pork ragu

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Food is a lot of things to a lot of people.

Survival. Entertainment. Money. Community. Romance. Nourishment. Celebration.

I suppose if I’m honest, I dabble in all of those things.
If I’m not careful, I could go on and on and bore you to death. I will try not to do that today, but I’ve been wanting to process some stuff for myself.

When I get to cook, I get to explore a place and a people and I also explore my own story. So much of cooking for me now is motor and sensory memory. I know how to chop onions and taste for salt and balance a dish. What I love more than getting to cook, is to sip on something nice and process chunks of life.

This past week, I cooked dinner for a friend’s birthday. He’s been great in letting me have the freedom to do whatever, and it’s been so good for me to create and explore and to feed people who really love to eat.

pork ragu. 

It was all I could really think about. Pork something, at least.

So we went out and bought a big pork shoulder and the ingredients to make said dish. Growing up in my world, ragu came in a glass jar and tasted like spaghetti sauce. That was until I started to learn more about food and realized it is much more complex, and deeply satisfying. Even just hearing the world ragu gets my mouth all tingly.

The air conditioning was down, but I told him I liked it hot in the kitchen. Feels right to sweat a bit when you’re cookin’.

After I deboned the shoulder, I cut it up into pieces. Dried said pieces with a paper towel and seasoned them liberally with sea salt and fresh black pepper. Brown them with a little bit of oil in a stew pot. I mean, get some nice color and caramelization on those babies. Work in smallish batches so you don’t cool the pan off too much.

Once all the meat is seared off, I add the onions. I let them cook down a bit, and I use their water to scrape those brown bits off the bottom of the pot. (That’s where some magic is.)

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This is not my actual ragu, but it looked just like it. Come on, you know you want this for dinner now.

Then the diced carrots and celery. Ya know, the basics of starting a proper stew.

About four minced cloves of garlic pulverized into a paste. Throw that into the pot and let it smell up your house for a second.

Throw in your meat, along with a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary and oregano. Go ahead and throw in a bay leaf too, if you have one.

Now you start adding the sexy reds. tomato and red wine. oh gah!

We had some special tomatoes for our ragu. It was my buddy’s last jars of his granddaddy’s tomatoes, who has recently passed away. They were tangy and rich and perfect. Add about a cup of red wine, and enough water to cover the top of the meat. Toss in some more salt and pepper, and let it go low and slow, simmering for about an hour and a half.

I found some mushrooms, so I decided to throw them in there as well, because, umami.

By now, this pot of bubbling stuff just looks right. If it looks right, it probably tastes right. Unless you accidentally use salt instead of sugar for a gorgeous apple pie, which has happened to me before.

Anyways, the meat should be tender enough that you can shred it with forks, because that’s what you’ll need to do, eventually. The liquid should also be reduced by at least half. Be careful on adding salt though, because as it bubbles away, the more it reduces, the more it is concentrated. You can always dilute with more water or stock, but just keep tasting and you’ll be fine. At this point, once your ragu is done, and after the pork is shredded, you can add in some greens if you like. I used kale, and tossed it in and let cook for another five minutes.

Cook up some pasta a bit al dente. Reserve at least a half cup of your pasta water (that I presume you have salted a bit) so you can use its starch to help coat the pasta as you toss it with the ragu. Use butter, too. Adds some extra sheen to the over all dish. Add your preferred ratio of ragu to pasta, and toss, plate and serve. Grate some good hard cheese on top, too.

Yeah. Seriously.
Oof. Delicious, hearty and personal.

I think, one of those soul dishes for me. It’s how I like to eat.

Perhaps I am just an old soul, and I’m okay with that.

I like these dishes because they take a little time. They remind me that there’s a process to things, and that an extra ten minutes can change something from being good, to great.

I suppose I needed that. Some reassurance that time has the ability to transform and nourish. When I get ahead of myself, that’s when I cut corners. If I’m honest, I cannot allow myself to cut any more corners. I crave to live my life with intention, and the same goes for how I cook.

Slow and steady. At times, hard and fast.

But all having their place, especially in my little world, where a simple dish can change the outcome of an entire day.

And I never want to lose that.

 

Then Came the Meatballs…

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It was one of the best meals of my life.

I was new to Woodlawn C&P, my most recent place of employment. We were across the street from a rustic Italian joint called Firehouse.

Appropriately enough, the building itself used to be a firehouse; back when pictures were just black and white, and a giant rail car ran through the streets.

Matt, the chef and owner of the restaurant was around a lot during the beginnings of WCP, so one day he said, “Come to dinner tonight, I’ll take care of y’all…”

I wasn’t used to industry talk. We had been saving for a night out, anyways.

Hannah and I got dressed up well, or maybe she did, and I just did my best.

My favorite server Stephen, which I didn’t know at the time, was serving us.
“Hey, I work over at Woodlawn…Matt told me to come in and I think we’re just gonna leave it up to him!”
“Sure thing.” said Stephen. His presence helped the entire place feel warmer.

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I don’t think anyone at the time knew I was any good at cooking (not even me), or that I knew what good food was supposed to taste like. I had been reading cookbooks and memoirs about kitchen life, and I was still antsy to soak it all in.

I watched the inferno in their gorgeous wood-fired oven lick the top of the dome where they would cook pizza and mussels and bread. Wood smoke on food is amazing, if you didn’t already know that.

For the life of me, I can’t remember everything we ate.

But it began with fried cauliflower. Like most of the meals I continued to eat at Firehouse, it always started with fried cauliflower. Nutty, brown, and the first bite was always too hot, but you bit into it anyways. Served with lemon crème fraiche, it was the most comforting thing.

Sliding over our cocktails came a few more dishes. Romaine hearts, with anchovy, lemon and shaved pecorino. Bruschetta with chevre and acorn squash.

Then the pizza.

Neapolitan style. Almost gooey-like in the middle, as it should. 6-8 minutes max in that blazing hot oven, and they are done. It was a simple but perfect margherita. Basil, light tomato sauce, and buffalo mozzerella. Doused with a bit of good olive oil before hitting the table, and with a pinch or two of chili flake to taste.

I was almost full.

Then came the meatballs.

Three rich, fatty, sweet balls of meat that I’d never had come close since then. Braised in a light tomato-rosemary sauce with lucinato kale and a hunk of pugliese bread.

Hannah was done, but when someone is giving you the whole nine, I ain’t stoppin’.

We did it.

We ate all the food.

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Then came the digestif.

And then some sweets. Perhaps one of their pot de crèmes or tarts. I can’t quite recall, I think I was so blissed out that I lost some subtle conciousness.

If Matt read this, I know he would probably shake his head, and downplay how dramatic it was to me.

They comped our entire meal that night.

Not only was it a gesture of thanks, but it was a welcoming. I was becoming part of a bigger family.

It was this meal that taught me how good and simple and close to home food could be.

It changed how I cooked at home. It changed a lot more than that. It set the bar for what I wanted for myself.

I kept going back. For cauliflower, for meatballs, for the pizza. Each time, throwing my hands in the air (at least in my head) and submitting to the whole damn thing over and over again.

It allowed me to venture into other places that took just as much care of their food. I was spoiled rotten, I tell ya. Rotten.

Yes, it was one of the best meals of my life. And I will hold it deep down with all those good things that make me want to be a better cook, and how all the work they put in, came out to me on that table.