Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage

A few years ago Jim and I took a trip to New York and chose to spend one special dinner at Mario Batali's highly acclaimed restaurant, BabboThis may by my favorite memory from the whole trip.

The restaurant is quaint and service is helpful and friendly. We dined side by side in a romantic atmosphere and just enjoyed each others company and the wonderful food. Oh the food. The food and the wine. The wine and the food. It can make me cry just thinking about how beautiful everything was.

My favorite course by far were these Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage, a signature dish of Mario Batali's. The homemade sheets of pasta were so fresh and dainty. Inside the ravioli was the most unusual combination of mint, sweet peas and salty parmesan. The ravioli's were tossed in a spicy lamb sausage tomato sauce. These are explosive little flavor packages. Notice, you get three for $20.

When I ran across the recipe on Food & Wine, I knew that I just had to make these for Jim so we could recreate that very special evening in New York. The sauce came out perfectly! The first batch of ravioli, although it tasted spot on, were not very pretty. My second batch had a much better presentation - just wait until my next blog post where I show you what I can do with a little practice!

Keep reading for the step by step recipe with pictures...

To make Mario's signature Spicy Lamb Tomato Sauce, you first make a basic tomato sauce. Give one Spanish onion a 1/4 inch dice.

When I add onion, I add garlic! Thinly slice four garlic cloves.

In a 3-quart saucepan or dutch oven, add 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and cook the chopped onion and garlic over moderate heat until soft and light golden brown, about 8-10 minutes.

Next, we need finely shredded carrot. I like to use the cuisinart blender to get the small dice so I added a handful of baby carrots and shreded them quickly.

To the onion and garlic I add the carrots and 1 T dried thyme. Alternatively you can add 3 T chopped fresh thyme leaves if you have it on hand. Cook this for five more minutes.

Next, add two 28-ounce cans tomatoes. Most recipes will call for peeled whole tomatoes that you then crush by hand. Use whatever you have on hand.

Bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and season to your preference. I added a pinch of salt and dried oregano. This is a delicious basic tomato sauce that can keep for a week in the fridge or up to six months in the freezer.

To make it "Molto Batali" you need to add one pound of Merguez, a red, spicy lamb sausage from North Africa seasoned with fragrant cumin, coriander, sumac and harissa.

Jim and I first went to our local grocery store and asked the butcher for Merguez or something that we could use as a substitute for Merguez. We were told that our HEB does not carry lamb and there is no substitute for this meat. Really? I'm queen of substitutions and I'm being told there is NO substitute? Between you and I, I would have settled for spicy pork sausage.

A substitution was NOT acceptable for Jim. While I shopped for the other items on our grocery list, Jim made phone calls to other stores in the area looking for the exact meat that Mario Batali uses in his signature dish. Success! The meat market at Whole Foods said they could mix a fresh pound of Merguez for us. As you can see in the photo above, a pound of this spicy lamb isn't necessarily cheap. At nearly $9 a pound, this would be reserved for special occasions (in my book). This was a special occasion, so we splurged.

I'm really glad Jim was so persistent in finding Merguez. The butcher at HEB was correct, there is no substitute for this unique spice filled lamb sausage. It was really incredible!

Bring your basic tomato sauce to a boil and add the pound of sausage and break up with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat back down to a simmer and cook for one hour, skimming off the fat as it is rendered from the meat.

The last step is to puree the sauce until smooth. This step sounded so ODD to me since it's a meat sauce. I would have NEVER thought to do this...but Mario Batali says so! Again, Mario was right. I put my KitchenAid stick blender in the sauce and pulsed a few times - it really made the sauce better.

Now on to the ravioli filling...

You need one cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. I think that freshly grated is the best, but who wants to stand over a grater and do this by hand? My shortcut is to use my cuisinart blender to grate the Parmesan. We are going to blend the rest of the ingredients in the cuisinart anyway, so it's not like we are dirtying another bowl.

This works like a charm!

Growing up in Houston, my mom had a mint plant in the backyard. I remember the sweet smell in the air as I ran barefoot through the grass. I remember picking leaves off and chewing them to taste the minty flavor and then spitting the leaf out after the flavor was gone. This may be why it nearly killed me to buy these tiny packages of mint from the grocery store at $2 a bag. For Mario's recipe, you need 2 cups packed, so I estimated and purchased five bags of mint. I only needed 4 (for future reference).

You need 16 ounces of green peas. Fresh or frozen doesn't really matter in this recipe.

To Blanch: Blanching is a cooking process wherein the food substance, usually a vegetable or fruit, is plunged into boiling water, removed after a brief, timed interval, and finally plunged into iced water or placed under cold running water (shocked) to halt the cooking process.

Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 T salt. Set up an ice bath nearby. Submerge the peas into the boiling water and cook until tender yet still bright green, 1-2 minutes.

Remove the peas with a slotted spoon, reserving the boiling water, and plunge them into the ice bath to cool.

Once the peas have cooled, remove them from the ice bath and allow to dry on a plate lined with paper towels.

You need two cups of mint leaves.

Using the same water, blanch the mint leaves for just a quick 10-15 seconds.

Transfer to the ice bath to cool. Drain well and pat dry with a paper towel.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the peas, mint, Parmigiano-Reggiano and heavy cream.

Season with salt and pepper and pulse to form a smooth paste.

I used this basic pasta dough recipe that calls for 2 eggs per one cup of all purpose flour.

Recipe reads: Using a pasta machine, roll out the pasta dough on the thinnest setting and cut the pasta sheets into 3-inch squares. 

On the KitchenAid pasta roller attachment, the dial goes from thick, "setting 1" to thin, "setting 8." Rolling the sheets of pasta to an 8 is WAY too thin. After making ravioli several times now, I recommend a 6 on the KitchenAid pasta roller.

Recipe reads: Place 1 T of the pea filling on each square and fold over to form a rectangle. 

I tried doing it this way, but it did not work for me. The amount of filling was way too big for the dough, and the dough was too thin to stretch.  

This photo makes me cringe. These ravioli's were SO UGLY. What is worse, is that only half of these made it to my pot of boiling water because I placed them on this sheet pan thinking the wax paper would keep them from sticking. Peeling these paper thin ravioli's off the wax paper was a nightmare and nearly brought me to tears. I may have thrown a mini-tantrum in the kitchen with some screaming.

Recipe reads: Continue filling and shaping until all the pasta and filling are used. Cover and refrigerate until needed or place on baking sheets between layers of dish towels and freeze overnight. The next day, place in freezer bags and store up to 1 week.

I stopped making ravioli's after forming the first dozen. I needed to walk away from the kitchen, so I tightly wrapped the dough in cling wrap and placed in the fridge along with the remaining pea filling.

I made a homemade sauce with special sausage. I made a homemade filling with fresh mint that I paid too much for. Then I made homemade sheets of pasta but rolled them too thin and ruined half of them because I didn't flour the sheet pan.

I managed to barely save dinner by unsticking just enough ravioli to boil enough for two servings.

It may not be pretty, but the flavors in this recipe are so perfect together. 

I have a piece of paper on my fridge that reads, "I don't give in, I don't give up, and I don't take no for an answer." It's been there for so long that I can't remember who said it - but I loved it so much I wrote it down quickly on a piece of scrap paper. It reminds me of the strong Texas Woman I want to be. When I fail, it reminds me to get back up and try again because I don't want to be a person who just lays down at defeat.

So you know what I did the next night? I pulled the wrapped pasta dough from the fridge and let it come to room temperature, then I rolled it to a thickness of SIX on my KitchenAid pasta roller.

I made sure my work surface and the baking sheet were well floured. I scooped a smaller amount of filling, about half a tablespoon onto my pasta sheet.

Instead of folding the sheets over for a triangle shape, I used two sheets of pasta to sandwich the filling and a ravioli stamp to cut perfect squares.

I went head to head with this ravioli after my first defeat, and I won.

I own you RAVIOLI! 

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Cook the pasta in the boiling water until tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
Drain the pasta and add to the pan with the meat sauce. Toss gently over high heat for 1 minute. Add the reserved mint leaves, divide evenly among dinner plates and top with freshly grated Parmesan before serving. 
This is a much better photo for my blog and better represents what I had at Babbo back in 2008.

You can find the complete recipe for Mario Batali's Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage on the Food and Wine web site.
The story of these Mint Love Letters will continue with my next blog post. I hope this inspired you to try homemade pasta - or at least retry a recipe that flopped the first time. Maybe I should give Chicken Christopher another shot?


  1. Mandy, you are awesome. I love how much effort you put into your food (and your husband, too, for that matter)!

    Honestly, I read the title of the food and almost didn't read it. I don't care for mint (unless in a mojito or in ice cream), I really don't like lamb, and I always pick any other pasta than ravioli if it's on a menu.

    But I read it anyway and now I REALLY want to make this, but more than that, I want to EAT it. So, bravo! Great post!! I wonder if I can find Merguez out here...

  2. Whooaaaa. that a lot of work!!! I bet it tasted AMAZING!!

  3. Those look incredible. Great blog! I'm subscribing to you. I am so going to try some of your recipes!

    -Mandy from :)

  4. Mandy, this looks amazing! And your pictorial is fabulous too. We will have to try this.


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