldn’t this make an ideal finish for a ragù?
This was an excellent ragù! The venison and salami made for an incredibly tasty flavour. The perfect mix of meat and animal fats, with the recognisably gamey taste from the venison carrying the gentle spice of the salami very well.
Having worked with venison before, I wasn’t overly surprised at how well it contributed. The use of salami milano, however, was virgin territory and added more to the ragù than I ever expected.
One major disappointment I have to overcome, with my deep and new found understanding of ragùs, is how important pancetta - the Italian cured pork - is to the Bolognan classic. It can’t be matched by any UK bacon equivalent but is an expensive and hard-to-find treat on our shores.
What impressed me most about the finely minced salami was having all of that porky goodness without any of the letdown I normally experience with British bacon. I can only assume there’s some similarities in the way pancetta and these reasonably priced salamis are prepared.
As predicted, the coriander added as much to the dish as the ragù it topped. It really is a wonderful addition to this, or any combination of meat and pasta. The clean tang it provides elevates the dish to the next level.
It is fair to say, however, that there were a couple of areas for slight improvement.
The spice mix was a little too subtle. Kerridge had prepared his ragù to be eaten as an undiluted accompaniment, whereas mine was watered down with sauce and spread thinly amongst the pasta strands. I’m often guilty of over spicing curries, but even seeing beyond my natural bias, I think more could have been warranted.
There was also a slight question mark over the venison. Although there was absolutely nothing wrong with the flavour, I was sure I could “feel” the mince. I’d recently had a good run of ragùs with full chunks of meat, either finely hand sliced or slowly cooked then broken apart. This was my first mince ragù in a long while and the texture felt a little too processed despite a two hour slow simmer.
All in all though, this was a great dish and I wholeheartedly thank Mr Kerridge for providing the inspiration!
The ragù can be refrigerated or frozen.
Ragù (serves 4)
- 300g venison mince (preferably 10% fat)
- 80g salami milano
- 50g butter
- 50g carrot (1 small carrot)
- 50g celery stalks (1 stick celery)
- 50g onion (¼ onion)
- 1 clove garlic
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 350ml dry white wine
- 100ml chicken or pork stock
- 1g black pepper
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ¼ teaspoon cayene
Pasta (serves 4)
- 320g linguine
- 32g salt
- 3 litres boiling water
- Finely slice the onion, carrot and celery and set aside.
- Mince the garlic and set aside.
- Slice the outer skin from the salami milano and discard. Finely slice the salami and chop repeatedly to the texture of a coarse mince.
- Fry the salami on a low heat until the fat from the pork renders, stiring regularly.
- When the fat has rendered and the pork has turned a dark red, add the 50g butter and combine with the pork.
- When the butter has melted, is evenly dispersed and is gently foaming, add the onion, carrot and celery.
- Fry the soffritto on a low-medium heat for 15-20 minutes, or until the ingredients have softened significantly.
- Add the garlic and continue to cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the venison mince and break down regularly with a wooden spoon or spatula as you incorporate into the soffritto. Cook for a further 10 minutes, stiring regularly.
- Add the spice mix to the ragù.
- Pour in the wine and stock and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until the sauce has reduced by two thirds.
- Stir in the tomato paste and reduce the heat to low. If you have a lid with an air vent, cover the ragù completely, otherwise leave the lid with a small gap for steam to escape.
- Cook the ragù for 2 hours on a very low simmer, stiring every so often. At the end of this time, the sauce will be reduced and a thin layer of fat will have risen to the top of the pan.
- Bring the water to the boil and add the salt.
- Cook the linguine for 8-9 minutes, or until al dente.
- Take a handful of coriander (leaves and stalks) and finely slice into very small sprinklings. Set aside.
- Drain the pasta, ensuring as much of the water has been lost as possible
- Transfer the ragù to the pan containing the linguine and stir to evenly coat the linguine with ragù.
- Ladle a serving of linguine per bowl, topping each serving with the remaining ragù.
- Sprinkle with coriander from 30cms away from each bowl to ensure an even distribution.