Think of this as Italian Pulled Pork
Cooler weather has arrived in our part of the world, so we’re looking for heartier fare. Like this luscious meat ragu.
In Italian, “ragù” refers to a meat-based sauce. In the US, we mostly use beef for Italian Pasta Sauce. But pork makes a tasty change.
Serve this ragu by tossing it with pasta or ladling it over creamy soft polenta. But be sure to wear ear protection when you dish this up. Because once your guests taste it, their cheers will be deafening.
Recipe: Italian Pork Ragu for Pasta or Polenta
To make this dish, we first brown chunks of pork, then slowly simmer them in a tomato sauce. When the meat is fall-apart tender, we remove the pork chunks and shred them. Then we return them to the sauce to finish cooking. So it’s a bit like making a braised pulled pork, but with an Italian twist.
What kind of meat should you use? We suggest using cuts similar to those you’d use for barbecue. You could try a nice shoulder roast (either Boston butt roast or picnic ham). Or maybe pork steaks, country-style ribs, or spare ribs. But be warned that if you use spare ribs alone, the ragu will have a particularly strong “porky” flavor.
This recipe was inspired by a dish we had at Mad Tomato (a St Louis restaurant that sadly has since closed). Our recipe is similar to the restaurant’s — but with some changes that we think improve it.
When we serve this ragu over pasta, we like to use dried pasta with a textured shape. We generally use farfalle or a ridged tubular shape like rigatoni. If you want to use fresh pasta, we suggest a wide shape, such as pappardelle.
This ragu is also great served over soft polenta. Polenta can be fussy to make if you use the traditional method (all that stirring). Fortunately, we’ve found a foolproof no-stir method of making it in the oven. Here's the recipe.
Exact measurements and times aren’t critical for this recipe. Prep time will take about half an hour (that includes browning the meat). Cooking time adds about 3 hours—or longer if you want an even richer sauce.
This recipe yields at least 10 servings. Leftovers freeze very well.
- ~3 pounds pork shoulder (see headnote and Notes for substitutions)
- 2 pork spareribs (optional; you’ll have to ask at the butcher counter if you want only two)
- salt for seasoning the meat (to taste; see Notes)
- 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil for browning the meat
- 1 to 2 cups white or red wine (see Notes; may substitute chicken stock)
- 1 large or 2 medium onions (about 1½ to 2 cups when diced)
- 3 cloves garlic (or more to taste)
- ~1 tablespoon olive oil for browning the onions
- additional salt for seasoning the onions and garlic (to taste; see Notes)
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 1 six-ounce can tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 28-ounce can tomato purée (but see Notes)
- 1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes
- ~1 28-ounce can of water (you may need to add more at the end of cooking)
- ~1 tablespoon of chicken base or additional salt for seasoning the sauce, if needed (see Notes)
- dried pasta of your choice—3 to 4 ounces dried pasta per serving (we like to use farfalle—see headnote; may substitute soft polenta for pasta)
- additional salt for seasoning the pasta water
- freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for garnish
- chopped fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley for garnish (optional)
- Begin by cutting the meat into good-sized chunks. If using a shoulder roast, cut it into slices about an inch thick. We often cut the slices in half again, lengthwise. If your shoulder roast has a bit of bone in it (most will), simply adjust by cutting a slice that includes the bone. Once you have cut the meat, dry it thoroughly, then salt to season.
- Place a large frying pan on medium stovetop heat. When hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil and allow it to heat (it’ll shimmer or ripple when ready—about 15 seconds). Then add enough chunks of meat to the pan to fill it without overcrowding. Be sure to leave sufficient space between the chunks of meat so they have room to brown (otherwise, you’ll just steam them). Brown the chunks until they are deep brown on one side (3 to 5 minutes). Then use tongs to turn the meat and brown another side. Continue until you have browned the meat on all sides. When the first batch of meat is finished browning, remove it to a plate. Then brown the remaining chunks of meat, adding more oil to the pan if necessary.
- When all the meat is browned (and you’ve set it aside on a plate), pour any excess oil out of the frying pan. Then add the wine to the pan, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits of meat that have stuck to the bottom, mixing them with the wine. Set aside until Step 6.
- While you’re browning the meat, peel the onions and cut them into dice of about ½ inch. Peel the garlic, then mince it or slice it finely.
- Heat a large cooking pot (the ideal size is one that holds 5 or 6 quarts) on medium stovetop heat. When hot, add about a tablespoon of olive oil. When it’s heated (it’ll shimmer; about 15 seconds), add the chopped onions and garlic, then season with salt to taste. Reduce the heat and sauté the mixture until the onions are translucent but not browned (this usually takes about 8 minutes).
- When the onions are ready, add the red pepper flakes and sauté for another 15 seconds or so. Then add the tomato paste and the oregano, and stir everything together. Sauté the mixture for a couple of minutes. Then add the wine mixture from the frying pan (see Step 3), and stir again to combine. Stir and cook until the wine has mostly evaporated—10 minutes, maybe a bit longer. Keep an eye on the pot so the tomato paste doesn’t scorch.
- Next add the browned pork, the tomato purée, and the plum tomatoes (we usually whirl the plum tomatoes in a blender first to break them up), plus a 28-ounce can of water. Stir everything together and bring the mixture to a simmer. Then simmer the mixture for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally (you want a very low simmer, with just a few bubbles coming up to the surface of the liquid). Cover the cooking pot while simmering, with the lid ajar.
- After about an hour of simmering, taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If it needs salt (it probably will), you can add it at this point. But we suggest adding some chicken base instead. Chicken base is salty, and will add an extra dimension of flavor to the dish.
- After about 2 hours of simmering, check the meat. It should be fork-tender. If not, continue cooking. Once the meat is sufficiently tender, remove it from the cooking pot with tongs. Let it cool until you can handle it, then use 2 forks to shred the meat. Discard any bones and return the shredded meat to the cooking pot, and simmer the mixture for another half hour or so. Add a bit of water if the sauce is too thick for your taste.
- BTW, if the shreds of pork are a bit on the large size, you can break them up in the cooking pot with an immersion blender. Use a blender with a stainless shaft—plastic ones can crack in hot liquid.
- When ready to serve, prepare the pasta in a separate cooking pot according to package directions (salting the water adds flavor—use about a tablespoon of salt for 4 quarts of water). Cook the pasta until it’s almost al dente, then remove a cup of the pasta water (just dip it out with a measuring cup—exact quantity not important) and reserve it. Drain the cooked pasta into a colander, then add the pasta back to its empty cooking pot. Place the pasta pot over very low heat and spoon in as much meat sauce as you like (probably ½ cup to 1 cup per serving, depending on how saucy you like your pasta). If the sauce seems too thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta cooking water to achieve the consistency you like. Continue cooking the pasta in sauce over low heat until the pasta is al dente. This takes maybe a minute—stir often so the pasta sauce doesn’t burn.
- Dish up the pasta and sauce. Garnish with freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano (2 to 3 tablespoons per serving). Then sprinkle on chopped basil or parsley, if you like, and serve. We usually place extra grated cheese on the table so people can add more if they like.
- If you prefer a very meat-heavy sauce, just increase the amount of pork you use (up to 4 pounds or so total).
- We like to add spare ribs to this sauce because the bones add extra succulence. But feel free to omit them if you prefer.
- BTW, if you use spare ribs alone in this dish, definitely increase the amount to 4 pounds (or even more). Otherwise, the sauce won’t have enough meat.
- If you want a thinner, less meaty sauce, add an extra can of tomatoes (either purée or plum tomatoes).
- You can make this sauce with tomato purée only if you like, but we prefer to mix it with whole canned tomatoes.
- The wine is optional in this dish, though it does add extra flavor. We prefer to use white wine when making pork ragu (we generally use red wine for beef). But red works fine with pork too, if that’s your preference. Whichever you use, we suggest using a dry wine with a fruit-forward flavor.
- If you don’t want to use wine, we suggest substituting chicken stock.
- We also use chicken base (see Step 8) to add extra flavor. Chicken base is chicken stock that has been reduced to a paste. You can find it in the soup aisle of most supermarkets. It tends to be a bit salty, so start by adding just a little at a time (tasting after each addition).
- We salt ingredients as we cook in order to add layers of flavor. Doing it this way means we actually end up using less salt overall. As the recipe indicates, we salt the meat before we brown it, then salt the onions and garlic as we’re sautéing then.
- How much salt to use in this ragu? Whatever amount tastes good to you. Everyone has a different preference for saltiness. If in doubt, use less than you think you’ll need. You can always add more later. Or at table.
- Some cooks like to add a bit of sugar to tomato sauce right at the end of cooking to sweeten it (and reduce acidity). We don’t usually do this, but feel free to add sugar if you find it improves the flavor.
- Alternatively, you could dice up a couple of carrots and add them to the onions in Step 5. Carrots are naturally sweet, so they may provide all the sweetness you need.
- We like to garnish this dish with Pecorino Romano, which has a tangy, salty taste. But Parmigiano-Reggiano works well too—so there’s no need to buy Pecorino Romano just for this dish.
- If you wish, you can drizzle a teaspoon or so of truffle oil over the top of each plate before serving. The aroma is intoxicating—but we don’t think it adds much to the overall flavor.
- A garnish of chopped fresh basil or parsley adds an additional touch of flavor to this dish—not to mention a cheerful splash of color.
- If you prefer to serve this dish over polenta rather than tossed with pasta, just prepare the polenta according to the package directions (or wait for our post next week, which offers an easier way to cook it). When the ragu is done, dish up some polenta on each serving plate, and ladle the ragu over it.
- BTW, on a recent trip to Boston we saw several restaurant menus that featured pork ragu over polenta as an appetizer. We like this dish better as a main, but it does make a fun starter, too.
|Italian Pork Ragu served over polenta|
La Dolce Vita
“Loved this dish the very first time I had it,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “As they say in Italian, it was amore a prima vista.”
“It’s a great dish,” I agreed. “But I didn’t realize you could speak Italian.”
“I don't really,” said Mrs K R. “But as you know, I’m opera-crazed. And there are so many Italian operas! Eventually I just started picking up phrases.”
“That’s porkocious of you,” I said.
Mrs K R shot me a look.
“So, do you like this ragu better with pasta or polenta?” I asked.
“I’ll definitely pig out on either one,” said Mrs K R. “But these days I’m leaning towards polenta. Especially since you’ve found such an easy, foolproof way to cook it.”
“That polenta recipe almost makes itself,” I said. “Very little work involved. We'll be posting about it next week.”
“So I’ll get to have this pork ragu again?” said Mrs K R.
“Absolutely,” I said. “After all, we’re orkerspay.”
“Orkerspay?” said Mrs K R. “Don’t think that’s an Italian word.”
“No, I don’t speak Italian,” I said. “But I do know Pig Latin.”
“Oh,” said Mrs K R. “Orkerspay—porkers.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Clever, don’t you think?”
“Actually,” said Mrs K R. “I think the Italian word for it is ridicolo.”
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