Thursday, April 19, 2012

Improvising - Homemade Braised Pork Cheeks

On a trip to the farmer's market a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to score some pork cheeks from Newman Farm. The tender cheek meat of a pig is one of the most delicious parts of one of the world's most delicious animals. So nice restaurants snap up the majority that Newman produces, making it a special treat to find at the market.

I've been doing a lot of braising lately, since my wife got me a copy of the excellent All About Braising cookbook by Molly Stevens for Christmas. I've posted about a couple of the braises I've made like beef short ribs braised in red wine and Caribbean pork butt. The book didn't include any recipes for pork cheeks, but I've braised enough recipes from it to be confident that I could throw something together. This week I had a pretty good assortment of vegetables left over from various other recipes. One of the unifying principles of traditional soul food and French cuisine is that nothing should go to waste. So I decided to see what I could do using no recipe and only what I had on hand in my kitchen.

The first thing I did was dry the cheek meat off with paper towels, season it with salt and pepper, dredge it with a little flour and brown the pieces on all sides in a cast iron skillet with butter and olive oil.

I grabbed a leek, a couple carrots, a celery stem, a small yellow onion, a shallot and a couple garlic cloves from the produce I had on hand and diced everything up. Since I also had a bell pepper I was briefly torn between going Cajun or French. French braises almost always start with mirepoix made from sauteing carrots, celery and onion while almost all Cajun food starts with the holy trinity of bell pepper, celery and onion. I decided to save the pepper and use the carrots, which meant I was going French. 

For my aromatics I ground up a couple allspice berries and combined them with a bay leaf, some leftover fresh thyme that was sitting in the fridge and  a couple rosemary sprigs from a giant rosemary plant in our flower bed.

I used the same skillet that I browned the cheeks in with a little additional butter and olive oil to saute the veggies for a few minutes before adding the aromatics. I also had an extra tomato on the counter, so I diced it and added it in. 

I make large batches of homemade chicken stock and store it in mason jars in my freezer since I do a lot of cooking with it. I added enough to the skillet to mostly cover the veggies. I also had about a quarter-cup of white wine from the Old Millington Winery sitting in a bottle in the fridge, so it went in as well.

The lid from our cast iron Dutch oven also fits our skillet. I put it on after I added the pork cheeks and placed the skillet in a 300 degree oven for about two hours.

Once the cheeks were perfectly tender I took the braise out of the oven and moved them to a serving pan. I hit the braising liquid with some zest and juice from a lemon that was on the counter because it was there and lemon zest makes almost everything better. Then I just added salt and pepper to taste to create a sauce that my wife described as "magical." While the total cooking time ended up being over two hours, there was only about 20 minutes worth of real kitchen time. I spent most of the time working in my garage while the braise was in the oven. The great thing about braising is that once you get the simple technique down it becomes easy to make up or customize recipes on the fly with outstanding results.

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