After having the fantasic pappardelle at Crooklyn Improv, I found myself craving the broad ribbons of home made pasta. As I was contemplating the merits of different sauces that I could pair with my pappardelle, I came across We Are Never Full’s luscious Sausage Ragu. It had to be a sign.
While many in the US associate ragù with a brand of jarred pasta sauce, it actually refers to a whole class of meat-based sauces in Italian cuisine. The word itself is a loan word from the French ragoût which is a stew or sauce that’s served with noodles. I happened to have about 5 lbs of pork cheek meat sitting in the freezer and because of its high fat and connective tissue content, it’s perfect for a sauce like this.
For those not familiar, pork cheek (also known as jowel) is literally the cheek meat of the pig and is the same cut used to make Guanciale. There isn’t a ton of meat on each cheek, but the meat that is there is incredibly flavourful and has a fantastic marbling of fat that keeps it moist and makes it fall apart when cooked low and slow.
It also happens to be a very cheap cut, coming it at $4.99 a pound at an upscale Manhattan butcher, which means you can almost certainly find it for less at your local butcher. Because it is a rather unusual cut, you probably won’t find it at the meat counter of a grocery store, but this is totally worth a trip to the butcher. If you’re not of the pork persuasion, this recipe would also work well with other types of meat like lamb or beef, but be sure you get a cut of meat with a lot of fat and connective tissue. If you do use other types of meat, try using other spices. Mint works great with lamb, and for beef, I tend to like more subtle spices like basil or sage.
The best part about the recipe is that it’s simple and low maintenance. Just brown the meat and soffrito to create a flavourful fond on the pan, toss in all the other ingredients, then let it cook over low heat for a few hours. When you come back you’ll be greeted by a thick reduced sauce and glistening collagen laden meat that falls apart when prodded with a fork.
The aroma is quite intoxicating, and whether it’s served over al dente pappardelle or with a crusty slice of toasted bread, you’ll be richly awarded for such a meager amount of work. The left over sauce freezes well and it also makes great open faced sandwiches.
As for the pasta, it’s so simple that I’ve stopped buying dried pasta. For two people, just mix 1 cup of flour (all purpose or semolina), and 1 large egg together until combined then add a small amount of warm water at a time until the dough just comes together. Then you can take your aggressions out on the dough, kneading and abusing it until it’s very elastic. Think of it like making playdough… better yet, get your kids to do the kneading so you can do something else.
Once the kneading is done, just cover with plastic and allow it to rest for an hour before you roll it out thin and slice it into broad noodles.
2 lbs pork jowel (a.k.a. cheek)
1 medium onion chopped
1 stalk celery chopped
3 cloves garlic minced
1/2 C round white (such as a Grenache Blanc)
1 C chopped canned tomatoes
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 tsp marjoram
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs powdered shiitake mushroom
Trim any excess fat off the pork, but don’t trim it all off. Generously salt and pepper both sides. Heat a small dutch oven until hot. Add the pork, fat side down and fry undisturbed until browned. Flip, then brown the other side. You may have to do this in 2 batches. The brown fond on the bottom of the pan is where the sauce gets most of its flavour so make sure you build up a nice thick layer without burning it.
Turn down the heat and transfer the pork to a plate and add the onions, celery and garlic to the pan. Use the vegetables to scrape the brown fond off the bottom of the pan and fry until soft and fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the wine turning up the heat and boiling until the mixture is a thick consistency. This incorporates all that good flavour into the sauce while reducing the amount of liquid so your sauce doesn’t end up watery.
Add the tomatoes, thyme, marjoram and bay leaf stirring to combine. Use a microplane or other zester to grate 1 tablespoon of dried shiitake mushroom into the ragù. Return the pork with the collected juices back into the pot. Submerge the meat in the sauce, turn the heat down to low and partially cover with a lid. Simmer for 2-3 hours or until the jowls come apart easily with a fork.
Skim off any excess fat with a spoon then remove the pork from the sauce and roughly chop or pull apart the meat then return it to the sauce. If you are serving it with pasta, put the cooked pasta in a bowl with some sauce and toss to combine along with some minced parsley for color. Serve topped with a little extra sauce and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.