You may have already read about spaghetti bolognesi in the bolognese story. If you recall, this was like an inverted version of the classic tagliatelle al ragu alla bolognese - rather than beef mixed with a bit of pork, these spaghetti lovers gave us pork mixed with a bit of beef.
The reason is simple. The dish’s creators were trying to capture its austere inception. Pork was traditionally cheaper in Northern Italy, so we can associate pork with frugality.
The dish was great, but did confirm my preference for a beef rich ragù.
For my next ragù outing I decided to see if I could swing the balance in the direction of pork. Is it possible to make a pork ragù that rivals beef?
I’ll be giving this dish the best possible chance to sway me!
Sweet and sour
Pork has a naturally mild balance of sweet and sour. I’m going to look to accentuate this in my ragù. One and a half tablespoons of demerara sugar will boost the sweetness and a generous glug of red wine and balsamic vinegar contribute to the sourness.
This sweet and sour base will provide a platform on which to build the remainder of the dish.
The best of the pig
The main charm of pork is its versatility. There are lean bits, fatty bits, gelatinous bits - even its skin is prized. The thing that makes it stand out for me though, are the man made interventions that twist the pig’s flavours. Wet cures, dry cures or salt cures, from quick to slow there’s a way to treat much of the animal before it is turned into food.
There is also clearly a technique to applying these techniques. When I recreated the official tagliatelle al ragu alla bolognese I had real pancetta imported from Italy. The taste was like nothing else I’d experienced in the UK. The fat rendered so quickly and was more buttery than lard.
So I’ll be considering not just the pig but also its preparation.
Generally speaking, my favourite part of the pig to cook a ragù with is shoulder. Shoulder requires a low and slow cook and after a couple of hours will yield chunks that fall apart with a fork but maintain a stringy feel along the grain.
You’ll often see the recommendation to brown the meat before cooking, and while I also follow this advice, I will first be dusting the pork in flour. The reason is to get as much of the benefit of a quick sear into the meat as possible in the shortest space of time. We want our meat to slow cook but also want to encourage the Maillard reaction.
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction which gives foods seared to a brown finish their distinctive flavour. We’ll be getting as much of this flavour from the flour as from the meat without having to overcook the pork at the high heat.
Once I’m happy the pork has provided enough of a Maillard reaction I’ll remove from the pan. This process should happen in batches and with plenty of oil to avoid the meat stewing.
The pork cooks at pace slower than an Italian McDonalds on Christmas Eve. My one inch chunks are shredded with a fork towards the end of the stewing time.
Crunchy bacon seasoning
A good roast beef might offer a morsal of crispy burnt ends. Chicken cooked well will have a slightly crisp skin. However, it is pork that is the king of crunch!
Crunchy pork is a texture I have learned to appreciate in a ragù when following the 1982 L’Accademia Italiana Della Cucina. Using a mezzaluna to mince pancetta results in tiny bits of bacon that offer a slight crunch to the sauce.
For my pork ragù I’ll be giving the texture centre stage through my crunchy bacon seasoning.
A twelve pack of streaky bacon is gently poached in enough vegetable oil for pork submergence. The aim here is to eliminate the moisture from the meat, this time without the Maillard reaction.
After a couple of hours in a low oven, my pork is rolled into a bacon tube before being wrapped in cling film and frozen overnight. Reserve the oil which will now also contain rendered lard. We’ve got big plans for this!
With the bacon now dry and brittle it can be finely sliced ready for crisping. Spread out in a single layer on baking paper and into a medium oven for ten to fifteen minutes, or until crisped up to perfection.
Mix with toasted and ground fennel seeds, salt and a good helping of cracked black pepper.
You’ll have too much for this recipe, but don’t worry, you’ll find a use for it!
Sausage and lardons
I’ll be filling this ragù out with sausage meat and bacon lardons.
The sausage meat I’ve chosen is the 97% pork variety. It is basically equivalent to pork mince but comes with its own seasoning. Feel free to select your favourite sausage - if you can find Italian style sausages then great! They are distinguishable by their coarsely ground texture and visible chunks of pork fat.
My UK supermarket-bought bacon lardons claim to be pancetta but I’m not falling for this cheap imitation. The stuff we buy on these shores in not cured in the same way and is closer to bacon than pancetta. If you can get the good stuff, please use it as a replacement - I’m just working with what I can easily get my hands on.
I’ll be making a classic soffritto of onions, carrots and celery. The main difference will be the oils I cook them in. Using three tablespoons of the mixed vegetable oil and pork lard to kick things off, and basically any other pig fat I can get my hands on - either from the sausage meat or the lardons.
The meats are stewed with bay leaves, sage, dried oregano and sprigs of thyme while quenched with a pre-prepared chicken stock, the aforementioned wine and balsamic vinegar.
The most noteworthy additions, however, are the chestnut mushrooms. The thinking behind this is very deliberate. Mushrooms have a fleshiness which is going to perfectly complement the soft stringiness from the pork shoulder and the salty crunch from bacon seasoning. Good cooking is not only about balancing flavours, you often need to consider textures too.
The quartered mushrooms and cubes of pork shoulder (albeit shredded) will provide a chunky ragù, so I’ll be following the Italian advice of using a wide pasta to carry it. In this case pappardelle. A good sprinkling of bacon seasoning and finely chopped parsley and it’s ready to serve!
The big question:
Was this dish was able to supplant the beef filled dishes of my ragù past?
On an absolute scale I think this is a difficult question to answer. The dish did, however, give me a new perspective on pork ragùs.
My previous attempts to compare pork with beef ragùs have focussed on what I considered to be the essential components - how much “richness” and “meatiness” the ragù could provide. By these measures pork was never going to win. I now have a new appreciation for what a pork ragù can bring that a beef one can’t.
This dish provides a subtly sweet and sour savouriness that is unique to its composition. It is neither better nor worse than a beef filled equivalent. Just different.
It accentuates everything that is good about cooking a pig without trying to be something it is not.
Serves 8. You will have more bacon seasoning than you need for this dish which will refrigerate for a couple of weeks.
The ragù can be refrigerated or frozen.
- 500g pork shoulder
- 3 x 90+% pork sausage
- 200g unsmoked bacon lardons
- 500ml rich chicken stock
- 200g chestnut mushrooms
- 10 x sprigs of thyme
- 1 onion, finely sliced
- 2 celery sticks, finely sliced
- 2 medium carrots, finely sliced
- 2 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon sage
- 3 bay leaves
- 450ml red wine
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1½ tablespoons demerara sugar
- flour to coat pork
- 3 tablespoons reserved pork oil (from bacon seasoning preparation)
- Sprinkling of parsley per serving
- 12 rashers of bacon
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon salt
Parpadelle (for 4)
- 320g egg dough papardelle
- 3 litres boiling water
- 30g salt
- Pre-heat an oven 140 degrees.
- Meanwhile layer the bacon rashers in a small oven dish, adding a little vegetable oil between each layer. Once all the bacon is arranged in the dish, submerge fully with more vegetable oil.
- Place the oven dish in the oven and leave for two hours.
- Pull the cooked bacon out of the oil and soak on kitchen towel to remove most of the oil. Preserve the oil in the oven tray.
- Roll the bacon into a cylinder and place in a plastic bag or clingfilm and transfer to the freezer overnight.
- Remove the bacon roll from the freezer and slice into strips with a sharp knife. Continue to slice and crush the bacon in different directions until the bacon pieces are 5mm wide.
- Spread the bacon pieces in a thin layer on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Cook for 20 minutes at 180 degrees, stirring after 10 minutes and making sure the bacon crisps without burning.
- Transfer the bacon to paper towel and allow to cool.
- Add the fennel seed, black peppercorns and salt to a pestle and grind until the herbs are well broken down. Place 3 tablespoons of the bacon in with the herbs and continue to grind to 20 seconds.
- Keep the bacon seasoning in an airtight container.
- Finely slice the onions, carrots and celery. Set aside.
- Coat the pork in flour and fry in three tablespoons of the reserved bacon oil in a large pan or casserole. Cook on a medium heat until the pork is brown on all sides. Transfer to a bowl and keep the oil on the heat.
- Fry the lardons until they brown and the fat renders.
- Add the soffritto mix, sausage meat and herbs to another tablespoon of the bacon oil.
- Continue to fry until the vegetables have sweated for 10-15 minutes. The mix should be starting to lose moisture.
- Add the stock, wine, balsamic vinegar and sugar and turn up the heat.
- Quarter the mushrooms and add to the ragù with the pork shoulder. Turn down the heat and gently simmer with the lid off for two and a half hours, stirring occasionally.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove the pork shoulder and transfer to a bowl. Break apart with a couple of forks until stringy in texture.
- Return the meat to the sauce and stir well. There should be a thin layer of moisture at this stage.
- Cook the pappardelle in boiling water and salt until al dente.
- Transfer to a colander and drain fully before returning to the pan.
- Scoop a ladleful of ragù on top of the pasta for each serving. Combine well.
- Transfer to four bowls and scoop over any remaining ragù.
- Sprinkle a teaspoonful of bacon seasoning per serving on each bowl.
- Generously sprinkle with parsley from about 60cm away to ensure an even coverage.