Why It Works
- Braising pork cheeks in the gentle, even heat of a 300°F oven allows them to turn meltingly tender over several hours without any stirring or fussing with stovetop heat settings.
Last year there was an IKEA commercial about a woman who leaves the store with a number of large bags in her cart. She looks off to the side, as though caught in the act. When she's loaded everything up in the car, she urges her husband to "Drive, drive!," believing that the store has grossly undercharged them. This is the exact feeling I get about going to a butcher shop and seeing a bin of pork cheeks. How is it possible that the cheeks cost less than ground meat? How is it possible than no one else is buying out the whole bin?
The first thing I do is saunter by the butcher counter. I try to play it cool.
"Oh, I see you have cheeks today," I say. "Well, maybe I'll just get two pounds or so."
Thumbs twiddling, I watch the bucker wrap up the cheeks.
"On second thought, can I get twenty more pounds?" If I can muster it, I'll yawn to show my indifference.
I try very hard not to bolt like a maniac once he's handed me the precious parcel. Probably, I think, this is what it would feel like to rob a bank, exactly that rush of adrenaline and sense of risky wrong-doing.
Pork cheeks are exactly what their name implies: the slip of meat in the hollow of the cheek, underneath the animal's eyes. (Guanciale, the famed Italian bacon, is made sometimes from the cheeks but also from the jowls of the pig.)
What makes cheeks so good? Relatively lean, yet very moist meat. There are few parts of the animal for which this is true. Usually, you need marbled fat to get the same degree of tenderness—say, in the neck region, the shoulders, or in parts of the brisket. But cheek meat is like hock meat—the same kind of lean meat connected by lots of tissues and collagen. Cook it for a long time, and the meat breaks down into hockey-puck-sized nuggets of fork-tender flesh. You might not have the advantage getting bone and cartilage in the mix, but cheek meat is so good on its own If you can get your hands on some, pound-for-pound it's a much better deal.
The cheeks will be good braised any which way. I can never get enough of a Sichuan-style red-braise with chili bean paste (made from fermented fava beans and chiles), fermented black beans, soy sauce, wine, and sugar. (This is not to be confused with the more commonly known Chinese red braise of soy sauce, wine, and sugar.)
Or, try this Italian braise with tomato sauce and red wine. The sauce is just one step away from being a complete meal with the addition of pasta, spaetzle, or polenta.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/2 to 3 pounds pork cheeks
2 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
1 medium onion, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
2 celery stalks, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary or thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Dry pork cheeks and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add them to the pan in batches, taking care not to crowd the meat. Cook until the surface is browned on both sides, about 4 minutes per side, flipping only once or twice so as not to disturb browning. Remove with tongs to a plate and brown remaining cheeks, adding more oil if needed. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). Add onions, carrots, and celery to Dutch oven and sauté until softened but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add wine, tomato, and rosemary. Return pork cheeks to pan, stir to combine, and bring the mixture to a simmer.
Cover pan and transfer to oven. Braise until meat is very tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Allow meat to cool and settle in liquid (for best results, cover and refrigerate overnight). Skim fat from surface and reheat gently. Serve with pasta or polenta.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 24g||31%|
|Saturated Fat 8g||38%|
|Total Carbohydrate 7g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||8%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 8mg||41%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|