Cleanin’ out my Cabinets: Smoked Pork Shoulder Ragu

Brother John and (new) Sister Julie’s wedding was last weekend in Grayling, Michigan.  When describing the setting of the wedding to people at work, I used the unfortunate choice of words “family compound” which caused extensive Kennedy jokes while I was out.  In reality, it was good old Matabanic Lodge which I’ve discussed previously in posts about Poutine and Dumplings.  Since it was the summer in Michigan and the Hub Hollow gang was in tow, it meant a lot of this:

I still haven't figured out how to make a quality iced coffee in the massive commercial coffee maker at Matabanic, but I'm working on it

I still haven’t figured out how to make a quality iced coffee in the massive commercial coffee maker at Matabanic, but I’m working on it

a little of this:

"A little" is not accurate as I'm sure you've guessed.  One of my favorite beers fresh and cold in large volume.  Became a constant source of argument in the morning over who forgot to ice and disconnect the tap

“A little” is not accurate as I’m sure you’ve guessed. One of my favorite beers fresh, cold, and in large volume.  Became a constant source of arguments in the morning over who forgot to disconnect the tap and ice the keg

a healthy dose of evening music:

I attempted to take this picture about 25 times.  No matter how many iPhones I am convinced to buy, they take sh*tty low light pictures

I attempted to take this picture about 25 times.  No matter how many iPhones I am convinced to buy, they take sh*tty low light pictures

and one awesome wedding:

That's not Julie, that's the officiant.  John is celebrating Julie rounding the bend with her father in a guided riverboat

That’s not Julie, that’s the officiant.  John is celebrating Julie rounding the bend with her father in a guided riverboat.  It was a pretty awesome setting for a wedding and amazingly no drunks canoed by shouting regional dialect curse words

There were 23ish family members and close friends at Matabanic for the wedding, plus a gaggle of children.  Despite the intimidating size of the crowd and my previous failures cooking for large groups of people, I decided to volunteer for a meal.  In theory with the help of Brother Tim.  I say “in theory” because Tim was likely to resume his normal role of helping early on, getting bored, then criticizing, punching and complaining about timing intermittently. And that was before I remembered he would be on crutches from recent surgery.  Oh well.

My goal, in honor of Julie’s sister Katy and John who both worked at Spannocchia in Italy, was to make a variation of Cinghiale al Pappardelle but with ingredients I could find in middle-of-the-hand Michigan.

Cinghiale is wild boar, a meat that tastes most like a lean and flavorful pork.  With that in mind, and knowing I likely couldn’t find a large quantity of boar easily in Michigan, I decided to start with a pork shoulder and build a rich slow cooked pasta sauce around the meat.  The flavor of shoulder meat is relatively similar to cinghiale but with a higher fat content.  With that in mind, I wanted to render out a little fat before cooking the pork in the sauce but also add some boar-ish earthy flavors back to the meat.  Which brought this bad boy into play.

The old Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.  Tim has a ton of experience with this thing which made the process even more unpleasant since it required following orders from stupid jerkface cargo shorts Tim

The old Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.  Tim has a ton of experience with this thing which made the process even more unpleasant since it required following orders from stupid jerkface cargo shorts Tim.  Also, first time I have ever used “boar-ish” to describe anything other than my behavior

The idea was to debone a ten pound picnic shoulder, divide it into smaller pieces, coat with a mild but slightly Italian-flavored rub, then briefly smoke it over applewood and hickory chips.  When I say briefly, I am comparing it to the normal 8-10 hours one would usually smoke a pork shoulder, so I mean two hours.

After deboning, I think I had 7-8 pounds of trimmed meat which I thoroughly coated with a rub of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried basil, and a little paprika.

I had a miserable time deboning this shoulder due to the consistently dull knives at Matabanic.  As I drove back to DTW for our flight home I remembered the brand new sharp Henckel knife I had hidden in the attic and let loose with a guttural roar of annoyance

I had a miserable time deboning this shoulder due to the consistently dull knives at Matabanic.  As I drove back to DTW for our flight home I remembered the brand new sharp Henckel knife I had hidden in the attic and let loose with a guttural roar of annoyance

Although the lid stays untouched on a smoker, there is still a decent amount of charcoal and wood chip reloading into the base to keep the temperature between 200 and 250.  I balanced that responsibility with my day long task of overstuffing the wedding guests by serving large amounts of poutine for lunch. I’ve covered poutine before, but wanted to make sure I got credit for multi-tasking so I mentioned it anyway.

Once the poutine was complete and the meat had smoked a little over an hour and a half, I began the sauce prep.  With one of the largest pots in the kitchen heating on the stove, I started running piles of vegetables through Matabanic’s 30 year old Cuisinart knockoff.  Two fennel bulbs, two large yellow onions (very large), 6 carrots, 6 ribs of celery, and a peeled bulb of garlic were all chopped down to near mush and went into the stock pot with a couple tablespoons of butter.

The Cuisinart tactic won't give me any street cred with your Italian grandma, but I've found it effective when trying to make non-bolognese pasta sauce

The Cuisinart tactic won’t give me any street cred with your Italian grandma, but I’ve found it effective when trying to make non-bolognese pasta sauce

After 5-10 minutes of occasional stirring and avoiding anything getting burned to the bottom, I added 2 lbs of sliced mushrooms and stirred some more.

I know the demi glace sounds like an odd choice, but I had seen one recipe for cinghiale that called for a mushroom demi and figured with this volume of sauce it couldn't hurt

I think the first picture was before I added the chopped carrots.  This is a 10 quart stock pot but it really was about as full as it looks here.  I had zero concept whether I was making way too much or way too little sauce

After a few more minutes of cook time, I stirred in two cups of tomato paste until it was well mixed in with the vegetables.  Another few minutes of alternating stirring and pacing, then added salt, black pepper, a liter and a half of red wine, and almost a quart of chicken broth.  Once well combined, I allowed that to come up to heat while I headed outside to collect the smoked shoulder pieces.

I spent about five minutes staring at this blankly trying to decide if I should continue smoking half the meat and only use half in the sauce.  It smelled so good and I was nervous the sauce wouldn't pan out.  When Pete is cooking for you, the secret ingredient is always self doubt

I spent about five minutes staring at this blankly trying to decide if I should continue smoking half the meat and only use half in the sauce.  It smelled so good and I was nervous the sauce wouldn’t pan out.  When Pete is cooking for you, the secret ingredient is always self doubt

Beyond the extremely positive color, crispiness, and aroma, the smoking also appeared to be a success from the amount of fat that had rendered out into the drip pan.  Since this would be cooking the rest of the way in the sauce, I wanted to get a lot of that fat out beforehand.

The pork went to a cutting board where I cut each piece down to roughly the same size, about 3″x3″ pieces.  They smelled really friggin good and I again doubted my decision to use all of it, but in they went into the bubbling sauce.

When everything fit I have to admit I was pretty proud of myself since I had totally wung the proportions.  That's right, I had no idea if I had made enough for the number of people or the volume of pasta I would be cooking, I was just celebrating that I fit everything in the pot I chose arbitrarily

When everything fit I have to admit I was pretty proud of myself since I had totally wung the proportions.  That’s right, I had no idea if I had made enough for the number of people or the volume of pasta I would be cooking, I was just celebrating that I fit everything in the pot I arbitrarily chose

It was a snug fit, but when stirred, all of the pork was completely submerged in the sauce.

Look, I didn't want to admit it right away, but this thing came dangerously close to Major Dag territory due to me constantly forgetting to take pictures.  I know this is completely redundant with the previous picture, but I didn't have much to work with here

Look, I didn’t want to admit it right away, but this thing came dangerously close to Major Dag territory due to me constantly forgetting to take pictures.  I know this is completely redundant with the previous picture, but I didn’t have much to work with here

And then, in line with my original plan of being able to step away from the kitchen while still cooking for a large group, the lid went on and the sauce simmered for four hours.

During that time I went tubing and showered up, but mostly stressed out about whether the food would be edible or taste like Sweet Baby Rays pasta.  I ended up hedging my bets and established goodwill toward the experimental dinner by putting out a couple platters of sliced gravlax that I cured the night before.  Nope, don’t have a picture of that, just look at last week.  Only difference was I made a little creme fraiche to go with it this time.

As we hit the final stretch before dinner, I spent a solid 30 minutes bringing a huge pot of water to a boil.  While that took forever, I used a large spoon to stir and break up the pieces of now falling apart-tender pork and stir everything together.

I know it looks like chili, but this isn't supposed to be a traditional tomato sauce.  It's a ragu y'all!!!  I feel like that term lets me get away with anything

I know it looks like chili, but this isn’t supposed to be a traditional tomato sauce.  It’s a ragu y’all!!!  I feel like that term lets me get away with anything

Once the water was boiling, I added 8 pounds of dried fettuccine and cooked to the low end of the recommended time so it would be slightly al dente.

With the pasta cooked, I pulled down the enormous hotel pan that has been above the Viking range for as long as we’ve been coming to Matabanic.  Usually these things are used for serving buffet style, and the one I grabbed is actually intended for use as the deeper steaming pan under the shallower top pan.  But I needed the room.

The pasta went in first, then I ladeled in the sauce, pausing after every few ladels to mix, toss and stir the pasta to make sure it was fully distributed.  With about a quarter of the sauce left, I realized I had miraculously guessed correctly and made approximately the right amount of sauce for the pasta (or vice versa) and dumped the rest in to be tossed.  It was definitely meaty, but the pasta was well coated without being overly saucy, like the original I consumed multiple times in Italy.  Plus a little fresh parmesan cheese grated over the top.

I was horrified when I flipped through my phone hours after the meal and saw how many gaps there were in the photos and that this was the last one on my phone.  I didn't even get a pre-cheese or plated picture.  I am an awful person

I was horrified when I flipped through my phone hours after the meal and saw how many gaps there were in the fotos and that this was the last one on my phone.  I didn’t even get a pre-cheese or plated picture.  I am an awful person

You wanna see a jiggling pile of anxiety?  Watch me after I’ve cooked for twenty people and expectantly look at each individual person’s reaction as they taste the food.  It is really poor form on my part.  Anyway, instead of guessing how other people felt about it, I will just say that after the 23 guests, 5 babysitters & nannies, and Kelly (our breakfast cook and overall kitchen wizard) took their first and seconds, there were only 2-3 portions of leftovers.  And now here’s my thoughts:

I love this style of pasta dish where the actual fettuccine is only lightly coated in flavorful sauce but there are plenty of chunks of meat or vegetable ragu in every bite.  I just don’t like pasta swimming in red sauce so the proportions were right on for me with this one.  The flavor was definitely a little surprising at first; you don’t expect a smokey barbeque flavor with your pasta and it was definitely the first taste to come across.  After you got past that first note, the richness of the other flavors in the sauce came through and made for a few layers in each bite.  Overall, the shock of the smoke flavor from the first bite goes away after a few and the pasta just ended up being rich, meaty, and enjoyable.  Not exactly like the pappardelle al cinghiale of my dreams, but close enough that I felt it was a decent homage.

Next up will be my third crack at beef tongue.  I got dis.

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