I feel so fortunate. My friends who own the beautiful Shane Creek Bison Ranch asked if I would come out and stay Saturday and Sunday so they could travel to a bison conference. I don’t think they realized they’d have had to beat me off with a stick. So I packed a few clothes, a couple of good dogs, and groceries to make a ground bison ragù for dinner. Rain was forecast, and it seemed like the perfect dinner for such weather in such a place.
I got there not long after noon. I’d spent my morning in town helping build a 50-foot strawberry shortcake with an organization to which I belong. But that’s a story for another time. Meanwhile, out at the ranch, I first liberated the dogs and turned them over to Pete, the resident dog, and off they went. Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of a 12-footed blur racing past one window or another, in and out of the pond, around the end of the house. While they were chasing each other, I started the ragù because I wanted it to simmer for a few hours to really, really concentrate deep flavors and thicken itself up. This adapts well to a slow cooker, but you’ll want to start it on the stovetop to adequately bring everything to the simmer stage. Then, before you serve it, turn the heat up as high as your unit will permit, and remove the lid so that much of the accumulated liquid can cook away.
GROUND BISON RAGÙ
You don’t have to travel to a ranch to make this. It will make any home smell fantastic. As you read through the list of ingredients, I can already hear you saying, “Nutmeg? Milk!?” Yes. Nutmeg and milk. It’s a secret I learned from one of my students several years ago. He had one of those surnames as Italian as the Pope – wait, the current one is German, right? Well, you get my drift – and he had learned it from his mother. Never question an Italian man’s Italian mother. Just, as the saying goes, do it.
2 yellow onions, peeled, 1/4″ dice
Sea or kosher salt
6 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, minced
1 pound ground bison (or beef)
6 roma tomatoes, halved, 1/2″ dice
3/4 bottle dry red wine
Dash of nutmeg
2 ounces whole milk
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pasta of your choice, but the more rustic the better
- Film the bottom of a soup pot with olive oil and warm the pot over medium heat. When hot, add the onions along with about a teaspoon of salt. Sauté until they are soft and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until very fragrant.
- Break the ground bison (or beef) into chunks with your hands and drop into the pot. As it cooks, break up the chunks with a wooden spoon. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has cooked out of it.
- Add the tomatoes. Cook until they have released most of their water and it has cooked away.
- Add the wine. Raise the heat to medium-high and let it come to a boil. When it does, cover the pot, and reduce heat the lowest possible setting where it will still maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for 3 to 4 hours at that setting, stirring occasionally. Be sure the lid seals the pot well. Your house will begin to smell incredible.
- For the last hour, crack the lid of the pot only about 1/4″ so that much of the remaining liquids can cook off. If simmer diminishes when you crack the lid, raise the heat a bit. Stir every 20 minutes.
- After 1 hour, add the nutmeg and milk. Replace the lid in its cracked position and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until ragù again returns to a beautiful, thick, concentrated consistency. Don’t worry that it will be too thick; it won’t. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and replace lid.
- I used great big rigatoni because I wanted something that would trap lots of rich sauce inside its barrels. But use what you like. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package, but cook for 2 minutes less time. You want it to be truly al dente to justice to this rich, rustic sauce, and it’s going to finish cooking in the sauce. When timer goes off, ladle out 8 ounces of pasta water and add it to the sauce. Drain pasta through a colander set in the sink. Don’t shake it completely dry. Return pasta to its pot, and add the sauce with the pasta water added. Return to low heat and raise to a simmer once again. Use tongs to lift the pasta and sauce around each other. Cook for one minute. Use your tongs to distribute among bowls.
- Top with as much Parmesan cheese as your heart desires. Decant the last bit of wine from the bottle. Salute!