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These are the last cheeks left over from my cheek-buying binge back in January. Now I wish I had bought twenty-five pounds of cheeks instead of twenty pounds, but of course that would have run out too. This week there were no more cheeks at the butcher shop. Instead there was a great big hock. The butcher told me that cheeks are stewing fare for the winter. I asked him what happened to cheeks during the spring and summer and he said he didn't know.
I keep thinking wistfully of the ways I could have cooked them. Pork cheeks braised in milk. Pork cheek stew with kale and white beans. Pork cheeks simmered with rice wine, dried red chilies, and fermented bean paste, with Sichuan peppercorns. Just about any stewing or braising preparation would suit pork cheeks. A pork cheek is not an irregularly shaped cut like trotter or a hock, nor does it have too much fat to be rendered or dealt with in some way, such as pork belly. A pork cheek is just a perfect round of flesh and collagen, and so conveniently sized that you don't even have to cut it up before adding it to the pot. Braise and enjoy. Or stew and enjoy.
I wanted my last cheeks to be red-braised—that is, simmered in some combination of soy sauce, wine, and sugar. I have not forsaken the practice of red-braising, though in recent months I have been using Thai dark soy instead of soy sauce, palm sugar instead of rock sugar, and fish sauce instead of salt. Thai dark soy contains sugar or molasses; its flavor is caramelized compared to that of regular soy sauce.
That's one of the things I love about red-braising: that variations in the kind of soy sauce you use, the kind of sweetener, and the seasonings you add to the braise make a difference in the end. A Japanese version might call for the pork to be braised in dashi with squares of kombu added in. It's a degree in difference rather than kind, but important if you're fond of red-braising.
The Thai don't red-braise, but red-braising with a soy sauce from Thailand is the kind of fusion I can get behind—that is, pan-Asian fusion that's really not very much of a stretch. You can find dark soy in most medium-to large Chinese markets, and of course in Southeast Asian markets too. It has the consistency of honey, the smokiness of molasses. The soy sauce itself is so good that you don't have to add much else to your braise. Fish sauce, palm sugar, a bit of rice wine, and a stick of cinnamon were the only other things that went into the pot. (Bird's eye chilies for heat would be good as well.) The cheeks were braised to fork-tenderness in the oven for a couple of hours, though you could also simmer the pork on the stove.
In keeping with the Thai flavors, I sprinkled fried onions on top and served the dish with sticky rice. Jasmine rice cooked in coconut milk would be a great accompaniment as well, along with toasted shredded coconut. These flavors—the smoky sweetness of dark soy, the crunchy bits of fried onion—are highly recommended, with or without pork cheeks. If you can't find pork cheeks, use pork butt (shoulder), or neck, or belly. But if you can find pork cheeks, buy them up by the dozens.
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