This post will continue my long love affair with cheeks. They look odd, come in unpredictable shapes and size, and I’ve only found one reliable location to buy them in the northeastern US: the Italian Market in Philly. I’ve heard Savenor’s in Cambridge sells beef cheeks for $20 a pound and my other option is $100 for a 50 pound box in the warehouse district. Neither of those works too well for me, so I will continue with an endless cycle of loading up occasionally, vacuum sealing and using the meat for a couple years.
Anyhoo, I’ve had these pork cheeks for awhile now and I’ve been looking for a good opportunity to use them. With a reprise of the “Shhhh, Janet’s sleepin'” Oktoberfest party on tap this past weekend, I retrieved the cheeks from the chest freezer to thaw and started meal planning late last week.
On Saturday, I got going a few hours before folks came over by browning three sliced medium onions and some coarse chopped garlic in lard.
The goal was to give the onions a little color but not cook them fully since they would be braising in with the meat eventually. While those cooked, I pulled the thawed 3lb package of pork cheeks out of the fridge.
The cheeks were all given a good rinse, patted dry, and piled up on a plate for me to pick through and pretend I knew what I was doing when assessing them.
Unlike the beef cheeks from the Italian Market, these didn’t require an intense 30 minutes of finger endangering trimming. Generally the meat looked pretty good, mostly trimmed of fat and with no extra silver skin or connective tissue hanging on. The oddest thing was the broad range of size and shape for each piece of meat.
Quick aside: a lot of the bizarre shapes and sizes of the cheeks comes from where I usually get these. I think the general process is that they butcher a bunch of the same type of animal and throw the cheeks in the same bucket before freezing them into a gigantic block. My friendly butcher then slices the block while frozen so you end up with some full pieces and some halfies. Now you know.
With the meat patted dry, the remainder of the ugly pieces trimmed off, and the onions browned, I moved on to seasoning the cheeks. Nothing special here, just a good amount of light brown sugar, salt, and black pepper.
I seasoned both sides of the meat and in under a minute you could see the salt drawing out the moisture in the meat and the brown sugar trapping it. With that process going, I removed the onions from the pot, flipped the cheeks and gave the meat another sprinkle of seasoning.
The cheeks went into the Big Yellow in two waves to brown on all sides and hopefully not build up too much burned sugar on the bottom of the pot. Not browning the beef cheeks was the biggest mistake I made when cooking that meal and I have beat myself up for it at least once a week in the 22 months since then. So, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
After 5 or so minutes on each side the first batch came out and the next batch went in. Eventually leaving me with a nice big pile of browned cheek meat.
Due to the amount of burned sugar caked on the bottom, I scraped a bit off with a wooden spoon and threw it away before properly deglazing with a solid pour of dry sherry. The remaining good bits were scraped off the bottom while the sherry cooked down and after a few minutes I added a carton of beef broth and a beer. As usual, it was the worst beer in my fridge.
The sweet bourbon flavored beer seemed like a natural match for the braise and the flavors I’d added so far. After waiting out the initial foam-up from pouring cold beer into the hot liquid, I added a couple bay leaves, a clove, and turned the heat to medium to let the liquid reduce for about fifteen minutes.
Once the liquid had reduced by about 1/3, I added the cheeks back into the dutch oven and positioned them so they were all mostly covered with the liquid. Then added back in the onions and garlic, poorly attempting to distribute them evenly.
With everything back in the pot, the lid went on and Big Yellow headed into a 325F oven for two and a half hours. During that time I hid remotes and iPhones from Janet, tried to distract myself on my computer while she repeatedly hit the caps lock, and fed her dinner while asking her, “you think Daddy is a good cook, right?”
Finally, as people were starting to show up and Janet headed to bed, Big Yellow came out of the oven. As usual, I stuck my dumb face directly over the pot as I removed the lid and was blind for 30 seconds from the steam burn. When my eyes could see again, they saw this.
The dutch oven was set to the side with the lid half open to let the meat rest for 30-45 minutes. One thing I’ve learned about cheeks and short ribs is they are always better after a rest of some kind. Even though this turned out very tasty (spoiler alert!!!), if I had to do it again I would have cooked it the day before and let it all rest together for 24 hours.
While that rested I pulled the lid off of the batch of slow cooked Momere Beans (she turns 100 this weekend!!!! I mean, wowzers!) and let some of the liquid cook off.
The beans ended up needing a little more time, so while they finished cooking I boiled a bunch of skin-on red potatoes and let them cool once soft. Mashed those together with a little milk, a couple big spoonfuls of dijon mustard, chopped green onion, an egg, and lots of salt and pepper.
Once the potato mixture had rested for a bit, I formed it into patties, rolled them in some breadcrumbs and pan fried in a little olive oil.
When the pancakes went into the pan, I turned on the burner under the cheeks to warm them up a bit. As each pancake came off, it got a cheek (or two of the smaller cheeks pieces) on top, along with a ladle of braising liquid/onions, and a big spoonful of Momere Beans.
The meat was tender and cut easily with a fork without being overly tender and mushy. Cheek meat doesn’t taste much different from a flavorful piece of pork shoulder, but the grain of the meat is distinct and the meat is less fatty. You could taste the sweetness from the onions, beer, and brown sugar in the liquid, but the best bites had the added sweetness of a forkload of beans. The pancake was a nice contrast to the beans and pork with the crispy starch and mustard flavor coming through. All in all, very solid plate of food and I was stunned that the Oktoberfest crew was able to continue eating sausages after finishing their plates since it was true stick-to-your-ribs food. Solid overstuffed night of eating.
Off to Momere’s birthday party. It’s gonna be like the rave at the end of Go I think. Spoof’n, but pretty amazing that she is 100 and still lives alone in a house heated by a wood burning stove. I think I am going to be especially blown away when I see the full group of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren at the party this weekend.
Good luck to everyone in the Northeast recovering from Sandy. LBI as many of you have seen already got hit very hard, but we have hope for our little bayside house and will keep you posted on how it fared when I know more.