Tuesday Dinner: Rigatoni with Pork Bolognese and Fennel

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As a kid, we had one kind of sauce at our house: red. It was a red, thick sauce with beef short ribs. Every so often, there would be a white aglio e olio, or a clam sauce, but that was it. My first sauces, which I was making in college, were actually based on The Father-In-Law’s recipe. It was thinner and very pork heavy. One of The Wife’s roommates did an even thinner version with spicy Italian sausage. My standard sauce has changed over time. Now, I’m more likely to make a batch and freeze a traditional marinara.

Now, all of that said, I haven’t made a batch of sauce in years. The convenience of grabbing a quart of sauce and defrosting has merit, but there is something to making a sauce from scratch as needed.

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My current obsession revolves around ragouts and bolognese sauces. A week or two ago, I did a beef ragout and in the past I’ve done a chicken ragu. This time around, I wanted to try pork out. I did a slow-cooked pork sauce earlier this year that used a pork shoulder, but I wanted to try a bolognese with ground pork this time around. 

The advantage of this sauce is that you can make this a day or two ahead of time. Do all of the heavy lifting on a weekend afternoon and save it for Monday or Tuesday. My batch sat in a Dutch oven in my Olean fridge since Sunday evening.

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WHAT WORKED: Making ahead of time and letting the sauce stand. The ground pork absorbed the lion’s share of the liquid and left a thick, rich, meat-heavy sauce behind.

WHAT DIDN’T: Not much went wrong here.

EASE OF PREPARATION: Medium to medium-hard, if only because there is a huge time commitment involved. But, it pays off. 

BEST FOR: A make ahead dinner early in the week or a weekend evening dinner.

SERVE WITH: Bread and Pecorino-Romano cheese.

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Rigatoni with Pork Bolognese and Fennel
By Jared Paventi

  • 2 lbs. ground pork
  • kosher salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 fennel bulb, end removed, fronds reserved
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 750 mL bottle of dry white wine (or 3 cups if you’re like me and have a 1.5 L bottle in the fridge)
  • 4 chicken stock
  • 14 to 15 oz. can diced tomatoes in juice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. tubular pasta, such as rigatoni

NOTE: Raw pork is disgusting and has the potential to carry disease. Be sure to wash your hands frequently during preparation so you do not cross-contaminate anything.

In a large bowl, mix the ground pork, 1 garlic clove and a large pinch of salt by hand. Work the pork for 2 to 3 minutes to thoroughly combined. Set aside.

Remove the green ends from your fennel bulb and slice the white portion into thin rounds. Add to a food processor in portions and mince. Transfer to a bowl. Cut the onion into quarters and mince in the food processor. Transfer the onion to the same bowl.

Make small pork patties by taking palm-sized portions of pork, rolling them into balls and pressing into hamburger slider-sized patties. Add half of the olive oil to a Dutch oven, heat over medium-high. When the oil begins to shimmer, add a single layer of pork patties to the pan and brown on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Repeat until all of the pork has been fried.

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Reduce the burner heat to medium. Add the fennel, onion and remaining garlic clove to the pan, and stir to coat in the oil and cook until the onions and garlic are fragrant, 3 minutes. Return the patties to the pan, and stir to combine. Cook 20 to 25 minutes. 

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Add the wine and use a heavy wooden spoon to deglaze the pan. Cook, reducing wine by half, 15 minutes. Add the broth and tomatoes and return to a simmer. Reduce the burner to medium-low, half cover the Dutch oven with a lid and cook 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

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In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt it liberally and cook your pasta to the package’s directions (Trader Joe’s rigatoni takes 12 minutes to cook al dente).

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With a serving fork or potato masher (I used the latter), mash the patties. Stir to combine the loose meat with the liquid and let cook 10 to 15 minutes more. Adjust flavors with salt and pepper.

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Drain the pasta and top with the sauce. Serve hot.

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