With December finally here, I can't seem to find enough hours to get through each day. Between Christmas shopping, holiday parties, and work projects, life on Monday through Saturday is hurried and I'm sprinting just to keep up. But then, just in the nick of time, there is Sunday.
I diligently set aside Sunday as a time for personal rest and relaxation. Don't expect me to brush my hair, and don't even ask why I still have mascara on my face past noon. It's mandatory I keep my email closed and my phone on silent, buried underneath couch pillows so it doesn't see the light of day. With life's distractions on hold, Sunday is the perfect day for me to dream up a kitchen project, one where I can wander in and out at my leisure, dirtying every dish along the way.
Take this ragu for example. I recently dined at a favorite Italian joint, where I enjoyed a mind-blowing dish of braised oxtails heaped over semolina gnocchi. I thought I'd enjoyed every type of gnocchi known to man, but alas, these little blobs of heaven struck a chord. Paired with the warm, fatty oxtails, it was rich and hearty enough to keep the recent frost at bay.
I immediately began to concoct a version of the recipe in my head. Always being fascinated with the similarities between Italian and Southern cuisine, I wanted to make a similar dish using flavors more familiar to me, while still keeping it true to its roots. I decided to make my ragu using pork shoulder and bacon (two of my favorite ingredients!), as well as cider vinegar for a bit of Southern flair.
For the gnocchi, I actually wanted to create a similar style dumpling using grits. I tried on two attempts, and while the results were tasty, they were far more labor intensive than I wanted for this recipe. That being said, you could dump this ragu over creamy stone ground grits and (literally) be in hog heaven. This semolina gnocchi — which is inspired by Marcella Hazaan — is beyond sublime. A text from my boyfriend read, "I've been thinking about that gnocchi all day. So damn good." He doesn't say that kind of thing often. It's seriously that delicious.
The beauty of this recipe is that while it takes a bit of time (two days, mostly unsupervised), it will provide you the ultimate in nourishment for a week. Make it on a Sunday and never before will you be so excited about Monday night dinner. Or Tuesday and Wednesday for that matter. Heck, I was still excited about it on Friday. Oh, and those dumplings? They'll be finding their way to my table again, in as many ways as I can dream up...
Pork Ragu with Semolina Gnocchi
For the pork ragu
4 pound bone-in pork shoulder (approximately), trimmed of excess fat
2 - 3 slices bacon, chopped
1 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1/2 cup chopped celery
3 - 5 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, with juice
1 cup chicken stock
Pinch red pepper flakes
Pinch of sugar
Kosher salt and pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano
Parmesan cheese, to serve
For the semolina gnocchi
4 cups whole milk
1 cup semolina flour
1 cup grated Parmesan, divided
3 eggs yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat oven to 325°. Pat the meat dry and season with salt and pepper.
In a large Dutch oven, heat a few glugs of canola oil over high heat. Sear the pork shoulder on all sides until golden brown. Remove it from the Dutch oven and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add the bacon and let some of the fat render, about 5 minutes. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook until soft and translucent, another 5 - 7 minutes. Toss in garlic and continue to cook for another 30 seconds.
Add the tomato paste and cook over medium heat, stirring for 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and cider vinegar and reduce by half, turning up the heat if necessary (you want some good bubbling action here).
Meanwhile, use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the tomatoes into large chunks while still in the can. Add the tomatoes with juices and chicken stock to the Dutch oven. Nestle the pork into the sauce and season generously with salt, pepper, a generous pinch of red pepper flakes, and a generous pinch of sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, and transfer the pot to the oven.
Cook for approximately 3 hours, turning the pork once, until the meat easily falls apart with a fork. Remove the pork to a large cutting board while still fairly hot. Stir the minced oregano into the sauce.
Remove excess fat, discard the bone, and carefully shred the meat; it is harder to "pull" once it has cooled. (I either wear heavy-duty rubber gloves on my hands or use my new "bear paws," but two large forks would work, too.) Place the shredded pork back into the Dutch oven and toss with its sauce. Cool to room temperature; refrigerate overnight. The sauce will naturally thicken (and the fat will congeal) as it cools, allowing all of the flavors to marry.
To serve the ragu, reheat on medium-low until warm, adding additional chicken stock or water if you want a less thick ragu. Adjust seasoning, if desired. (I usually add some more chili flakes and another splash of cider vinegar.) Serve with warm semolina gnocchi, although this would also be delicious over Parmesan grits or pappardelle.
For the semolina gnocchi, heat the milk in a heavy pan until a ring of bubbles form around the edges. Using a wooden spoon, gradually stir the semolina flour into the pot. Continue stirring constantly and firmly (there will be a bit of resistance) for 15 - 20 minutes, making sure to clear the bottom and edges of the pan. The mixture will be very dense and should pull cleanly away from the sides of the pot.
Remove the gnocchi from the heat and let cool for a minute. Stir in the 2/3 cup grated Parmesan, then the yolks (with vigor so the eggs don't scramble) and salt. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill overnight.
Preheat oven to 375 ° and place rack in the uppermost position. Use a small spring-form ice cream scoop to shape even-sized balls of gnocchi and place on a greased baking sheet or dish. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and bake for 15 minutes, until the Parmesan begins to turn light golden brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving. Arrange gnocchi in the bottom of pasta/serving bowls, ladle ragu over top, and serve warm. Garnish with freshly chopped herbs and grated Parmesan, if desired.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)