Recently, Frank and I enjoyed a lovely dinner at Rustico, a restaurant/gastropub in North Old Town, Alexandria. It was a dinner to remind me that I need to get the hell out of my own kitchen and enjoy great food that is right at my fingertips, so to speak. Not only does it save on cleaning the kitchen, but this dinner in particular served to give me inspiration–inspiration to make a ragu like the pork ragu over rigatoni I enjoyed so much, that I had to ask what seasonings etc. were used. Oregano, rosemary, thyme and garlic, I was told. Very simple, yet something else was going on. The pork tasted…nutty. “Ahh”, I thought-I’m tasting the pork. No, not just the pork, but what the pig ate. It was then that once again, I inquired (to the manager) about where they sourced their pork from. As I has suspected, the pork is from Babes in the Wood, a terrific producer in Virginia. Fortunately, I’m able to buy BITW products locally at the Alexandria Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, so I set out to buy pork shoulder (an excellent cut for braising), buy wound with two equally wonderful pork shanks, due to availability. After defrosting the meat, it was on to making the ragu.
Ragu–what do you think of first? The stuff in the jar, right? At least, I did. The brand has been around forever, and up until a few years ago, I might have bought it myself (now I generally make my own). And I know, ragu is also what many Italians call spaghetti sauce, or gravy. That’s the second thing that comes to my mind-a long-simmered sauce with bits of meat that gently cooks, tenderizes and flavors homemade meatballs while being stirred by Nona in her apron.
Ragu is a beloved Italian sauce from Emilia-Romagna and at its core, it is chopped meat(s), sauteed vegetables and liquid (wine, tomatoes, stock, milk, cream). In Northern Italy, ragu is typically chopped into the sauce, while in Southern Italy, meat may be cooked in the sauce, then served separately from it. With aristocratic origins, ragu became a peasant dish as a sauce served over pasta. Lesser, more affordable cuts of meat were braised often with tomatoes, and cream which rose to the top of a can of heated milk. Broth was not used, as it involved animal bones which were too expensive for most. Salt pork, which was available and affordable, was added to the meat for bulk and flavor.
Many of you are perhaps familiar with Emilia-Romagna’s most famous ragu-bolognese. If you haven’t made bolognese from Marcella Hazan’s recipe, you owe it to yourself to do so. Not simply marinara with meat, Hazan’s bolognese is meat cooked in tomato, milk and white wine. Its richness and intensity of flavor is beyond compare-served most judiciously as a primi over tagliatelle.
Now, where was I? Oh right, ragu. Similar to bolognese, time, lots of love (I sound like Carla Hall, hootie-hoo y’all) and following 4 basic steps are required and apply to many braises, including osso bucco. First, season and sear your meat. This will create flavor. Second, saute a sofrito or mirepoix to create depth of flavor and aroma. Third, add liquid to cover meat by 1/2 to 3/4. Fourth and last, allow the braise to refrigerate overnight. It will not only taste better, but you will be able to defat the liquid.
These are the basics for this pork ragu, and after two days of preparation, Frank and I were finally able to sit down and and enjoy our ragu. The pork shank was succulent and deeply flavored from the braise. My version ended up being a bit heavier than Rustico’s, but terrific none the less.
So, if you can plan ahead, get a great piece of braising meat, and can wait the duration while your house smells like heaven, go ahead and make this ragu while the weather is still cool. Enjoy.
Pork Ragu with Rigatoni
- 4-4 1/2 pounds pork shank (you can use pork shoulder, or beef shoulder/shank)
- 4 cloves garlic
- fresh thyme
- fresh oregano
- fresh rosemary
- extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 carrots
- 3 celery stalks (leaves included, if you have them)
- 1 onion
- 1 small can tomato paste
- 1 cup tomato puree
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 2 bay leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
First, let me say something about seasoning long cooking dishes, such as braises. You want to layer flavors as well as layer seasoning. Adding salt layer by layer is very important. Begin by seasoning your meat and vegetables as you prepare them. Continue add salt judiciously as the braise cooks, because you don’t want to end up with an over-salted dish. The flavors of the braise concentrate as you cook, because inevidably, there is some evaporation during cooking, even if you are using a heavy-lidded pot, such as a dutch oven, which I highly recommend. You can always add more salt at the end, if needed.
For the rub
Peel 3-4 cloves of garlic and place in food processor. Add rosemary and oregano leaves. Pulse 5-6 times to chop the mixture. Slowly drizzle in evoo until the mixture is just past being a paste (you want to be able to liberally cover your pork). You may have noticed that i omitted the thyme from the rub. Fresh thyme leaves are very tiny and hard to harvest off of the stems. I simply rub the thyme whole over the pork and allow them to stay on the top and sides of the meat while marinating.
For the pork
Place pork in a deep dish, and pour rub over the pork. Add the thyme an rub the mixture over the pork. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the pork to marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
Take pork out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before searing. Remove thyme stems and discard. Liberally salt and pepper the pork on all sides. In a heated skillet or heavy-bottom pan, add about 3 tablespoons of evoo. Sear the pork on all sides, until browned. Discard the evoo.
While the meat in browning, roughly chop the carrots, celery and onion. Add to a food processor and blend until the sofrito mixture until smooth. Heat pan over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons evoo to pan and transfer sofrito to pan. Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Saute the mixture for about 6-8 minutes to develop color on the vegetables, and fond in the pan. Add tomato paste and continue browning for another 5 minutes. Turn heat to high, push sofrito and tomato mixture to the sides of the pan, and deglaze the pan with the white wine. Allow the wine to reduce by half.
Decrease heat to medium and add the tomato paste and chicken stock. Stir to incorporate. If you are cooking the braise in the same pot, return the pork to the pot. If you are braising the ragu in a crock pot, pour the mixture over the pork which has been transfered to the crock pot. Add enough water to cover the meat by 3/4. Add another 2 pinches of salt and several grinds of pepper.
Braise meat in a 300 degree pre-heated oven, or in a low crock pot for 6-7 hours, or until the meat is tender and falling off the bone/pulls apart easily.
Remove meat from the braising liquid and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Gently shred the meat, removing fat as needed (pork shanks have layers of fat between the meat which means more flavor) and reserve meat in a covered container in the refrigerator. Place braising liquid in the refrigerator and chill overnight. The next day, a layer of fat will have formed over the top. This fat can easily be removed with a slotted spoon.
Return meat to braising liquid and gently heat while you boil the pasta. Mix the two together and it’s mangia time!! Serve with a sharp pecorino cheese if you like. I’m not sure it’s authentic, but it’s my belief that anything can be made better with cheese.