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Spicy Lamb Ragu with Fennel and Olives

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

For whatever reason, we have never been a big "lamb" family. I didn't eat a lot of lamb growing up (my parents aren't fans) and my husband doesn't make special requests for it so it's never been a go-to ingredient for me. However, I'm trying to branch out of my culinary comfort zone this year and cook with ingredients that are less familiar and have realized that LAMB IS DELICIOUS! While it's flavor is distinctive, lamb's mild gaminess is not offensive to me. It's earthy richness makes for one delicious ragu! If you are not a lamb person and aren't willing to give it a try, just substitute with ground beef- I'd select some with an 80% fat content to imitate the same richness of the lamb (ground chuck, for instance). Although lamb is assertive in taste, it can stand up to some bold flavors! This ragu is amped up with anchovy and tomato paste, rosemary, a Parmesan rind, olives and Calabrian chili peppers- layers of complex and interesting flavors are what make for a great sauce! If you cannot find Calabrian chili peppers (they usually come crushed as a paste packed in oil), you can substitute in dried red chili flakes to taste. Calabrian chilies are quite spicy but also have a delicious fruitiness to them- they are a personal fave!

I like to serve this meaty sauce tossed up with rigatoni or another hearty pasta shape. You could also spoon some over polenta for a different spin- such a tasty meal on a cold night! Wondering what differentiates a ragu from a Bolognese?? Meat heavy ragus are typically thicker and made with red wine, while bolognese sauce (a variation of ragu from the Bologna region of Italy) is a little looser and made with white wine and less tomato. I learn something new every day writing these posts! I hope I can convert some of you lamb skeptics into fans with this delicious recipe- enjoy!


prep time: 15 min. cook time: ~1 hr. serves: 6


1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 small red onion, diced

1 large carrot diced

1 small bulb of fennel, cored and diced

1 tbsp minced garlic (2-4 cloves)

1 tbsp minced fresh rosemary

1 lb ground lamb

1-2 tsp Calabrian chilies (crushed, packed in oil)

2 tsp anchovy paste

2 tbsp tomato paste

1/2 cup dry red wine

2 cups canned whole tomatoes with juice, lightly crushed by hand

1/2 cup r chopped pitted green olives

1 bay leaf

1 parmesan rind

kosher salt

black pepper

1 tbsp unsalted butter


Cooked rigatoni pasta or shape of your choice, grated parmigiano reggiano, chopped Italian parsley



Heat the oil over medium heat in the bottom of a large, heavy pot. Add the onion, carrot and fennel and cook 7-10 minutes, until softened. Add in the rosemary and garlic and cook 1 minute more, until fragrant. Make a clearing in the vegetables and add the ground lamb. Season the neat liberally with salt and pepper and break it up with a wooden spoon to brown in the oil. Cook it until no pink remains in the meat, then stir in the anchovy paste, tomato paste, and Calabrian chilies. Cook this mixture for 2 minutes more to concentrate the flavors, and then pour in the wine to deglaze. Use a wooden spoon to scrape any brown bits off the bottom of the pan and let the wine reduce almost completely. Next, add the tomatoes, the olives, 1 cup of water, the bay leaf and the Parmesan rind. Season with 2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp black pepper, give the sauce a big stir and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer, and cook the ragu partially covered with the lid for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding water as needed to the sauce if it seems to be drying out. At the end of 45 minutes, the ragu should be thick and flavorful. Check for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as needed. Discard the parmesan rind and bay leaf. Off the heat, stir in the butter to melt and emulsify. Toss the ragu with cooked pasta and top with grated parmigiano and chopped parsley if desired!

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