You have undoubtedly heard the phrase “you eat with your eyes.” To a great extent, this is true. Otherwise, cooks and chefs alike would disband with plating and garnishing food in an appetizing way. On the other hand, some have such an avid following they don’t bother with appearances. Take, for instance, Chinese dim sum, a traditional brunch of various small dishes. Little plates of such offerings as steamed dumplings and buns, tripe, chicken feet in fermented black bean sauce, pork and shrimp-studded sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, and crisp-edged turnip cakes arrive on the table unadorned and sometimes looking down-right scary. Indian restaurants are often known for their buffets. More often than not, the contents of the myriad metal chafing dishes are difficult to discern, as many are knobs of mystery stewed meats, sea food and poultry in gloppy brown or reddish gravy or vegetables cooked into soupy submission.
The Japanese, however, are masters of plating food and ingredients to form stunning still-life creations. Nothing is accidental, as the intention is of enhancing the dining experience through the chef’s artistry. Garnish is used in contrast to taste, texture and color, and at a fine Japanese restaurant you can find yourself on the brink of being unable to eat your food for fear of dismantling a stack of perfectly fried vegetables, or shrimp tempura, or ruining the symmetry of a platter of pristine sushi or sashimi.
Personally, I love the idea of presenting the food I’ve cooked in the most appealing way. Nothing, even scrambled eggs, is brought to the table without a little extra touch to visually tickle the taste buds, be it a handful of chopped fresh herbs or a sprinkling of grated cheese. My background in art and eye for photography may have something to do with the desire to plate food with love and care. All I know is that it’s important to me, and a recent cooking experience I had threw me for an unexpected loop.
I can’t recall where I found the recipe for lamb ragu with sweet peppers, but it sounded like a good, hearty dish to serve over some sort of egg pasta. The directions and ingredient list were simple, and I set to it. An interesting aspect of the recipe was that it had very little by way of seasoning, just a couple of bay leaves, minced garlic, salt and pepper. Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I added a tablespoon of tomato paste for depth of flavor and a pinch of Syrian Aleppo pepper,* which is fruity and just a tiny bit spicy.
When I got everything except the peppers in the pot, I was to let it simmer for a good long while. Every time I went over to take a peek at how it was coming along and to give it a stir, I couldn’t believe how loose and unappealing it looked. I didn’t believe it would come together into a coherent dish, and it certainly didn’t look like it would taste like much. I had at my disposal such diverse dried herbs as coriander, sumac, cumin, mace, allspice, ancho chili powder, smoked paprika, Mexican oregano, and exotic spice mixtures ras-el-hanout from Morocco and the Middle Eastern blend called baharat. It wasn’t easy to refrain from taking creative license once again, but I held back and waited.
Eventually, I added the sliced bell peppers to the pot and continued monitoring the gentle bubbling of the simmering ragu. Around the 45-minute mark, the sauce had reduced sufficiently, and I dipped in a soup spoon and took a taste. Miraculously, and to my surprise, it was deliciously full-flavored and needed no additional seasoning. The peppers were silky and sweet juxtaposed against the deep and rich meaty flavor of the lamb. I was proud to serve it, showered with tangy goat’s milk Romano cheese, and only regret that in my excitement I forgot all about the parsley garnish.
Lamb Ragu with Sweet Peppers
Note: Ground lamb is not always easy to find, but can often be special ordered. Though I haven’t tried it, pork may be a worthy substitute.
A little more than a 1/3 cup olive oil
1 to 1 ¼ pound ground lamb
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1 (15-oz) can whole peeled tomatoes, with some of their juice, crushed by hand
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced into 1/4” strips
1 yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced into 1/4” strips
1 pound dried pasta (such as spaghetti or any tube-shaped or coiled pasta)
1/3 tsp. Aleppo* (or chili) pepper (optional)
1/3 – 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmigiano-Reggiano) cheese
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Heat the oil in a 6-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the lamb and cook, stirring and breaking up meat until browned, about 7 – 8 minutes. Add bay leaves, garlic, salt and pepper and cook 2 – 3 minutes. Stir in wine; cook until reduced by half, about 3 – 4 minutes. Add stock, tomato paste, tomatoes and season again with salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 35 – 45 minutes. Sauce should reduce somewhat over time. Stir in the peppers after a half hour or so and cook for 15 – 20 minutes until tender. Give them a little more cooking time if they are not softened enough. Discard bay leaves. Add pepper flakes, if using, and adjust seasoning.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente, anywhere from 9 – 12 minutes or according to directions on package. Drain pasta and transfer to pan with sauce. Using tongs, toss pasta in sauce until incorporated. Divide between bowls and serve garnished with pecorino and parsley.