Keeping pasta sauce simple allows the flavors of a few tasty ingredients to stand out. This garlicky lamb sauce is balanced with rich tomatoes and a touch of sweetness from port wine. To bring out the depth of these simple ingredients, it's key to let the sauce have time to develop. Time here is as important to the sauce as what goes in it.
If you're not a fan of lamb, this recipe can easily be prepared with ground beef. And if you don't eat red meat at all, try ground turkey or chicken. The sauce won't be as rich as one made with lamb or beef, but the great flavors overall will be there. Tip: If you do go with poultry, use thigh meat instead of breast. It's naturally juicier.
A note about the preparation: Normally, I would brown the meat with the onion and garlic, then add the tomatoes, liquid, and spices. But this time, I wanted the juices of the lamb to cook down along with the other ingredients to concentrate the rich flavors together. That's why I didn't brown it first, and also why I cooked the sauce uncovered for the first hour. There's enough liquid initially to allow for evaporation, which helps deepen the concentration.
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 large, sweet onion (such as Vidalia or Spanish), chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 lb ground lamb
1 28-oz can good-quality stewed tomatoes with juice
1/2 cup port (or semi-sweet red wine)
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/4 tsp dried red chile flakes
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil
6-7 oz small penne noodles (sold as mini-penne)
Parmigiano-Reggiano, for grating at the table
Heat a large, heavy pot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook until beginning to soften, 4 minutes.
Add the lamb, tomatoes with juice, port, tomato paste, and chile flakes and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered 1 hour. Cover and cook 30 minutes longer, stirring in the basil 10 minutes before the sauce is done.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling, salted water 8 minutes. Drain the pasta and stir into the lamb mixture.
To serve, divide the pasta and sauce among 4 to 5 pasta bowls and pass the cheese at the table for grating.