Monday, April 30, 2012

Pork Cheek Ragu


Although considered offal, the cheeks of an animal are nothing more than just another muscle. While certainly not a tender muscle, the cheeks of a cow or a pig don't require any special attention: they're no different then a short rib really. I have already blogged about ox cheeks here. Today I approached a pork cheek in much the same way as those of the ox, i.e. in a ragu. However, the similarities end there. These pork cheeks were carefully tended to over the course of a weekend. They have been trimmed, brined, soaked and finally braised. It has been an adventure and the results were sublime.

A bit of background: pork cheeks in English cookery are sometimes called 'bath chaps'. That is, they are brined, then boiled and cooled to a sort of charcuterie. Traditionally served cold, they are cut thinly and accompanied with garnishes of piquant mixed pickles and perhaps English mustard; a beautiful dish by any standards. I envision such a thing being noshed on in a pub along with a pint. No doubt enjoyed by working men at the end of their shift. The milieu in which I find myself however is a bit more domestic and hardly as cinematic as such a scene. Therefore, I decided to go for the crowd pleaser and revisit the ox cheek ragu with the jowls of a fine pig. Here is what I did:

First, I brined the pork cheeks. Pork lends itself so well to brining, that if you have the time and gumption, please give it a go. In the past I have used Heston Blumenthal's "six percent" brine, but given the flesh I was working with, Fergus Henderson came to mind, so I used a variation of his brine. This consists of,

-4 litres of water
-600 g of salt
-400 g of sugar
-12 Peppercorns
-12 Juniper berries
-4 or 5 Bay leaves
-12 Cloves (I know it's a lot of cloves and the brine will smell like Christmas, but the finished product only had the barest hint of it - beautiful and subtle)

In addition to his brine, I also added:

-several branches of fresh thyme
-a few lemon peels
-a generous pinch of fennel seeds

The brine has to be boiled until all the salt and sugar dissolve, and then it needs to be cooled completely. Once cool, I lined a large stockpot with a plastic bag and poured in the brine (a brine should be made in non-reactive materials, a plastic bag is what I have to work with). I had about a pound of cheeks; a bit more brine then you need for that amount of meat, but I don't like to tinker with ratios, so I threw in a few pork hocks as well to fill in the space (I'll be cooking those later in the week). Once everything is in the brine, get it somewhere cool. I have a covered front porch and it has been a brisk spring thus far - perfect as long as the kids don't tip it over. I left it out on the porch for about 48 hours. It could go longer, but I am very risk averse.

Once out of the brine, get your cheeks into some fresh water to soak. This will temper the saltiness somewhat. I soaked them in clean water for about 2 hours. Finally, it was time to braise. Yet, I'd spent so much time on this that I had no more braising time left: so I pull out the pressure cooker. In any event, as I discussed with the ox cheek recipe, in this scenario, I like the pressure cooker's ability to break meat down so it is meltingly tender, yet strangely, it retains the full bright acid taste of the accompanying tomato. This creates a great fresh foil for the very rich cheeks. Yes, I know that Ma's 'sunday gravy' is tomato sauce that is cooked for hours and hours, and that's great and all, but I find with very rich, gelatinous meat, acid can be a very good thing. But that's just me.

Anyway, I sautéed up the usual stock veg of onion, carrot and garlic and deglazed with some dry vermouth. Then I put the sweated vegetables, the pork cheeks and a tin of quality tomatoes into the pressure cooker. Adding this amount of tomato might be considered a bit controversial. Classic ragus are not swimming in tomato; they are usually a deeper brown colour instead of bright red. A small amount of tomato paste is quite often all that is used in something like this, however, as I have mentioned, there is a refreshing 'brightness' to that big pile of tinned tomatoes that I find extremely satisfying. Anyway, I followed that with a sprig of rosemary, two bay leaves and a bit of seasoning – then on with the hatch.

About 35 minutes later, I released the steam. I pulled out the rosemary branch and the bay leaves and gave everything a gentle mash with the back of fork. The meat will break apart and amalgamate with the vegetables quite nicely. There is a gelatinous quality to this sauce as the fats and connective tissues from the cheek break down and thicken everything up. If you’re not used to this kind of texture, you might find it a bit off-putting. To thin it out a bit and make it little less unctuous (really who makes things less unctuous?), I simply got a bit of the starchy pasta water into it (say a few tablespoons),and to offset that richness from the pork with some sweetness, I got a few dashes of good balsamic vinegar into the mix.

Fresh herbage is critical for a dish like this and I find flat leaf parsley can’t be beat. Serve this ragu on some wide-ish noodles (think tagliatelle or papardelle).  I tossed a bit of fresh, peppery arugula into my finished pasta, just to push the fresh quotient a bit higher. A few chilies wouldn’t kill you either.  

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