John and I have spent time separately and together in San Francisco’s A-16 , a place that manages to combine warmth and trendiness and that has never disappointed. Shana and I also went there a while back and wallowed in burrata and grilled pizza with chili oil and a softly fried egg and a number of other good things that have now faded into memory. So when I saw A-16 had come out with a cookbook, it was a natural gift pick this Christmas.
Over the holidays, John and I both spent a fair amount of time curled up with the book, poring over Italian wine tutorials, reading about various pastas and considering whether we were brave enough for the more exotic pig preparations. I actually challenged John to start one of those cook-the-book blogs where he cooked and wrote his way through the entire volume. I thought this was a fine idea (no personal gain in this for me, oh no), but he politely declined. Instead, we resolved to conspire on producing a number of its dishes over the next few months.
We’ll see if our energies match our ambitions, but we started off well, with a table full of friends and family on a cold winter’s night — big bowls of pasta, homemade ciabatta, spiced olives, generous glasses of red wine and lots of conversation.
John, my resident dough expert, manned the pasta production, kneading, rolling and cutting wide ribbons of maracararrona (a more complete post on that process another day). I was the mistress of the sauce. I wasn’t quite suspicious of the sauce, but I was curious about the effect of cooking a sauce with two and a half pounds of meat and then removing that meat. The effect, you ask? Wonderful. Rich, smooth and aromatic, somehow much more than your standard tomato sauce.
I highly recommend the whole experience — a long slow cook for a lazy winter’s day that makes the kitchen smell great and provides you with enough sauce for some meal when time is less in abundance.
And I have to close with a special shout-out to Bob Sparrow, our neighborhood butcher who, in this small Midwestern city could produce pork shoulder, pork belly and prosciutto ends without blinking an eye. He ruefully admitted to being out of pig’s trotters, but quickly hauled out a veal knuckle as a worthy substitute. I was happy to live in Ann Arbor that day.
Ragu Alla Napoletana
1 lb. boneless pork shoulder, cut into large chunks
1 pig’s trotter, left whole (or one veal knuckle), or 8 0z. pork belly cut into chunks
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, halved
2 (28-oz) cans San Marzano tomatoes with juice
8 oz. proscuitto end pieces with skin intact, cut into large chunks
A-16 recommends seasoning the pork shoulder and pig’s trotter with salt the night before, but if you’re like me you’ll forget to do this. The consequences are not grave.
In a large, heavy-bottmed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion halves, cut sides down, and brown gently until they are golden brown (this took about 20 minutes, and I had to keep turning the heat down. Remove the onion and discard (or save for some thrifty use; it’s purpose here is to flavor the oil).
Break the tomatoes into chunks and then add them, along with their juices and all the meat, to the pot. Add a few pinches of salt and bring the whole mess to a boil, stirring often. When the sauce reaches a boil, turn it down about as low as the burner will go and cook at a low, low simmer for several hours. I cooked mine for five, and I don’t think longer would have hurt. Do not be tempted to skim the fat from the surface. It’s a source of great flavor. When it feels done or you can’t wait any longer, turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature with the meat still in the sauce.
Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside An aside here. I was puzzled about what to do withthe meat, but ended up eating it separately as a sort of stew. Some research indicates that in Naples it can also be passed around at the table with the pasta. The texture on the proscuitto is a bit chewy and the veal knuckle had a lot of fat. The pork shoulder was lovely.
Back to the business at hand. The ragu. Before serving, prepare about a pound of pasta, dry, fresh, or if you’re ambitious tha t night (as we were), homemade. Meanwhile, bring about a cup and a half of the ragu to a simmer (there will be lots of ragu left-over), add a handful of fresh basil and a little pasta water. When the pasta is almost cooked, drain and add to the sauce. Toss well and cook for about a minute more.
To serve, add a slash of olive oil and some grated ricotta salata.
Serves 4 as a main course.