Serves a Crowd

Sunday Pork Ragu

April 29, 2011
Author Notes

I loved the idea of this contest, but I found it difficult to come up with just one recipe. I come from a family of really wonderful cooks. For us, sitting down to a meal is not just about eating to nourish our bodies, but food provides comfort, sustenance, and, most of all, love. The recipe that I finally decided to submit is one that I grew up eating, and throughout my childhood, was my favorite dish. I first tasted it in my great-grandmother's kitchen. She immigrated to America from Italy, and she was an extraordinary cook. I remember that she had a brick oven in her backyard, where she would make homemade pizza and bread. She would make ravioli on her kitchen table and roll the dough out with a broomstick handle. But the dish that she is really remembered for, by everyone in my family, is her Sunday sauce. This is the ragu that she made every Sunday morning before going to church. She would serve it in the afternoon as part of an elaborate Sunday dinner to her husband, children, and grandchildren. When my great-grandmother's son married a young Irish woman (my grandmother) she had to learn how to make this sauce. When my grandparents' son (my father) married my mother (who is of Mexican descent) my great-grandmother taught my mother how to make this sauce. Now I make it as well. But like all of the women in my family, I have slightly altered the ingredients and cooking techniques to make the sauce my own. But despite the changes I have made, I still consider this the sauce that I grew up eating. I now make this sauce for my own six-year-old daughter, and it is my hope that when she grows up, she will make it for her children and remember its roots. This is not week-day evening cooking, when dinner can be on the table in 30 minutes. If I want to make a pasta sauce on weekday evenings, I usually turn to a fresh pomodoro sauce or an aglio e olio sauce. No, this is a weekend sauce, ideally made on a Sunday, when the cook cannot be rushed. It takes time to roast the meats, simmer the sauce, and taste the ingredients as they come together. But it is the most rewarding dish thatI know how to make, and despite its simplicity, it always receives accolades.

Some cooking notes: What gives this sauce its incomparable flavor is the pork, so don't be tempted to substitute another ingredient. Go to a butcher shop and get homemade Italian sausages. I guarantee that you will taste the difference in the sauce. As for the bones, the best cut is neck bones, which is what my mother uses. However, I find these hard to source, so really any small pork bones will do. I have used spare ribs, pork side bones, and a farmer at my local greenmarket sells me pork soup bones. All have worked well. Do not discard the bones after you have made the sauce. They are wonderful to gnaw on. (In fact, the bones were my grandfather's, my mother's and my favorite parts of this dish to eat. We used to fight over who got to eat them!) As for the tomatoes, use really good quality tomatoes. You can definitely taste the difference. I like Muir Glen organic Roma tomatoes. Try to find a brand without a lot of added salt. And any sort of dried pasta will work with this dish, but I like a shape with some ridges and corners that the sauce can cling to. Penne Rigate or rigatoni are both good choices. My favorite pasta brands are Italian imports -- Latini and Rustichella D'Abruzzo. Once you have tasted pasta made from bronze casts, you will never go back to supermarket pastas. - cookinginvictoria —cookinginvictoria

Test Kitchen Notes

We're suckers for an old school ragu that calls for actual bones, and the fact that this is an all-pork sauce really piqued our interest. Cookinginvictoria has composed a Sunday sauce worthy of passing on -- it's uncomplicated, and nothing is done without good reason. She roasts pork bones and both hot and sweet sausage before bathing them in tomatoes and aromatics and then lets everything bubble gently for several hours -- as cookinginvictoria writes, "honestly you cannot cook this sauce too much." The finished sauce is vibrant red, studded with chunks of sausage and flecked with lots of fresh parsley, an herb that is too often employed as a garnish and not for its clean, grassy flavor. You can pluck out the bones before serving, but we preferred to leave them in -- just make sure to warn your eaters! - A&M —The Editors

  • Serves at least 4 with lots of leftover sauce
  • 3/4 pound pork bones (see head note), cut into approximately 2-inch pieces
  • 1-2 tablespoons salt (or more to taste), divided
  • 5 links sweet Italian sausage
  • 3 links, spicy Italian sausage
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 6 small garlic cloves (about 3/4 ounce)
  • 2 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil
  • 1 small can (5.5 oz) tomato paste
  • 2 large (28 ounces each) cans good-quality tomatoes (see head note)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 pound dried pasta (a shape such as rigatoni or penne is best -- see head note)
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, julienned
  • 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese (or more to taste)
In This Recipe
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with sides with aluminum foil. Place a baking rack over the foil and place the ribs on the rack. There should be a little space between each rib. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Place baking pan in oven and roast for 30-40 minutes (the bigger pieces you may have to turn halfway through) until nicely browned and caramelized. Remove pan from oven and with tongs take each rib off the rack. Place on a paper-towel lined plate to further drain.
  2. On cutting board, carefully remove casings from sausage. Slice each link into four pieces, or simply pinch off balls of sausage about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Set each piece of sausage on wire rack (no need to wash the rack beforehand). Place baking pan in oven and roast for about 30 minutes, or until sausage is browned and caramelized. It usually is not necessary to turn the sausage, but you can if you wish. Remove pan from oven and turn off oven.
  3. On cutting board, cut onion into medium-small dice. Thinly slice garlic cloves, then roughly chop. (You don't want the garlic pieces too small or they will burn.) Heat a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add olive oil. When oil has warmed, add onion and saute until just beginning to turn golden brown (about 10 minutes), stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Add garlic to pan and stir frequently. When the garlic aroma becomes heady and fragrant (watch carefully to make sure garlic is not browning too quickly), clear a hot spot in the pan with your wooden spoon. Add tomato paste and saute until the tomatoes begins to release their fragrance. Mix tomato paste with onion and garlic mixture and add 5.5 ounces of water to pan. (Easiest way to do this is to simply fill tomato paste can with water.) Drain juice from canned tomatoes and reserve about a cup of it. Add bay leaf and tomatoes to pan. You can add tomatoes whole -- they will cook down. Or simply cut each tomato into about four pieces with kitchen shears before adding them to the pot.
  4. Bring tomato-onion-garlic mixture to a simmer and add pork bones and sausages, nestling them carefully into the sauce. You want enough meat to flavor the sauce, but not so much that it overwhelms the tomato sauce. Lower heat and cook tomato sauce at a low simmer for about two hours, stirring occasionally. During the first hour of cooking, if level of sauce in the pan begins to evaporate, add reserved tomato liquid, as needed. After the first hour of cooking, add water to the sauce instead if sauce is looking too thick. The sauce will smell wonderful as it cooks, infusing your home with pork and tomato aromas. Inhale and savor, and pour yourself a glass of your favorite red wine.
  5. After about two hours of cooking, begin to add salt, about 1 teaspoon at a time. Let sauce cook for about 15 minutes, so that the salt's flavor can be absorbed before adding more. Add a few grinds of fresh black pepper and the parsley. Taste and adjust the seasonings until the flavors are to your liking. Continue to cook for another half hour or so. (Total cooking time should be at least 2 1/2 to 3 hours, but honestly you cannot cook this sauce too much. The longer it simmers, the better it will taste.)
  6. About half an hour before you are ready to eat, fill a large stockpot with water. Bring to a boil and add a tablespoon or two of salt. Taste it and see if you can taste the salt. If you can't taste the salt, then add a little more. When water is rapidly boiling, add dried pasta. Give a good stir with a slotted spoon and bring back to a boil. Cook for about eight minutes, then begin tasting the pasta. When it is al dente (just slightly chewy, but not hard) drain pasta, but reserve a cup or two of the cooking water.
  7. If the sauce looks too thick, add a ladle or two of pasta water. Warm a big spaghetti serving bowl with some of the pasta water. Add a ladleful of sauce to the bottom of the bowl. Top with a tablespoon or two of cheese. Add a few large spoonfuls of pasta. Top with sauce, more cheese and a sprinkling of basil. Add another layer of pasta, sauce, cheese and basil. Keep layering the ingredients until the bowl is full. Add bones and sausage around the edges of the bowl. Top with a handful of basil and more cheese.
  8. Serve pasta in bowls with additional grated cheese and basil. Pour some more red wine, and serve with warm bread. Enjoy!

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In 2009, after living more than twenty years in NYC, my husband, young daughter and I packed up our lives and embarked on a grand adventure, moving to Victoria, B.C. There are many things that we miss about New York (among them ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh ravioli and New York bagels), but, I have to admit, that living in the Pacific Northwest has been pretty amazing food-wise. Now we have a yard with plum and apple trees, a raspberry and strawberry patch and a Concord grape arbor. I have a vegetable and herb garden, so I can grow at least some of our food. And we have an amazing farmer's market a block from our house. I love cooking (and eating) seasonally and locally. And it's been very rewarding introducing my daughter to cooking and eating, and teaching her where our food comes from.