With the weather as nice as it was last weekend, Elizabeth and I decided to head out to Great Falls Park on Saturday morning for a hike. We’ve been fans of the park for a while, but there was a secondary motivation that made it our destination of choice: the Organic Butcher of McLean.
Since Elizabeth brought me there for my birthday last year, there have been a few things that I’ve made it a point to seek out from the Organic Butcher – our locally-raised Fakesgiving turkey, for example. Around the end of January, I got a taste for wild boar, and I knew that this was another cut that called for their expertise. A quick call on Friday confirmed that they would have some boar shoulder in stock on Saturday, though I ended up having to reserve the very last of what was coming in. It was a good reminder – the Organic Butcher can stock a wide range of game, poultry, meats and seafood, but it’s smart to call a few days ahead to be sure that they’ll have exactly what you want when you get there.
Our cut of boneless shoulder meat ran a little over four pounds, giving us significantly more meat than we would need to make a variation on a ragu that we first tasted at a pasta-making party thrown by our friends Jason and Amy. That overrun was intentional, as it would also allow me to try another preparation of the boar: smoked on the Big Green Egg.
More photos, some tasty ragu and a Big Green Egg learning experience after the jump.
When the time came to cook the boar, we took it out of the refrigerator and cut the twine. The rich, burgundy red of the meat was arresting – surely this couldn’t be a cousin of The Other White Meat! The shoulder before us was also surprisingly lean. It didn’t much remind me of the pork shoulder I smoked last summer, and that probably should have caused me to step back and do some more research. But I knew that wild boar ragu was a classic presentation (and a favorite at Dino), so I felt comfortable going forward with our dinner.
Your average Italian ragu (or French ragout, if you’d prefer), is a slow-cooked sauce that features traditional aromatics (carrots, onions) simmered with tomatoes and something substantial – meat and/or earthy mushrooms. The recipe we adapted calls for one small onion, one small carrot, two cloves of garlic and 1/4 cup of parsley to be chopped and sauteed together in 1/4 cup of olive oil for five minutes. At that point, the original calls for sausage and then cubed veal to be added to the same skillet, but we opted to forego the sausage and simply added in one pound of chopped boar meat and 1/2 cup dry red wine. We let it cook for almost 15 minutes, worrying that the meat was still very tough. Then we added 1 cup chicken broth and 1 cup of water that we used to rehydrate dried porcini and morels and let the mixture cook down until the liquid was significantly reduced (about another 20 minutes).
We transferred everything from the skillet into our food processor and gave it about a half-dozen quick pulses to help chop up the boar meat. Putting everything back into the skillet, we then added a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes in juice, two bay leaves, 1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds, the rehydrated mushrooms (half an ounce each of dried morels and porcini) and a few teaspoonsful of fresh thyme. At this point it was time to let the slow-cooking work its magic, as the sauce simmered for about an hour and we occasionally added more chicken broth (1/2 cup at a time for five times) and stirred to break up the whole tomatoes.
When the sauce was just about ready, we threw a few nests of fettuccine in to cook. We spooned the ragu over the al dente pasta, but not before we each dipped a spoon into the sauce to see if the boar’s toughness had been mitigated by the lengthy cooking process. The results? Thankfully, it had. It wasn’t melt-in-your-mouth tender like we had hoped, but it was definitely significantly less tough. And the flavors? Spot on. The boar’s meaty taste, like its color when we first unwrapped it, reminded me of braised beef. Each bite of the ragu delivered a concentrated dose of the boar, and it made for an assertive but not overwhelming experience.
But what, you may be asking, of the rest of the cut shoulder? With a pound (or perhaps just a bit more) in the ragu, we had roughly three pounds of shoulder sitting whole, crying out to be smoked. And if you know anything at all about me by now, you know I was ready to answer that call.
For the occasion, I broke out a gift that we received from our friends Jer and MaryAnn: one of three spice blends homemade by Jer and specifically prepared for “The Swine.” I liberally seasoned the outside of the shoulder, being careful to work the rub into the skin on all sides so it would have a chance to cook into the shoulder.
And here’s where I made a critical error: I assumed that the shoulder’s smaller size would allow me to cook for a shorter time than I had used to cook previous items on the Egg. I set the Egg’s temperature at roughly 225 degrees and let it smoke for almost five hours.
What I forgot to take into account was the fact that the boar shoulder is – as I may have mentioned once or twice before – inclined to be a bit tough. I’ve read a few sites that discuss preparations of boar since then, and solutions range from brining the meat overnight before cooking it to using a commercial tenderizer product to encourage the breakdown of the connective tissues. In all cases, though, the “low and slow” mantra continues to hold: getting a tender piece of boar shoulder requires a decent investment of time. Having failed to take this into account, I ended up having to chop the boar instead of shredding or pulling it apart – the meat was cooked through, but it was dense and chewy.
I sure do wish we had received Michael Elliot’s comment on our pulled pork post before I set out to try my hand at smoking the boar shoulder – I would have given more thought to how long I could expect it to be cooking. At the end of the day, the meat we’ve got is delicious (and the Jer’s spice rub deserves its fair share of credit for that), but it didn’t have a chance to really turn into the kind of fork-tender barbecue that I was hoping to create.
All in all, our adventures with wild boar were well worth the trip out to McLean – even if the pulled boar shoulder didn’t quite live up to my expectations in terms of presentation, the flavors were exactly what we had been hoping for. And the ragu makes for a great cold-weather dish, with its hearty, satisfying sauce that warms you to the core.