Go into a Sicilian agriturismo in the mountains in the winter, and there’s a good chance you’ll be given a steaming bowl of maccheroni al sugo di maiale. Washed down with some Sicilian vino locale in front of a blazing log fire, I can imagine no better way to warm myself up, or lift my spirits on a dark winter night, for that matter. This is not food for anyone counting their calories, unless of course they’re trying to break some kind of record. This is indulgence pure and simple. Unadulterated, unashamed indulgence. In other words, right up my street …
This is sort of halfway between a pasta sauce and a stew, and often straddles two courses: the tomato sauce and some bits of belly pork served with pasta (fresh Sicilian maccheroni for preference, but paccheri or bucatini will do at a push), and then the rest of the meat afterwards. What really makes the difference here, what really makes it Sicilian, and gives it a unique, unmistakable flavour, is the fennel seeds, so don’t on any account leave them out. If you manage to find them, wild fennel seeds are even better, with a much more intense, complex aniseed essence, that makes the normal variety seem flat in comparison.
Hard to say how many the quantities I give below serve, since there are various permutations possible. If you’re just serving the meat, then this recipe feeds 4 generously, 6 reasonably well and even 8 if you add some mashed potato or polenta and maybe some greens. Broccoli is a winner here. If you’re going the pasta + main course route, these quantities should satisfy 8. Don’t forget some gutsy red wine to go with it. I went for a Faro, a DOC wine produced in the Messina area from a blend of local grapes (nerello mascalese, nerello cappuccio, nocera and nero d’Avola, for the record). That’s just me being a proud Sicilian adoptee, of course, but any hearty red would do the trick here.
Try this once, and you’ll be a convert. The unctuous pork, fennel and red wine, together with the slow cooking, gives this tomato sauce a depth of flavour and concentration that is hard to match. Unless you have regular access to an agriturismo in the Sicilian hills, of course…
- 1.2 kg mixed pork (belly pork is essential to the blend, but can be joined by shoulder or leg, and thick Sicilian sausages), cut into largish cubes, as for stew
- A couple of pieces of fresh pork rind, cut into postage stamp size pieces (optional, but authentic)
- 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes or 1 large jar of thick tomato passata
- 1 medium onion, sliced lengthways, first in half and then into slivers
- 1 glass of red wine
- 1 large clove of garlic, squashed and peeled
- 1 heaped tablespoon of tomato puree
- 1 heaped teaspoon of fennel seeds, bashed a bit in the mortar to release the flavours
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
- A good pinch of dried chilli flakes (optional)
1. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan and brown the meat in batches (except the sausages, if using) over a high heat. Transfer to a large saucepan.
2. In the same frying pan, sweat the onions gently for a couple of minutes, then deglaze the pan with the red wine, turn up the heat and reduce slightly.
3. Add the wine and onions to the meat in the pan, then add all the other ingredients (including the chilli, if using), and 300 ml of water, stir well and season. Cover and simmer gently for 2¼ hours, by which time the rind on the belly pork should be soft, and the meat tender. Add more water during cooking if the sauce gets too thick.
4. If you are using sausages, add them ¾ an hour before the end.
If serving with pasta, some grated ricotta salata on top is the perfect finishing touch.