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Lamb and Fennel Bolognese

In Cookbooks, Italian, Lamb, Pasta, Recipe, Sauces / Condiments
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Here is another dish from one of my favorite cookbooks, Cooking with Shelburne Farms: Food and Stories from Vermont (Shelburne Farms Books) , written by my friend Melissa Pasanen, and the Inn's ex-chef, Rick Gencarelli.  I can't say enough good things about this dish, I could eat it every night.  It's funny, because by appearance it is clearly a bolognese, and texturally it is exactly what you'd expect from this classic Italian dish, but give it a quick taste and you'll find that this is a ragu unlike any you have ever had before.

What I really love about this dish is its nuance.  The slight gaminess of the lamb, the sweetness of the fennel, and the depth of flavor added by the rosemary and sage, build a familiar, yet distinctive sauce.  As with any meat dish that ends up a braise, stew, or sauce, the key to success with this dish is to brown the meat well before adding any other ingredients.  I can't stress enough how caramelizing the sugars in the meat, and creating a rich brown fond on the bottom of your pan, will propel this dish from simply good to great.  Whether you are cooking short ribs, a pot of chili, or a bolognese, you MUST brown your meat well in order to fully extract its flavor.

Melissa and Rick are careful to call for this technique in their recipe, and if you do it properly, you'll be amply rewarded with crunchy nuggets of browned lamb on which you'll build the rest of the dish.  You'll know you've done it right when you add the milk to the dish, and within a minute of scraping the fond from the bottom of the pan, your milk takes on a rich caramel color.....YUM!

We made this dish to bring up north skiing a few days ago, and there were plenty of things for the kids to do to help, from chopping the onion, carrot and fennel, to the browning of the meat.  Once everything is incorporated in the pot, about an hour of low heat, and you've got a delicious topping for some creamy polenta, gnocchi, or pasta.  Enjoy.


Lamb and Fennel Bolognese

from: Cooking with Shelburne Farms, by Melissa Pasanen and Rick Gencarelli (slightly adapted by yours truly)

(Print Friendly Recipe)


  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 sprig fresh sage
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 pound ground, lean lamb
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (and more to taste)
  • 1 medium onion cut into 1/4 inch dice (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and cut into 1/4 inch dice (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 (28 ounce can) crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste


  1. Tie the rosemary and sage sprigs together with kitchen twine and set aside.
  2. In a dutch oven, skillet, or saute pan, heat the oil to almost smoking over medium high heat, then add the lamb in golf ball sized chunks.  Cook without moving until the bottom of the meat has browned, season with a little of the salt, then flip the meat to brown the other side.  When both sides have browned, break the chunks in two and flip the raw sections down to brown on the bottom of the pan.
  3. When the meat has nicely browned, and there is a nice fond on the bottom of the pan, drain off any excess fat and add the vegetables, turn the heat down to medium.  Cook, stirring to further break apart the lamb, until the onion and fennel have softened a bit, 5-7 minutes.
  4. Add the milk and increase the heat back to medium-high, scraping the bottom of the pan well to loosen the fond.  Cook until the milk has largely evaporated, then add the wine and simmer for about ten minutes.  Add the tomatoes, herb bundle, and red pepper flakes, and bring the mix back to a simmer.
  5. Simmer VERY gently for about an hour, uncovered, and stirring occasionally.  After and hour, check for seasoning, remove the herb bundle and serve.
Serves 4-6 over 1 pound of pasta


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"Oui, Chef" exists as an extension of my efforts to teach my kids a few things about cooking, and how their food choices over time effect not only their own health, but that of our local food communities and our planet at large. By sharing some of our cooking experiences, I hope to inspire other families to start spending more time together in the kitchen, passing on established familial food traditions, and starting some new ones. Read more...
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