One of my favorite quotes from my favorite cookbook, “Bread and Wine,” is: “Life at the table is life at its best.” When I think about my life, my friends and family, and my community — so much of it revolves around the table. It might be the kitchen table or an outdoor table on the back patio. It might be barstools pulled up to the kitchen island and for many years it was a smattering of high chairs and booster seats, plastic dishware and what felt like an endless number of spills and cleanups. The table, the décor, the set-up and how clean the house is doesn’t matter a bit. It’s the sitting down together; the pause in busy and chaotic days, to recharge, connect, eat, and hopefully laugh a little.
I find immense pleasure in the rhythm of mixing and chopping. I love the creativity of it as well as the physicality of working with my hands. But when I get down to the heart of why I cook, it’s to bring people together. I love the sounds and smells, I love the chatter at the table and the inevitable silence when chewing starts. My tangible gift to the people at my table is the meal but my hope is that it feeds so much more than their bellies.
I’ve been gathering people to the table for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I insisted on baking cookies for friends. In college, I made pots of spaghetti for my roommates and made a Thanksgiving turkey for 20 friends in my cramped rental house. Cooking and eating with the people I love are my favorite memories.
We can all relate to the busyness and chaos of daily life. Entertaining can feel stressful and overwhelming. Maybe cooking isn’t your thing. Maybe due to your family’s work and activity schedule, weeknight dinners seem impossible. And I’m here nodding in agreement to all of it.
I think we should keep trying. And I think what helps is to have a few ‘go-to’ recipes in your back pocket. Pork Ragu is one of those timeless, incredibly forgiving recipes you can go back to over and over again. I’ve adapted this recipe from a cookbook called “Dinner: A Love Story,” and I don’t think there could be a more appropriate title or sentiment for what I’m trying to achieve. Pork is cooked in the oven (or crockpot) for hours in wine and herbs until it literally falls apart, making a savory flavorful sauce. Ladled over pasta and topped with peppery arugula and a sprinkle of salty parmesan cheese, this dish is delicious enough for a fancy dinner party and easy enough to throw together on a Tuesday morning before work and eat quickly between soccer and piano practice.
Pork Ragu with Pasta and Arugula
1 boneless pork shoulder OR pork butt (about 2 ½ to 3 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 cup red wine, plus more as needed
1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme
1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons hot sauce (this is optional, adds a smokiness to the dish)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
For the Dinner
1 pound pasta
6 ounces arugula
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Add oil and butter to a large oven-safe pot and heat on medium until the butter melts. Pat the pork dry with paper towels and liberally salt and pepper both sides. Add the roast to the pot, browning it on all sides, turning occasionally so the meat is seared evenly, for 5-8 minutes.
Remove the pork and add the onion and garlic to the pot, stirring for a minute. Add the tomatoes, wine, hot sauce, thyme, oregano, fennel seeds and bay leaf and stir until the mixture begins to boil. Return pork to the pot, cover and put the pot in the oven. Every hour or so, remove the lid and turn the pork over in the liquids. No matter what size pork you use, make sure the liquid covers at least a third of the meat. Add more wine if needed.
The meat is done when it starts falling apart, probably around four hours. If you pierce the meat with a fork and it falls apart, remove the pot from the oven. Remove the pork to a cutting board and shred it with two forks. Stir the shredded meat back into the pot.
Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain the pasta when the noodles are still a little bit firm. The sauce will finish softening the pasta without the noodles becoming overcooked and too soft.
To serve, ladle pasta onto a plate. Top with pork ragu sauce. Place a small handful of arugula on each plate and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. The arugula will slightly wilt from the heat of the sauce and adds a wonderful fresh flavor to the dish. Serves eight.
*To make this dish in a crockpot, sear the pork in a pan on the stove over medium heat. Once the meat is seared, add all cooking ingredients and the pork to the crockpot. Cook on low for eight hours. Shred the meat and return to the crockpot. Cook and drain the pasta, place a small handful of arugula on each plate and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.