winter ragu + spring salad

I actually made this dinner a month ago, for Valentines Day. It was perfect February food–a rich hearty ragu over creamy polenta, and fresh super green salad to lighten things up. I decided to write about it today in the hopes that winter is finally on its way out (I am not happy that the snow I just escaped in New York has followed me home to Virginia–where is the early spring that dang groundhog promised us?!), and that this is the last point in the year when heavy non springy foods will sound even remotely appealing. Fingers crossed.


When I was thinking about what to cook for Valentines Day, I knew I wanted to make something that felt special but that would be easy enough to not drive me crazy on a weeknight. I also knew that I wanted to go for something more homey than fancy, because I was being taken out for a mystery dinner the following weekend and was pretty sure it would more than fill my fancy quota (we ended up going to Annisa, and I was right–it was absolutely fantastic). I decided to try my first slow cooker recipe, imagining doing all the prep the night before and then being able to just quickly put together a salad and polenta, and save my energy for a fancy dessert. My plan mostly worked, but this isn’t the speedy just dump a bunch of things in a pot, wait several hours and have a perfect dinner recipe of my slow cooker dreams.

This particular ragu (which I’ve had ‘pinned for a while, and which I think I originally got from Sarah–or was that short rib ragu? Both?) requires a fair amount of prep before you actually use the slow cooker. You brown lamb in batches, chop up a whole bunch of onion and garlic and carrot, and let everything simmer, with wine and tomatoes, for a while. I did all of that after dinner the night before V-day, putting the mixture in the fridge after simmering, and then dumping it all into slow cooker before leaving for work the next morning. It was awesome to come home to a finished main course, but I think this recipe would be more satisfying cooked over a lazy Sunday–you can skip the slow cooker all together, instead putting this in the oven at 275 degrees 3-4 hours after the simmering stage. If I make this again, which I imagine I will, I think I’d prefer the all day affair to doing a lot of prep at night.

definitely maybe too much onion.

definitely maybe too much onion.

Related to the prep, here’s a question for the cooking world that I’ve been pondering for a while–how in the heck do you judge the size of an onion? This recipe just calls for “2 onions,” but I so often see designations for two small onions, one large onion, two medium onions, and I realize that I have no idea what that really means. Is there some handy trick I don’t know, like the ones we have for serving sizes? Is there a reason recipes seem to so rarely just offer a cup amount for onions? No matter the size or number of onions, I almost always feel like I end up with too much. This recipe was no exception, and after chopping myself a small mountain’s worth, I ended up just scraping a good amount off the cutting board into the trash. I’d say just go for whatever amount seems best to you, in proportion with the other ingredients.


I made polenta for the first time to go with the ragu, using a recipe I learned from my lovely friend Laureen. She taught me an important secret about this extra creamy polenta, which is that it cooks up in much less time than the recipe suggests. I’m not sure if we’re both buying some strange unlabeled quick cooking polenta, but I had the same experience–it came together in closer to 20 minutes than 40. She also let me know that she’s made it without the suggested cream cheese and still really liked it…but I decided to go all in, for the sake of Valentines Day decadence.

Because I was making something so rich for the main course I wanted an especially fresh salad to brighten things up, and found just what I was looking for from Ina Garten (of course). Her pesto pea salad fit the bill perfectly, and was so simple I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. You just combine spinach with peas and toasted pine nuts, and toss everything together with a few tablespoons of pesto. Green on green on green, and so delicious. Especially if you happen to be a person who considers peas one of their favorite vegetables (like I absolutely do). I went with pre-prepared pesto this time, but am already looking forward to fresh pesto and fresh peas, and anticipate making this salad again and again.

Rich and Meaty Lamb Ragu, from theKitchn
The only change I made in the recipe was adding more carrot, because that just sounded good to me. Otherwise I followed it as written on theKitchn, leaving the slow cooker on low from when I left for work at 8am til I was ready for dinner at about 8pm. The end result was just as I hoped–rich and delicious, with the lamd falling apart from all of it’s cooking time. As much as I’m counting the minutes until the advent of spring and not being in the mood for food like this for a while, I’m glad to have this recipe in my back pocket for when fall rolls around again.

4 thoughts on “winter ragu + spring salad

  1. The stew looks yummy–maybe this is the recipe to cure my aversion to lamb. But since the menu was for Valentine’s Day, where’s the chocolate dessert?

  2. Oh this looks so good!

    I struggle with onion proportions, too, and really favor small ones. In fact, I’ll hunt wildly for bags of yellow onions that are filled with the smallest ones I can find! And I always add extra carrots (and celery, if I have it) to braised dishes, too. I think it tastes better!

  3. I can’t wait to try this pesto pea salad! And yeah, not sure if I’m accidentally buying extra speedy polenta but I’ve always found that the time it takes to come together is like half of what that recipe calls for…

  4. Pingback: favorite food instagrams of 2015 | butter poached

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