As someone who loves food, and who spends a good amount of time looking for the next great meal, I have many bites each year which are completely memorable and exciting. But it is rare that I have a bite that flattens me, that is transcendent, that makes me want to jump up and down in joy because of its perfection. And that experience? That is what people like me live for. It’s the reason that we trudge through insipid bites, through bites that are boring, and through bites that are just uninspired.
It happened to me this year at Oliveto Restaurant. My good friend Jeanne took me to Oliveto’s yearly truffle dinner this year for my birthday. The dinner is a joyous event. Everyone in the restaurant seems to be in a good mood, and the intoxicating scent of white truffles permeates the entire evening. At the beginning of the meal, we were presented with different sizes of truffles and asked what our truffle strategy for the evening would be. Our choices were to purchase and entire truffle, and to have it as our dining companion for the evening, or to have truffle shaved and weighed on each dish. We opted for the former, and purchased a truffle which we promptly named Luigi.
Each dish that we ate at the dinner was designed to show off the wonder of Luigi, and dish after dish coming out of the kitchen was wonderful. And then came The Dish. The dish that, looking back on this year, will be considered the highlight: a wild boar ragu served on a delicious polenta. It was simple and rich and each bite was full of flavor and depth. There is something about ragus that I have eaten in Italy – it’s a back of the mouth tang or bite that I rarely taste here. It also had specific taste that comes from using the best ingredients one can find, and a flavor that only comes from patience and time with the dish.
With my first bite, I declared that I would like to marry the man who created the ragu, who was responsible for this amazing bite (by chance, the next day, I met his lovely wife – the owner of the wonderful Ici).
While many of the dishes this evening were completely heightened and made infinitely better by the addition of truffles, this didn’t need the truffle and stood on its own in its fantasticness.
Since that day, I have spent some time working on a recipe for wild boar ragu, and have managed to make a successful rendition at home. I bought the wild boar at Golden Gate Meat Company in the Ferry Building. Wild boar is lower in fat than pork or beef, so I made up for that by adding a couple of slices of pancetta to the recipe in order to bring the richness up a bit. The recipe is very forgiving in the amount of time that you cook it — I would suggest cooking for three hours at a minimum, and anywhere up to about five hours.
WILD BOAR RAGU
2 slices pancetta chopped into small pieces (about 1 oz)
3 T butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
3/4 pound wild boar, cut into very small pieces by hand
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk
1/8 t freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup red wine
1.5 cups diced tomatoes with their juice
1 pound dried egg noodles (I like Rustichella D’Abruzzo Pappardelle)
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Equipment: a large Dutch Oven or heavy enameled cast iron pot that can be used in the oven. I use a Le Creuset 6.5 quart dutch oven.
- Place the empty pot on the stove and turn the heat on low while you are prepping your ingredients.
- Raise the flame on the stove to medium.
- Add the pancetta and let it cook until the fat has begun to separate from the meat and the pancetta is beginning to brown (About 5 min).
- Add 2T of butter and let it melt.
- Once the butter has melted, add onion and cook until it becomes translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the celery and carrot and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring.
- Add the boar, a pinch of salt, and a few grindings of pepper. Stir and allow the boar to cook until it is brown on the outside, about 5 minutes.
- Add the milk and the nutmeg. Let the milk cook until it is almost all boiled off, about 10 minutes.
- Add the wine and let it cook until it is almost all boiled off, about 10 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes. Once the tomatoes begin to bubble, lower the heat to the lowest it will go.
- Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
- Cook the ragu on top of the stove, uncovered for 1 – 1.5 hours. If you are able to achieve a very low flame and the sauce is bubbling only occasionally, you can cook the ragu on top of the stove the entire time if you’d like. If, like me, you have a cranky stove that doesn’t heat the pot completely or a flame that doesn’t go low enough, place the entire pot in the oven, covered, after 1 hour of cooking uncovered on the stovetop.
- Continue to cook for 3-5 hours, stirring only occasionally.
- By the time the ragu is done, there will be very little liquid and any remaining fat will be separated from the meat. If at any time during the process you feel that the sauce is beginning to burn, you can add water, 1/2 cup at a time, to the sauce. When the sauce is complete, there should be no trace of water in the sauce.
- In the last 20 minutes of cooking, taste and adjust the salt and pepper if necessary.
- Just before serving, cook the egg noodles and toss with the remaining 1T of butter. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
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