While rummaging through the freezer last week for some fatback to make sausages, I discovered a package of pork cheeks tucked away in a corner. Needless to say, this excited me greatly, and I had an idea what to make with them: pork cheek ragu. A spin on one of my all-time favorite dishes from a long-since-closed restaurant in my old city of Washington DC.
There used to be this really awesome Italian restaurant in Adams Morgan called San Marco and I’ve got some great memories of it. I took Cheryl there for our very first Valentine’s Day dinner and was even on their mailing list since that’s the way you followed a restaurant before Twitter. The dish that I’d order whenever I saw it on the menu was pappardelle with a wild boar ragu. So good. Anyway, finding those pork cheeks somehow got me thinking about San Marco so I improvised.
Going on memory I recall it had a brown, slightly nutmeg flavored sauce so I really had to caramelize everything and ease up on the tomatoes. Worked like a charm. When I deglazed with some wine I got a great brown color. I did add some tomatoes, which I don’t think were in the original, but just a few pieces.
I find pork cheeks are very easy to work with, relatively inexpensive, flavorful, and tenderize quickly in a braise. No slow cooking for hours on end with this protein. The ten cheeks I was braising were fork-falling-apart at a little less than 90 minutes and shredded easily. As a finished ragu I think it could have been a little saucier, my fault for reducing too much while waiting for the pasta water to boil. Despite this slight flaw the pork cheek ragu turned out really delicious.
Not as good as San Marco, but when I asked Cheryl if she liked it and she said: ‘you can make this again.’
Pork Cheek Ragu with Mushrooms (4 servings)
- 2-3 lbs pork cheeks, trimmed
- Flour for dredging
- 2 Tbs butter
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 shallots minced
- 1 medium carrot, small dice
- 1 celery stalk, small dice
- 8 oz Cremini mushrooms sliced
- Bunch of thyme (6-8 sprigs) tied together
- 1 C red wine (plus a couple of Tbs for deglazing pan)
- 1 C water
- 1 can of tomatoes (28 oz) drained and chopped
- ½ tsp nutmeg
Season the trimmed pork cheeks with salt and pepper. On the stove over medium-high heat, heat the oil and butter in a large braising pan/Dutch oven. When the butter has melted, dredge the seasoned pork cheeks in flour then add to pan and brown on both sides. It may be necessary to brown them in 2 batches. Remove from pan and set aside.
Drain fat from pan.
Reduce heat to medium and add the shallots, carrots, and celery. Cook over medium heat until well browned. Deglaze the pan with some wine scraping up the bits.
Next, add the mushrooms and thyme. Cook the mushrooms down until the pan is almost dry. Deglaze again with a little bit more wine, scraping up the bits.
Add the tomatoes, wine, and water. Season and stir in nutmeg. Bring to a boil.
Put the pork cheeks and any juices into the liquid, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to simmer.
Cook for 90 minutes. After 90 minutes the pork cheeks should easily pull apart when you stick a fork into them. If not, simmer for another 30 minutes.
Remove pork cheeks from sauce and shred with a fork. With the pan cover off, reduce sauce to a desired consistency then return meat to sauce. Season to taste, spoon over pasta and serve.