I do a fair amount of my cooking very, very late at night. Sometimes this is because of what I’m making– anything placed in my smoker tends to be an overnight affair of tending fires and owling around my backyard. But more often than not it’s because I work a lot, and the time I do have with my family is best spent actually with them rather than nerding out in the kitchen. But nerding out in the kitchen is one of my favorite pastimes– so nerding time tends to begin around 10pm and goes on till the project is done.
I’ve tended briskets well into the witching hours. Hot dog and sausage production usually happens by the light of the moon. And recently, a very large pot of wild boar ragu was obsessively tended while my wife and little girl slumbered in their beds.
The thing about cooking at night is how completely immersive it becomes. When I’m up at 1am futzing with a wild pig shoulder, that pig shoulder is getting 100% of my focus. I’m not rushing. I’m not trying to keep my kid from putting the cat’s tail in her mouth. It’s just me, the food and radio whispering out tunes at a volume low enough for only me to hear. There’s a hypnotic, heightened sense of focus that comes from speaking to no one, working stealthily and pausing every so often sip on an occasional beer. That hypnotic, heightened sense of focus inevitably becomes a loosey-goosey sense of highly nocturnal and mildly beer buzzed relaxation. One that leads to tangential musical journeys, longish existential conversations within my own head, ill-advised delves into social media, entertaining myself with dirty versions of the songs I’m hearing and, very occasionally, flashes of pretty decent writing and fiction. All in all it’s a pretty relaxing endeavor– with the very notable exceptions of setting off the smoke detectors in my house while trying to get a good sear on some wild boar. In those instances it’s more like a running like a bastard endeavor, while frantically waiving a kitchen towel, cursing, waking up my wife and hoping to hell I don’t wake up my little girl. But those moments couldn’t happen more than 3 times a night.
The morning’s result tends to be waking up creatively refreshed, if a little sleepy, humming a vulgar iteration of Bob Seger, Elvin Bishop, Andy Kim or whatever else I stumbled upon and bastardized (hum, hum, hum…something… something… Night boobs…) and looking forward to a day of very good eating.
What brought me into the night kitchen this time was an 8lb wild boar shoulder that I recently bought at a farmers’ market. Texas has a huge wild boar problem but it’s a pretty tasty problem to have. Wild boar is one of my favorite meats—richly flavored, piggy, and a whiff of game flavor that only seems to taste better when the weather’s cold out. It braises amazingly, smokes remarkably well, takes to a cure like nobody’s business and the chops would make you slap your grandma. A lot of good ol’ boys around here refuse to eat it, but they don’t know what they’re missing out on when they shoot a boar and leave it for the birds or the gut pile. The hogs are definitely a problem—they’re destructive, aggressive and pretty damn belligerent and dangerous. But the bastards are practically acorn fed, free range pig candy. (OK some of them are probably suburban garbage fed, free range pig candy but if you’ve seen what some suburbanites are throwing out you know that you’re still probably consuming pretty well fed pig.)
Ragu is one of my favorite ways to prepare wild boar. I did this one a little different than my usual ragu iterations, adding some cider vinegar and simplifying the sofrito down to diced dehydrated apple, garlic and onion instead of the usual onion, celery and carrots. I also cubed the boar meat into fairly large 1 inch chunks, and then shredded it after hours of braising, as I wanted some toothsome ropiness to the meat. This was all done between 10pm and 2am against a backdrop of Full Sail Wassail, Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson, a few wayward journeys into Bob Seger’s youtube presence, dabblings of Mitch Ryder and some very good points about the New Hampshire primary laid out by my cat Sacco.
Overnight Boar Ragu
I first learned the basics of this preparation at Siena, a restaurant here in Austin that I waited tables at while living on my brother’s couch and trying to break into a writing job. Their wild boar ragu and white bean soup were pretty much the two staples of my diet for a good year and I still love it. In fact, you can’t go wrong with just about anything on the menu, especially the fresh pasta dishes. I eventually got the writing job, left Siena and got married a few years later. Chef Harvey was nice enough to prepare boar ragu at my rehearsal dinner… I’ve been indebted to him ever since. This isn’t Siena’s recipe, but it the final product is similar.
1 wild boar shoulder cubed into 1” chunks
1lb pancetta, finely diced
1 bottle cheap red wine
16oz mixed meat brodo or homemade stock
6oz dehydrated apples, diced finely
1 290z can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
2 red onions, diced finely
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
Salt and Pepper
Red pepper flakes
Several sprigs fresh rosemary
Several splashes of apple cider vinegar
In a large, heavy pan render out the pancetta and brown it. Season the boar meat aggressively with salt and pepper. Remove the pancetta from the pan, sear the boar in the pancetta fat getting it very dark brown. Work in batches if you need to so you don’t overcrowd the pan. Remove the browned boar and brown the garlic, onion and apples, seasoning them and throwing in a bit of red pepper. Splash in some cider vinegar. Add the crushed tomatoes and scrape up the tasty browned bits that are sticking to the pan. Add the brodo and the wine and bring to a simmer. Return the boar and pancetta to the pan, along with a good bit of rosemary and the bay leaves. Simmer on low for several hours or cover and put in a 225 degree oven and leave overnight. When the boar meat is very, very tender remove it from the sauce and shred it. Taste the ragu and adjust it accordingly. Return the shredded boar to the pan and cook down to a desired consistency (think thick chili). At the last minute add more rosemary and another good splash of vinegar. Serve with fresh pasta or over some good polenta or grilled bread and sprinkle with some nice ricotta salata.