Artusi’s September: Duck Pappardelle all’aretina
I look forward to September after the relentless, humid Tuscan heat of July and August. I love the heat, I do, but Florentine heat is something else. The stones of the piazze and palazzi heat up like a pizza oven and keep the city sweltering well into the night. The Florentines, rightfully, leave the city and escape to the seaside but I prefer not to sit packed like sardines on the sand in the hot sun either. So I patiently wait for September, when cool evenings and crisp sunny days, even a little bit of welcomed rain, give a hint of my favourite season to come, autumn.
I’m an autumn girl, there’s no doubt about it. All of my favourite Tuscan foods are in season in autumn, I love the changing colours, the changing mood of the city. I also love the excuse of a night in, warming up with some wine and some comfort food. Plus, it’s not as dreary as winter’s offering of cabbage and short days, or too hot where you can’t think of eating anything that’s not watermelon or that involves turning on any form of heat; autumn is just right.
A glance over my cookbook hero, Artusi’s, 19th century menu for a September lunch has me spoiled for choice: a soup of ovoli or Caesar’s mushrooms, ripe figs with prosciutto and a salty hit of anchovies, roast beef (charmingly written in italo-english, ‘rosbiffe’) with potatoes, deep fried, crispy mushrooms and calamari, almond milk gelato or toasted almond pudding for dessert. But I decide to go with another favourite ingredient, duck, in a very traditional, country style dish from the area of Arezzo, a beautiful corner of Tuscany.
The beauty of this dish is that it is essentially a two course meal. First, the duck is braised, whole, with a soffritto of vegetables that gather flavour from the duck. The sauce that coats the pappardelle is this ‘essence’ of the duck and vegetables, while the duck is actually served separately, as the main, to follow.
Not everyone does it this way these days – in fact, most recipes you’ll find the duck chopped into pieces and added to the pasta sauce, which probably reflects modern table habits more than anything else.
Artusi and the more traditional recipes include the braised duck liver, chopped finely, in the pasta sauce, but I also find it does make sense to perhaps serve the more important parts of the duck (breast, legs) as the main, perhaps with a potato purée, while the wonderful picked over pieces of meat left on the carcass can be chopped roughly and added to the sauce.
This is a seriously tasty sauce, probably one of the best pasta sauce recipes I have ever tried. Artusi thinks it is not an elegant dish, but one that’s fine for the family table but I beg to differ.
Artusi does not give doses or measurements in this recipe, so I have given the ones that I used when replicating the recipe. If you do not have fresh egg pappardelle (the best are wide noodles with ruffled edges that hold the sauce beautifully) you can also use any dried egg noodle that you have. The noodles used in the photographs are smooth-edged chestnut flour pappardelle.
- 1 whole, cleaned duck (about 1 kg) with its liver
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 carrot, finely chopped
- ½ stalk of celery, finely chopped
- 1 scallion or ½ a brown onion, finely chopped
- 80 grams of prosciutto, chopped
- a piece of veal spleen (optional, I made it without this and used simply the duck liver)
- optional: a pinch of nutmeg and/or 2-3 tablespoons of tomato purée
- enough water or broth to braise the duck (vegetable or chicken broth, I used home made chicken broth)
- 320 grams of pappardelle pasta
- Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, grated
- salt and pepper
Brown the duck on all sides in a large pot with the butter and a little olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and when it is browned on all sides, add the prosciutto and soffritto of chopped carrot, celery and onion (Artusi doesn’t mention it, but I think some fresh bay leaves and sage goes down pretty well at this point too).
Allow the vegetables to sweat and soften under the duck and all a cup of water or broth and cover. Keep an eye on the level of liquid (remember that this liquid is going to be your pasta sauce) and keep adding a ladle or so of water or broth to the duck until it is cooked, about 1 ½ hours. Artusi indicates at this point that the addition of tomato and nutmeg is not a bad idea either. About 10 minutes before you turn off the heat, add the duck liver.
While the duck is cooking, you can prepare your fresh pasta dough, if you are using it. You want to cut strips about an inch wide, ideally with a wavy-edged cutter to get a ruffle effect (if you do not have one of these, a plain old sharp knife will do). Dust them with flour to keep them from sticking together.
When the duck is cooked, remove it from the pot and set aside. Strain the sauce keeping the smooth sauce. Some of the fat should be removed from this sauce too, I find it easy if you make this the night before to keep the sauce in the fridge and remove the layer of solid fat with a spoon.
With the duck, cut into pieces and serve separately. To the sauce, add the liver, chopped finely, and the pieces of duck that you are not serving afterwards, chopped.
Cook your pasta in salted boiling water as necessary and toss with the sauce. Serve the pasta with grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese on the side and the duck breast and legs as the main course. If you have prepared this the night before, the duck can be reheated in a pan, skin side down to crisp up, perhaps with a bit of the sauce reserved from the pasta. Serve it with puréed or mashed potatoes and some greens.