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Key Ingredient: Marianne Sundquist of In Fine Spirits makes the most of pork cheeks

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The Chef: Marianne Sundquist (In Fine Spirits)

The challenger: Cleetus Friedman (City Provisions)

The ingredient: Pork Cheeks

Pork cheek, says Marianne Sundquist, is "one of the cuts of meat that is really underused." Which is too bad, because "it's really inexpensive, and I think something magical happens when it's braised. . . . In the oven, it just melts apart when it's braised really low and slow."

Pork cheeks are exactly what they sound like: cheek meat from pigs. They're often confused with pork jowls, probably because the terms tend to be used interchangeably, but the jowl is much fattier. The cheeks are sinewy, Sundquist says, and not very fatty: "It's a really tough piece of meat, so you can't just throw it on the grill. The braising gives it time to loosen up and become really tender." She thinks a lot of people are afraid to use it, but "there's really nothing scary about it. It's wonderful."

Sundquist began cooking with pork cheeks several years ago, but she doesn't remember exactly why. "I don't know if I tasted it before I tried cooking with it . . . I think I read about it in a magazine." She pretty much always braises it, and says that the cut "picks up flavors really well, but it also has a really nice, distinct pork flavor that I feel like has even a little bit more of a punch than pork shoulder, which maybe is my other favorite cut of pork."

Sticking with what she knew, Sundquist made a braised pork cheek ragout with ricotta gnocchi, searing the pork cheeks in rendered pancetta fat. "I would say you need to have patience during braising," she said, checking the cheeks to see if they were ready to flip. "It can be really tempting to just turn them fast, before they're quite brown enough. But it makes all the difference in the world, for flavor, if you just let them get brown."

Once that happened, she added a mirepoix, fennel, chopped mushroom stems—"they have an awesome texture that totally stands up to braising"—garlic, thyme, and marjoram. "I see and smell that the garlic is starting to caramelize, so I'm going to add a bottle of wine and start the deglazing process," she said. Pork jus and crushed tomatoes also went in, as well as some Parmesan rinds. The whole thing goes into an oven for three to five hours—"and it will be totally amazing, because when it comes out of the oven, you touch the pork cheek with a spoon and it just, like, falls apart. Delicious."

Sundquist served the ragout with ricotta gnocchi made with pate a choux dough to make it fluffier. "I like the lighter texture accompanying the heartier [ragout]. I feel like it makes a really hearty dish not so heavy," she said. As for the ragout itself, the pork cheek adds "the awesomeness of the pork—of the pig. It brings the pork flavor, which is delicate and mild . . . kind of sweet and meaty, but it also just fits perfectly with the crispy, light gnocchi."

Who's Next:

Abra Berens of Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan, working with yinzhen silver needle white tea, which is Sundquist's personal favorite. "It's an incredible tea," she said. "It's really subtle and smoky and really delicate. So I think it's going to be challenging." 

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Pork Cheek Ragout

½ lb pancetta, diced small

5 lbs pork cheeks, cleaned and trimmed

1 large onion, diced small

4 large carrots, diced small

½ lb button mushrooms, diced small

1 fennel bulb, diced small

6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

3 T fresh thyme, chopped

3 T fresh marjoram, chopped

½ bottle red wine (drink the other half while cooking!)

1 lb canned whole tomatoes, crushed by hand, including juice

1 qt (approximately) pork or vegetable stock, to cover

(1) Saute pancetta over medium heat until fat is rendered out. Remove pancetta with a slotted spoon and reserve, leaving fat in pan.

(2) Dry pork cheeks and season both sides with salt and pepper. Over medium-high heat, brown pork cheeks in batches, reserving browned pieces in a bowl. Be careful to leave enough space between pork cheek pieces while browning in pan or they will steam instead of searing. This caramelization process is key to making a delicious ragout!

(3) Once all the pork is out of the pan, add the onions, carrots, fennel, and mushrooms. Saute until they start to get some color. Add garlic, thyme, and marjoram. Cook about five minutes more, or until the garlic just begins to caramelize.

(4) Deglaze with red wine, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add tomatoes, then the reserved pork cheeks and enough stock to cover.

(5) Cover the pan tightly with foil or a Dutch oven lid. Place in a 275 degree oven for three hours or more, until pork is tender and falling apart. Break apart tender pork cheeks into the sauce, finishing the ragout. Check seasoning and adjust if necessary.

(6) Serve with pasta, gnocchi (recipe follows), crusty bread, creamy polenta, or just a big spoon.

Crispy Ricotta Gnocchi

1 c whole milk

¼ lb butter

1 c all-purpose flour

4 eggs

2 lbs fresh ricotta

1 c Parmesan (microplaned)

3 c all-purpose flour

pinch of salt

2 eggs, slightly beaten

(1) Make the pate a choux part of the dough. In a medium-size saucepan, bring milk and butter to a simmer.

(2) Pour in one cup of the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until dough comes away from the side of the pan.

(3) Put dough into the bowl of a mixer with a paddle attachment. Add the first four eggs, one at a time. With each addition, the dough will separate and then come back together. Add the next egg only once it comes back together.

(4) Add the ricotta, Parmesan, flour, salt, and remaining eggs to bowl. Paddle until everything is incorporated and smooth. (Note: this all can be done by hand if you don't have a stand mixer; you'll just get more of a workout.)

(5) Let dough cool for an hour in fridge.

(6) Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Spoon quenelles (a three-sided shape that's formed by smoothing dough between two spoons) into the boiling water and cook in batches until they float to the surface. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. This can be done up to a day ahead of time.

Serving

Parmesan cheese

¼ c chives, minced

(1) When ready to serve, melt a little butter in a saute pan over medium heat.

(2) Heat the ragout in a pot.

(3) Add gnocchi pieces to the saute pan, turning them gently with a spoon until all three sides are brown and crispy.

(4) Spoon ragout in the bottom of a bowl and arrange gnocchi pieces on top.

(5) Garnish with grated Parmesan and minced chive.

(6) Enjoy!


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