Pork

Long-Distance Ragù

November 11, 2021
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Photo by @italianenough_
Author Notes

You could say any dish made to be shared with a loved one is “made with love,” but that’s not quite it. A dish “made with love” has a specific, special power: to conjure a loved one’s presence in your kitchen when you need them most. In my case, during a rare visit in a relationship 1400 miles apart, cooking with love meant leaving a little of myself behind.

Long-Distance Ragù was inspired by my grandfather’s Calabrese heritage, with the intensity, depth, and personality that runs in three generations of my family. It features not one or two but THREE kinds of pork—pancetta, shoulder roast, and ground—supplemented by a heroic quantity of garlic, a big spike of dry white wine, and, of course, crushed hot Calabrian chile peppers. But there’s also a homey gentleness about it, slow-simmered in a tomato base and mellowed with a knob of butter towards the end. It makes any kitchen smell as if family is in the other room, whether you have Italian family or not.

This dish is certainly a labor of love in that it spends hours on the stove, though all the actual work is done in the first 45 minutes. But a long-distance relationship will give you a heightened awareness of how much every one of those hours, even passively spent, truly counts. After we had dinner, I packaged the leftovers, saving some ragù in the fridge for him to reheat that week after I'd gone. But I also quietly stashed one deep in the freezer, to be defrosted for needed comfort in some lonely future moment. Deep down, I think I knew this was my last visit. It was March 1st, 2020.

I’ve since made this ragù for friends in their homes; driven it two hours frozen in a deli container strapped in the passenger seat of my car. But only recently did I remake it again in my own house: this time, for the person I once left it for, in the kitchen that now belongs to both of us.

When could you make this ragù? Maybe to bring someone closer. Maybe to lend a hand to someone who can’t admit they need one. Maybe when you are unsure how to best be there for someone when you know they need you. Whenever it is, I know that when you choose to make it, yours will have the same power that I hoped mine would: to show the ones you love that you’ll go the distance, no matter what it takes.

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NOTE if using an electric pressure cooker: follow steps 1-6 using the Sauté function (medium heat) on your pot. Do NOT add the water. Cook on high pressure for 1 hour, 15 minutes and allow for at least 20 minutes of natural release before depressurizing. Flip to Keep Warm, shred the meat, then stir in the butter and cheese and allow to combine completely before tossing with hot pasta on the stove. —@italianenough_

  • Prep time 45 minutes
  • Cook time 3 hours
  • makes enough for 1 1/2 lbs. pasta
Ingredients
  • 4 ounces pancetta, cubed
  • 1 pound pork shoulder roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1" cubes
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small shallot, finely diced
  • 1 medium carrot, finely diced
  • 1 celery rib, finely diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste; I use double concentrated in the tube
  • 1 teaspoon chopped jarred Calabrian chile peppers, or sub 1/2 tsp. dried red chili flakes
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine, I used Chardonnay
  • 28 ounces tomato puree
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
  • Salt, to taste
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 cup water, plus additional water as needed; please see note if using a pressure cooker
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano, plus more for serving
  • Pasta of your choice, I like big tubes—paccheri, rigatoni, calamarata
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Get prepped. Start with your meats: trim and cube your pork shoulder, and cube your pancetta (I like to have my butcher do the pork and buy the pancetta already cubed). Dice your shallot, celery stalk, and carrot, and set aside. Mince your 6 cloves of garlic, open your tomato puree, figure out how to puncture the tomato paste tube. Create a little cup with the tsp. of Calabrian chiles (or chili flakes) and the 2 tbsp. of tomato paste. Doing this up front helps me focus on the assembly.
  2. Cook the pancetta. Heat a medium-sized, heavy skillet or Dutch oven (I used a 3.5 qt. braiser for this) over medium-high heat, no oil. Add the 4 oz. cubed pancetta and brown for 1 minute, then lower the heat and slowly render it in its own fat until lightly crisped, approximately 8 minutes. Remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon and put into a separate bowl to hang out for a bit.
  3. Sear the pork shoulder. Turn the heat back to medium-high. Add the cubed pork shoulder pieces to the remaining pancetta fat, salt and pepper them right in the pan, and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Depending on your pot’s size, you may have to work in batches, because the cubes won't brown if they're touching—but in a pan with a larger surface area, this won’t be necessary. Once deeply browned, move these to the bowl with the pancetta. If your pancetta did not release enough fat to do this, feel free to add a small pour of olive oil.
  4. Brown the ground pork. Add the ground pork to the remaining pan fat (along with a pinch of salt) and cook, breaking it up with a spatula until nicely browned and no pink remains, about 6-8 minutes. Then add this to your meat bowl.
  5. Build the sauce base. Turn the heat to medium-low. Pour the 1 tsp. olive oil and swirl together with any residual pan fat. Add the celery, carrots, and shallot, and cook, stirring often, until soft and beginning to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and softened, about 30 more seconds. Add the 2 tbsp. of tomato paste and tsp. of Calabrian chiles (or chili flakes if substituting) and cook 30 seconds more, crushing the tomato paste into the oil so it begins to lightly caramelize.
  6. Create the sauce. Deglaze with 3/4 cup white wine, scraping up any brown bits. Reduce for two minutes, then add all the meat back to the pan. Pour over the tomato puree and stir in a pinch more salt, pepper, and parsley, and bring to a boil for one minute. Add the 1/2 cup of water, then lower the heat to a slow, chill simmer.
  7. Simmer the sauce. You've got a lot of time here — as much as you feel like, as long as it's at least 2-1/2 hours (I almost always do closer to 4; it’s a nice weekend afternoon project). But while you can't overcook it, you CAN toughen it by boiling it, so stir it every so often and try not to let it bubble too aggressively at any point.
  8. Mellow the sauce out. 2 hours into the cook time, add the 2 tbsp. of butter and stir well.
  9. Shred the meat. Stab a wide, sturdy spatula through the sauce, chopping as you go to shred any pork that hasn't fallen apart on its own. Put on water for pasta.
  10. Finish the sauce. In the last few moments of pasta cooking time, stir the cheese into the sauce, which will cut the acidity and mellow the spice. Taste your sauce after this and decide if you need more salt.
  11. Combine pasta with the sauce. Reserving some pasta water, drain your pasta and put back in its pan. Ladle as much sauce as you'd like to serve and stir together with splashes of pasta water as needed. Cook for about 1 more minute to let everything meld together.
  12. Serve it up. With extra grated cheese at the table, of course.

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