Weird Crap I Cook: Pork Cheeks and Pancakes

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.

Went with lard because it was in the fridge and I was sick of having it in there.  An extremely common explanation on this blog.  Stop leaving me lard in my mailbox, everyone!

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.

Tim is incredibly wasteful with his food saver bag sizing which is completely contrary to his hippie “ohhh, I compost my coffee grounds and eggshells for my garden” persona.  In reality this thing was a football sized frozen brick when we packaged it and needed lots of room.  I hate when I bail him out

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.

Cheeks are interesting, every piece looks and feels completely different, though I probably pretended I had opinions on each piece as I picked through them.  Grabbed your cheeks and moved your jaw around a bit yet?  I do that every time I see raw cheek meat

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.

I end up having to scrub both cutting boards in the end but the pattern of stupidity just refuses to end.  Or I refuse to let it end.  Either way, you should fully expect to one day see a third cutting board on top which will go unaddressed for awhile before I start complaining about using three cutting boards instead of just two.  Basically, I foresee this blog capturing my slow decent into insanity

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.

Got my ingredients in dat shot! Bonus items include half a brown banana for Janet (she eats equal parts expensive fruits and borderline trash), the video monitor (she was nappin’), and an extremely long receipt from Kristi’s pre-Sandy grocery run that we finished before Sandy hit

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.

Nice to see that brown sugar melting in.  Also, helps clarify that there was a second plate of cheek meat, not just the cutting board pile.  I am extremely talented at thawing out the exact right amount of meat based on that meat being labeled properly

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.

I failed at the “no burned sugar spot” attempt.  I have this issue every frigging time I brown stuff in Big Yellow but I’m too lazy to do it in a separate pan that would require separate washing and drying

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.

Lookin’ dece, pig cheeks.  Some pieces looked like tenderloin, some like cutlets, but all totally different.  I can’t wait for Con to visit his Grandma so I can get more.  Con, go visit your Grandma!

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.

This Kentucky Bourbon Ale four pack probably cost between $10 and $15 at our local boutique beer shop and was brought over by a guest weeks ago.  I’m sure it is brewed with love, but it tasted like the Milwaukee’s Best and Southern Comfort boilermakers I chugged in college on more than one occasion.  Had a damp belch just thinking about that one

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.

I’ve finally beaten my urge to always make too much braising liquid.  Next up, my urge to eat to the point of sweatyness.  We can beat this thing guys!

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.

I’ve gotten better at not doubting myself at the last second right before I put a pot in the oven to braise.  Always leads to major mistakes.  Though I am 75% sure most of my friends come here to watch me fail

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.

Braising is the best, you knew this was going to be tender and excellent without even sampling it

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.

Not sure why I didn’t mention these before but they are a required side dish at Oktoberfest.  Momere and Joycie might have given me a good head shaking had they tried these since my lack of par boiling definitely had them less mushy than the standard baked beans, but most people seem to enjoy that little extra firmness

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.

Hate that I got the basics for this recipe from the Down Home with the Neelys.  Their banter is infuriating but they do cook some delicious grub.  I have no idea how Tim lives with himself regularly cooking from recipes

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.

I love potato pancakes and regularly utilize leftover mashed potatoes for them.  I’m not saying that they are good or edible normally, just that I like the idea of them and cook them regularly

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.

It’s a good sign when the food is good enough to not make me pause and take a mid-eating picture, but always makes the post feel a little incomplete.  This is the last foto, imagine bites that mash everything on the plate together accompanied with lots of grunts and heavy breathing

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.

Momere’s Baked Beans

In addition to her grandparents, Janet is blessed with having two great grandmothers, Alice and Janet (the source of her name), as well as a great aunt through marriage, Joyce.  What’s really amazing is that she also has a great-great grandmother, Simone.  Now, in the Ryan family we called our grandparents Grandma and Grandpa, but things are done a little differently in Kristi’s family.  Janet is Grandma Net, Alice is Grandma Ali, Joyce is Joycie, and Simone is Momere (pronounced “Mommer” in the VT translation of French).  Hence the name of the post.

Momere is 98 years old and still lives on her own down the street from Net and Kristi’s parents.  She mostly wears clothes that she made herself, has a husky laugh that makes me feel like I am pretty funny, and keeps her house at a balmy 80 degrees using a wood burning stove in the winter.  I’ve had a few queasy mornings there after after the family Christmas parties.

Joycie and Momere chillin' at one of the summer parties. Note the baggo (or "cornhole" in Ryan terms) game going on in the background. Thank god it's become the lawn game of choice at family events since I almost killed three bystanders the last time I attempted to play horseshoes

In the time I’ve known Kristi, Momere’s eyesight hasn’t been great which has limited her ability to cook, but everyone in the family talks often about how good her cooking is.  Kristi has told me on multiple occasions about how amazing her baked beans are and since I’ve never cooked baked beans myself, I decided recently that I wanted to get my hands on her recipe.  The only obstacle was that unlike my need to write down recipes since I only cook things once or twice, Momere has an arsenal of dishes that she’s cooked hundreds of times over nine decades.  So, the recipes are entirely in her head and she probably hasn’t had to measure out the proportions for the past 20-30 years.

Janet loved hanging with Momere. And, no, she wasn't DJ'ing, that's a new hearing aid which seems to work much better than previous ones

At Casey and Mark’s wedding a few week’s ago, Aunt Tiffany and I asked Momere to share her recipe for baked beans.  As she said, the proportions are all to taste, but the key ingredients for her recipe were soldier or navy beans (“careful to pick out any rocks or bad beans”), salt pork (“always look for the pieces with the least fat and most meat”), maple syrup, white sugar, and mustard.  She also gave specific instructions on cooking time (“at least 6 hours at 275”) and a good way to test whether the beans are ready (“they are done when you blow on them and the skin comes off”).

With that information and a little online research, I was ready to get started by picking through, rinsing and soaking a pound of navy beans.

Couldn't find soldier beans, but navy beans were given as a second option. I am usually lazy with beans and use the canned version but this effort was worth an exception

After an overnight soak, I had this underwhelming result.

I think I expected them to quadruple in size overnight or something, but they only got a little bigger

I strained and rinsed the beans again then reserved them while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.  Next up was the salt pork which Kristi picked up for me at the grocery store.

Kristi didn't let Momere down and got a pretty meaty piece. It helped that I reiterated that point unnecessarily about a thousand times before she left for the store. I'm lucky to be married folks, lucky to be married.

I hadn’t cooked with salt pork much previously aside from attempting to use it a couple years ago after being introduced to it at Ryan Thanksgiving.  My Aunt Jeannie uses slices of salt pork draped on top of the turkey to flavor the bird and keep it moist, but I mostly tried and failed to use it in breakfast preparations.  It’s really salty stuff, so after cutting off about a third of the slab to use, I rinsed it thoroughly to remove excess salt, then transferred to the cutting board to trim the rind off.

I think the rind is skin, but not sure about that. Also, salt pork is made with fatback, so even a meaty piece still has a lot of fat

Most recipes called for 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound of salt pork or bacon per pound of dried beans, but since I like my beans salty and porky I erred on the high end and used a little under a half pound, which I cubed into small pieces.

I knew the fatty pieces would almost completely disappear during cooking leaving only delicious flavor. Oh, and fat.

Next step was giving a yellow onion a medium dice and measuring out some mustard.  As I researched online, most recipes called for ground mustard, but I really got the sense from Momere that she meant prepared mustard when she gave the recipe.  So, I went with my ample gut, and decided to go with Grey Poupon as a semi-homage to Momere’s French-Canadian heritage.

Although I was planning on a quarter cup, I was totally guessing since I had no idea what the prepared equivalent of 2 tablespoons of ground mustard would be. But there was a third of a cup left in the bottle, so that's what I went with.

To make sure there wouldn’t be clumps of individual ingredients and everything would be evenly dispersed, I decided to combine ingredients prior to adding the beans.  Starting with whisking together the mustard with the maple syrup and a little water.

Action shots!!!! I was really enjoying myself more than made sense at this point

Per Momere’s recommendation, I began taste testing the liquid since it was key to the success of the beans.  I started with a half cup of maple syrup and a couple tablespoons of white sugar but added more of both until it got to the sweetness level I was hoping for.  It ended up at around 3/4 cup of maple syrup and 1/4 cup of sugar which was a little sweeter than I wanted, but it would be diluted by adding a few cups of water before cooking.

Once the flavor was right, I added the salt pork, onions and a couple tablespoons of minced garlic.

Worst kept secret on the ADB blog: I keep a jar of store-bought minced garlic in the fridge for when I am out of fresh garlic or feeling lazy. Both were the case on this day

Stirred in the beans, about 2 1/2 cups of water, a couple tablespoons of fresh ground pepper and then the whole bowl went into the smaller cousin of my favorite Le Creuset.

This was looking lighter in color than I expected but I figured the beans and sugar would darken during cooking. Also, sometimes when I post pictures of this Le Creuset in use I feel like I am cheating on my main squeeze, Big Yellow

The lid went on, and this headed into the 275F oven for 6 hours per Momere’s instructions.  While that cooks, here are some interesting Momere facts:

– She has 27 great grandchildren and 15 great-great grandchildren.  Blows my freaking mind.  When I was young I remember showing friends the picture of my oldest brother John as a baby with our father, grandfather, and great grandfather shortly before he passed away.  I thought it was amazing that my brother actually met his great grandfather.
– When Momere was 48 her husband passed away and she needed to find employment to support herself.  In a show of incredible determination, she put herself through nursing school and worked for an additional 30+ years before retiring at the age of 80.  By contrast, I left my relatively cushy job to go back to school when I was 29 in the hopes of finding an even cushier job.  If the previous sentence was shown to a group of seniors along with a picture of me eating a sandwich, there would be universal head shaking and a resounding chorus of, “they don’t make ’em like they used to.”
– After Momere’s husband passed away, it was just her sister, Marcienne who was also recently widowed, in the house with her.  Momere Marcienne (as she was called by the family) and Momere were married to brothers and had brought up their two families in the same house.  They lived about 6 houses away from Kristi’s family so Momere Marcienne and Momere often took care of Kristi and her twin Kate when they were babies and occasionally after school while their parents were at work.  They each had their own twin, and while I love Momere,  I gotta side with Momere Marcienne since she was on Team Kristi.

Momere Marcienne is on the left, Momere is on the right. While my head is exploding with comments on my wife as well as my brother and sisters in-law in this picture, let's keep this a nice blog about Momere and her awesome baked beans, okay?

Back to the cooking.  After about four and a half hours in the oven, I pulled the beans out to check if they needed a stir, which they did.

The top layer was in danger of drying out but you can see the ample cooking liquid below bubbling through in spots

The change in color and rich aroma were very encouraging, and stirring the beans up helped avoid the top layer getting too dry and dispersed the liquid throughout the beans.  After another hour and a half I pulled the beans and had my first taste.  The flavor was great, exactly what I was hoping for, but the big test was Kristi.  I couldn’t have been happier than when she ate the first forkful, then the rest of the small bowl I’d prepared, and said the flavor was right on.

Since the beans were still slightly firmer than I wanted them and there was a good amount of excess liquid, I removed the lid and put the beans back in the oven for another 40 minutes at 325F.  Which got me here:

You know that looks freaking delicious, and the smell matched

The flavors came together very well and each bite had a little salty pork flavor, a little maple, and some tartness from the Dijon mustard.  Just the right level of sweetness too, not the over-the-top sugary sweetness of Bush’s Maple Cured Bacon Beans.  They had a very rich flavor, but not a heavy richness, perfect with a couple sausages or hot dogs.

I OD'ed on these Al Fresco chicken sausages a few years ago and am just now reintroducing them to our meals. They were a good compliment to the beans, as was the yellow horseradish mustard from some Buffalo place that Buschy left in my fridge

The beans weren’t quite as soft as the canned variety, but I wouldn’t say that made them any less enjoyable, just clear that you weren’t eating canned baked beans.  I’d likely do a little more lid-on cooking time and a little more water in the future if I was hoping for softer beans.  I’ll also listen to Momere and cook them until the skin falls off when I blow on them (which it didn’t on mine).

Anyhoo, they were really good.  The next step is to attempt making these the next time I visit VT and see if Momere has any suggestions or changes.  I am already feeling a little nervous about that.  Here’s a poor attempt at a recipe.

Pete’s version of Momere’s Baked Beans

1 lb dried navy beans (rinsed and soaked overnight)
1/3 lb salt pork (rinsed and cubed) – 1/2 lb for saltier/meatier beans
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup white sugar
3 & 1/2 cups of water
1 medium yellow onion (diced)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 275F.  Whisk together mustard, maple syrup, water, and sugar until thoroughly blended.  Stir in beans, pork, onions, garlic, and pepper.  Place in medium sized pot with heavy lid and place in oven for 6 hours (7 hours for softer beans), stirring once approximately halfway through cooking.  Increase oven temperature to 325F, remove lid, stir once, and cook an addition 30-45 minutes or until excess liquid has cooked off.  Remove beans from oven and they are ready to serve.