You may or may not know that I used to live in San Diego. When the Hubs (then just the boyfriend) and I first moved in together, we moved into a cute 2 bedroom in the Little Italy district. The Italian food there ranges from kitschy to authentic, but it was pretty much all delicious, depending on what you happened to be in the mood for. And being able to pop down the street for pizza/wine/gelato in the evening was a definite bonus. Anyways, a restaurant called Davanti Enoteca opened while we lived there, and it is just crazy good. If you’re ever in San Diego, you have to check it out. Great pizza, great drinks, and this thin flatbread with this mild cheese sandwiched in the middle that is served with honeycomb…I still have dreams about it. Ok I will attempt to stem the puddle of drool now forming in my mouth, and move on to the recipe at hand.
The first time we went there, our server mentioned that the ragu of the day was a pork cheek ragu, served with mascarpone polenta. Hubs and I locked eyes over the table, and said in tandem, “We’ll have that.” Probably the best decision we’ve ever made. Kidding…kind of.
It. Was. So. Good. The meat was tender and falling apart, with this wonderful tomato sauce that had the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. And the polenta…oh the polenta! I didn’t know polenta could taste like this! Super smooth and creamy, with a bit of tang from the mascarpone. Put them together, and it was just heaven.
Fast forward a few years. The Hubs and I had moved, which, rather distressingly, meant that this pork cheek ragu was no longer 100 feet from my building. I was desperate to recreate this dish at home, and I came across a recipe for pork shoulder ragu in “Dinner: A Love Story,” which was a wedding gift from my sweet cousin. It was basically perfect. Only a minor tweak here and there, and I must say it’s pretty damn close to the original!
You sear the pork shoulder, then braise in the oven with some onions, garlic, herbs (fresh is better, but dried is fine if that’s what you have), tomatoes, and wine (or stock). This only gets better the next day after the flavors have really melded!
It’s great for company because the bulk of the work is hours before anyone arrives. And paired with polenta, it’s naturally gluten free if you or your guests have a sensitivity!
Ok, so here’s the recipe!
- Pork Shoulder 2-3 lbs*
- Kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 medium yellow onion, 1/2 inch dice
- 2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 28 oz can of petite diced tomatoes, including juice
- 3-5 sprigs fresh thyme (2 tsp dried)
- 3-5 sprigs fresh oregano (2 tsp dried)
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 cup red wine or chicken stock (or a combo)
- 1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
- Preheat large dutch oven over medium high heat.
- Dry off pork shoulder and liberally apply kosher salt (and pepper if you feel so inclined).
- Add butter and olive oil to dutch oven and heat.
- Add pork shoulder and brown on all sides, 3-5 min. per side.
- Remove pork shoulder to plate, turn heat down to medium
- Add onions to dutch oven, cook for 1-2 minutes (you don’t want them to brown, this would add a bitter taste; if they do, the heat is too high). Add garlic and stir constantly for 1 minute.
- Add tomatoes (If you strain some of the juice, you can add more wine. Wine!), thyme, oregano, and fennel seeds. Stir to combine.
- Add pork back to pot and add enough wine/stock to cover the meat by 1/3.
- Cover with lid, and put into the oven for 3-4 hours, check liquid level every hour and add more wine/broth if necessary, until meat falls apart easily.
- Remove pork and shred. That bone (if there is one) should come out squeaky clean.
- Taste tomato sauce and adjust with white wine vinegar and salt.
- Stir shredded pork back in, and serve over mascarpone polenta (see below) or wide pasta such as pappardelle, or even quinoa! Oh and don’t forget to top with some freshly grated parmigiano reggiano! This pairs really nicely with a simple green salad!
*A few notes! The original recipe calls for a boneless pork shoulder, but I prefer bone in because it adds more depth and meatiness to the sauce. The original recipe also calls for hot sauce instead of vinegar. While I agree that the sauce benefits from a splash of acidity, I don’t like the smokiness or heat that hot sauce provides in this particular dish. I also use diced tomatoes instead of whole. That’s just for ease and a personal preference.
**To make mascarpone polenta, cook polenta according to package instructions, substituting the water with half milk, half chicken stock. When polenta is finished, stir in a pat of butter, a sizable glob of mascarpone cheese, and some parmesan! As always, salt to taste!