Food-guilt aside, let’s start 2016 out right with a recipe I’ve attempted to perfect numerous times in 2015, but took me until now to truly make well: Wild Boar Ragu with Cheesey Polenta.
The two main complaints of ragu created prior to 2016 were 1) ragu lacking in depth of flavor, and 2) the meat being too chewy and not fall-apart tender.
The secrets? A little anchovy, a little nutmeg, and a whole lot of time in the oven. I’m talking a 4 hour time-commitment to braising these delicious little hunks of meat (you could even go longer, but Dave and I were hungry and the daylight was fast deserting me…)The resulting dish was, in my opinion, ragu perfection – softly shredded tendrils of slow-cooked boar meat surrounded by a highly flavored tomato and wine based sauce.
Serving it mounded over polenta or pappardelle are classic ways to serve ragu, and I chose to serve it over pecorino-and-thyme-seasoned cheesey polenta.
(Oh. my. YUM.)Ragu has a unique history, being that it is a classic Italian dish, but doesn’t seem to have made an appearance in Italy until Napoleon invaded Italy in the 18th century. The hypothesis is that ragu is an Italian-ized version of the French Ragout, which is a braised meat stew.
The Italian Ragu varies regionally, and employs a variety of ingredients, including vegetables, tomatoes, wine, anchovy, and sometimes even milk. (Note- I’ve included milk in past ragu attempts, but couldn’t figure out the importance of this ingredient, so decided to omit it here).
What makes ragu ragu is the principal ingredient being meat, and the tomato (or other) ingredients taking a backseat to the braised whole or ground protein. There are other Italian sauces that include tomatoes seasoned with small amounts of meat, which are quite delicious as well, but they are are not a true ragu. As you might expect, ragu can vary extensively from cook to cook; typically depending on season and availability of ingredients. In keeping with this tradition, I seasoned the meaty tomato stew with thyme, bay leaves, anchovy, and nutmeg.
Probably the weirder ingredients are the anchovy and nutmeg, but never fear- the anchovy works like fish sauce in thai food- necessary for awesome flavor, but without making everything taste like fish. And the nutmeg adds a subtle little “wow, what is that that makes it taste so good?” to the dish without making you say “woah… I can definitely taste the nutmeg.”
(Also I’d just like to point out that swapping boar stew meat for pork or beef shoulder should work just fine, if you don’t have access to wild boar).So- do you have 4 hours to spare this New Year’s weekend for comforting home-cooked Italian food? Let this be your recipe.
Wild Boar Ragu with Cheesey Polenta
- 1 lb wild boar stew meat cut into 2 inch pieces
- 1 medium spanish onion diced
- 2 carrots peeled and diced
- 2 celery stalks diced
- 5 cloves of garlic minced
- 1 tablespoon anchovy paste alternatively- 4-5 whole anchovy fillets, minced and mashed with side of chef's knife
- 4 thyme sprigs
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 28 oz can diced tomatoes with juices
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1 cup dry red wine I used Toscana
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- Salt and pepper to taste
_For the Cheesey Polenta_
- 1 cup polenta also called corn grits, or yellow cornmeal
- 5 cups water
- 1 ½ cups freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme optional
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a cast iron, or non-reactive oven-safe stock pot, heat olive oil over high heat.
- Add boar pieces, and sear on all sides, until browned. Remove from pot and set aside.
- Reduce heat to medium and add a little extra oil to pot as needed. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until vegetables begin to soften and onion is translucent.
- Add garlic, anchovy, thyme, and bay leaves. Saute for 1-2 minutes more.
- Next add tomatoes, beef stock, red wine, and nutmeg. Stir well, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of the pan.
- Bring mixture to a simmer.
- Cover, and bake in oven for 4 hours, or until meat is very tender and easily falls apart. Check periodically to monitor liquid level; if ragu is getting too dry, add extra wine, water, or beef stock.
- After ragu is out of the oven, remove thyme stems (leaves should have all fallen off), and bay leaves. Using spoon or fork mash and shred the meat until no large pieces remain.
- Stir in tomato paste. Add water if mixture appears too thick.
- Taste and season with additional salt and pepper as needed.
To make the Cheesey Polenta
- In a medium saucepan bring polenta and water to a boil. When mixture begins to spit, turn down to medium low heat and continue to cook, stirring often, until mixture thickens. This will take about 45-50 minutes.
- Stir in cheese and thyme (if using). Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Serve ragu over polenta.