Saturday, March 5, 2016


Cheeks are on the menu today. Pork cheeks, a cut of meat that I learned to love only a few years ago. That was on a visit to Sierra de Aracena (Andalusia, southwestern Spain), where I was meeting, up close and personal, ibérico breed pigs and the people who produce superb ham from them. (From this region come the famous Jabugo hams.)

At dinner the night before my visit to the pig habitat, I had a chance to sample fresh ibérico pork, the raw material for ham. Cuts with names like “secret,” “feather” and “prize” were grilled over smoldering oak coals and served medium-rare. Marbled like prime beef, the meat was tender and juicy. But what I enjoyed most were the tender carrilladas, pork cheeks braised in a wine sauce.

Braised pork cheeks in a wine sauce with prunes.

Since then, I buy pork cheeks—both ibérico and regular pork—when I find them at a local supermarket and stash them in the freezer, ready for when I want an easy, slow-cooked meal.

Pork cheeks are collops of muscle meat that need slow cooking to become tender. Spanish cooks suggest using the pressure cooker, but I like to braise them in a wine sauce. After about 90 minutes, they are fork-tender. The savory sauce practically begs for mashed potatoes or chunks of bread. By the way, I’ve learned that kids really like pork cheeks, at least if you don’t get too graphic about where the meat comes from.

Serve mashed potatoes with the pork cheeks to soak up the delicious gravy. Chard is a good side.

Pork Cheeks with Wine Sauce and Prunes
Carrilladas de Cerdo en Salsa

The size of pork cheeks varies considerably (4 to 6 ounces each). Allow two per person, depending on size. Very large ones can be cut in half.  I cooked four (1 pound 2 ounces), to serve two persons. The meat shrinks considerably during braising. Beef or veal cheeks can be prepared in the same manner, but, being larger, they will require longer cooking.

Cut away thin layer of fat.
Unless the butcher has already done it, you will need to remove the membrane of fat that covers one side of the piece of meat. Use the tip of a knife to lift and cut it free.

Serves 2.

4 pork cheeks
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, diced (1 cup)
1 onion, chopped (1 cup)
1/3 cup chopped green pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup peeled and chopped tomato
5 prunes
½ cup white wine
1 cup water or meat stock
¼ teaspoon powdered ginger
Pinch of ground cloves
1 bay leaf
1 slice lemon
6 small onions (optional)
1 teaspoon Sherry vinegar
Chopped parsley to serve

Sprinkle the pieces of meat with salt and pepper. Dust them lightly with flour. Heat the oil in a pan and brown the pieces of meat on both sides. Remove them from the pan. Add the diced carrot, onion, green pepper and garlic to the pan and sauté until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomato and sauté until liquid is cooked off.

Wine, prunes and chopped carrots cook with the meat.
Return the meat to the pan. Add one of the prunes, quartered, the wine, water, ginger, cloves, bay leaf and lemon. Add small onions, if using. Add about ½ teaspoon salt (unless you have used meat stock, in which case salt is probably not needed).

Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook the pork cheeks 45 minutes. Turn them and remove the small, whole onions if you have used them. Cook the meat 40 to 45 minutes longer, or until it is fork-tender.

Remove and discard the lemon and bay leaf. Remove the cheeks to a plate and keep them warm with a few bits of diced carrots for garnish. Place the remaining vegetables and liquid in a blender with the vinegar. Blend to make a smooth sauce.

Return the meat, sauce, cooked onions and remaining prunes to the pan. Simmer 10 minutes. Serve sprinkled with a few diced carrots and chopped parsley.

Meat is so tender you probably don't need a knife.

Another recipe for pork cheeks is here.

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