wild boar sauce (cinghiale ragu)

[23 Jan 2010 | By | 13 Comments]

Well we did it. We found a new family favorite—fondly referred to as a default dinner.

Ever since landing in Italy, I have noticed a recurring menu item in restaurants in and around Tuscany: wild boar sauce. You would have laughed—out loud—if you had been there the first time I was trying to explain to a nearby Italian butcher that I wanted to buy wild boar. Hairy pig was about all I could manage. And even then, it took one butcher writing down the word ‘cinghiale’ so I could go ask at the next butcher if they had any (it is not always available, and sometimes only frozen, but still delicious).

One butcher even went so far as to try to explain to me how to cook cinghiale… which is so sweet, but I didn’t know a lick of Italian and he knew absolutely no English (even despite the excited hand gestures and repetition, I didn’t learn any Italian on the spot. I did gather he used garlic and carrots… which worked for me, since I intended to use it anyway). I happily bought some, and I have been making wild boar ragu over and again. Sometimes I put it with pasta (we prefer it with PICI pronounced /pee-chee/ as in the folders we doodled on in elementary school); pici is similar to bucatini, a thick spaghetti, round not flat. It is usual in Tuscany, and I have been told it is a specialty of the city of Pienza. When not using pasta as a vehicle for our new favorite ragu, I gingerly ladle it onto soft polenta: heaven.

Actually, first I had to learn to make polenta to my liking. Which I did. Then I had to try a number of rounds with cinghiali to learn its characteristics and adjust the seasoning. It is a lean meat, but I cut off the silver skin (the white stuff that looks like film instead of white-looking fat; silver skin doesn’t cook it just stays chewy. So cut it off whenever you can; fat, on the other hand, lends flavor and renders while cooking). The keys to success [for this ragu anyway] are: dice the boar into 1/4 inch cubes, add a dash of brandy or Vin Santo, make sure to season with adequate salt and don’t skimp on the red pepper flakes and finally let it simmer for almost 2 hours.

I actually love dishes that require lengthy simmers. You know the flavors are happily co-mingling, you have plenty of time to fuss with side dishes or table settings or pouring yourself some wine while plucking casually at a bowl of olives.

Wild Boar Ragu
1 LB wild boar, diced
2-3 T olive oil (my boys would say: how many ‘gluggs’ of oil mom? I would say 2, dear.)
1 small onion
4-5 cloves garlic
1/2 cup carrots, finely diced
1/3 cup celery, finely diced
1/4 cup Vin Santo or Brandy
1 cup (plus) of [homemade if you have it] chicken stock
1 ‘wine glass full’ of red wine (I couldn’t resist, that is what the butcher said… of course I understood the words ‘bicchiere’ and ‘vino’)
seasonings: kosher salt, coarsely ground pepper (I use white pepper but black is fine), parsley (or ‘default herbs’), red pepper flakes
2-3 T tomato paste, as needed

Prep ingredients, grab wooden spoon and saute pan. Heat pan on low/medium. Add oil, when it shimmers add garlic, onion, carrots and celery and a few grinds of salt. Let simmer 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add boar and saute for another 5-7 minutes. Add Vin Santo or Brandy. Let cook off for about 5 minutes. Add chicken stock and let simmer for an hour. Add red wine and let simmer another hour. 15 minutes before finished, add in seasonings. In the last 5 minutes stir in tomato paste to desired consistency. Fabulous served on top of polenta, tagliatelle, pici, bucatini, pappardelle… have at it!

I have a small fridge, and my freezer hardly qualifies as a lunch box. But the wild boar is worth the real estate: I bought out my butcher. He had 3 packages of wild boar (frozen—but still brilliant) and I bought them all. So let me know if you are in the neighborhood (Florence, Italy) and stop by for some ragu already!

Talk of Tomatoes focuses on my culinary adventures and curiosities (which for now is in Tuscany); just so you know, my family is blogging about our year abroad. Feel free to peek at our discoveries, souvenirs and mishaps at family frolics. We recently visited Bologna (perhaps one of the best meals of my life), Orvieto (twice!), Perugia (the chocolate really is that amazing) and Lucca (cold, wet in December—but full of great kitchen stores).

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  • jim said (23 January 2010 at 5:40 pm):

    I loved this well written article and great website. Very informative. Keep up the good work!

  • Antonietta said (24 January 2010 at 3:48 pm):

    I love cinghiale! I am not sure if we can find it in the US though…

  • janelle said (25 January 2010 at 11:07 am):

    Jim: thanks! So nice to hear positive feedback!

    Antonietta: Me too! How to explain to those who haven’t enjoyed it? My Uncle hunts wild boar in CA; I think there is some there?

  • oriana said (26 January 2010 at 7:58 am):

    hi I love this recipe and I appreciate that it’s the real tuscan thing…If you are ointerested in Tuscan food and food culture, take a look at my blog http://www.tuscanycious.com p.s. thanks for the being precise, I’m sure there’s wild boar in the states

  • Erin (Travel, Eat, Repeat) said (26 January 2010 at 12:43 pm):

    I’m so glad that you found my blog — we seem to have a lot in common. I always love reading other expat’s blogs. Travel and food make the best partners. It’s definitely the most amazing part about exploring new countries. 😀

  • Charles said (30 January 2010 at 10:19 am):

    Janelle – Thanks for stopping by our site and your comment and giving me the opportunity to find Talk of Tomatoes. So you’re just up the road from Oregon in Seattle. Love you site, this recipe and especially this sentence in your “Let’s Talk.” “This isn’t a food tour through the great tables of Europe, but about people like us making the journey in our own kitchens count.”

    Will return often.

  • DianaHayes said (30 January 2010 at 5:33 pm):

    I’ve never had boar, but I’m willing. I also love lengthy simmers, but my problem is that I keep tasting and tasting, not because I’m unsure, but because I like tasting darn it.

  • janelle said (31 January 2010 at 1:26 pm):

    Diana: tasting is a good thing! Besides calories only count for half if we eat them while standing up. Seriously, in cooking school it was all about ‘taste, taste, taste’ as you go to be sure to adjust seasonings constantly… its a good thing!

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  • Patti said (13 March 2011 at 12:54 pm):

    We also lived in Europe for a couple of years and remember dining at the “White Boar.” The spinach and ricotta dumplings (gnocchi) were to die for! Served with a wonderful brown butter and sage sauce – have been looking for the recipe for years!
    will surely try the wild boar sauce, looks delicious!

  • janelle said (14 March 2011 at 8:19 pm):

    Love the white boar;). And am so into making gnocchi! I plan to post a recipe soon for sweet potato gnocchi with brown butter and sage;). Thanks for the reminder;)

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  • Jeff Duncum said (27 December 2011 at 8:19 pm):

    Janelle- About 5 years ago I was lucky enough to be in Siena and was able to eat a dinner with the contrada who had just won the most recent Palio. We were fed cinghiale with pasta and it was fabulous. For some reason I remember the boar to be more like a ground meat in the ragu. Have you ever had it that way, or do you think the pieces of meat may have just fallen apart? We are overrun with wild hogs here on our ranch in Texas and I’m dying to make a cinghiale ragu. I just can’t seem to find a recipe that is similar to what I remember eating.