Apparently, Winter is never going to end, my lips are never going to stop chapping and peeling, my flourescent-white legs are never going to see warm sunlight, and I am never going to have to think about wearing any garment that is more revealing than a down puffer coat that gives me the svelte figure of the Michelin Man. So I’m thinking why not just go all out Winter comfort food like slowly braised meat sauces enveloping homemade egg pasta and showered with a blizzard of parmesan cheese.
My hands down favorite slow braised meat sauce is this pork cheek ragù. Made out of the flavorful little medallions of cheek in the middle of what southerners would call hog jowls (and when cured, what Italians call guanciale), pork cheeks are tough little morsel of flavor that slowly braise down into the richest, most lip smacking, pasta coating, clingy, delicious sauce. As when you make a good stock with the collagen filled parts of a chicken so that the stock is rich and silky without being fatty, pork cheeks break down with slow cooking to dissolve the tough protein and collagen into a sticky mahogany sauce.
Pork cheeks can be a little hard to track down in a regular supermarket meat case but they are definitely worth asking around for or ordering from a farmer or butcher. I can always find them at Eataly in Manhattan, and since they aren’t a super mainstream cut, they are pretty inexpensive. The sauce freezes really well so it’s not a bad idea to make a double batch when you have a chilly afternoon to spend indoors.
1 pound pork cheeks
I medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon harissa paste
½ cup red wine
1 -28 ounce can of whole plum tomatoes
1 large bay leaf
1 sprig fresh rosemary
fresh ground black pepper
Unwrap the pork cheeks and completely dry them with a paper towel. I usually get pretty well-trimmed cheeks, but if you see lots of pieces of fat, trim the big chunks.
In a sauté pan or shallow soup pot, heat a splash of olive oil to a shimmer over medium heat. Carefully place the pork cheeks in a single layer in the oil. Salt and pepper, then flip them with tongs and salt and pepper again once the first side is golden brown. Once both sides of the pork are brown, take them out of the pan and set them aside.
Drain all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and lower the heat. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot to the oil and sauté over low-medium heat to soften them and remove any brown bits of fond from the bottom of the pan. Once the vegetables have softened, scrape them to the sides to make a space in the center of the pan. Add the tomato paste and harissa to the pan and let it sizzle for a minute or two, stirring gently to cook the pastes together. Stir the paste and vegetables together and add the wine. Bring it to a boil and stir to release any browned bits from the pan’s bottom. Cook until the smell of the wine mellows. Add the pork cheeks, can of tomatoes, bay leaf, and rosemary. Bring to a slow simmer.
Cover and lower the heat to very low, just enough to maintain a low simmer. Cook for at least and hour until you can easily break the pork cheeks up with a spoon. Once the meat is tender, remove the sauce from the heat. Remove the bay leaf and rosemary stem. With a pair of forks or a flat edged wooden spoon, crush the pork and tomatoes into coarse chunks. The sauce should be very thick and sticky.
Toss with pappardelle pasta or pour over parmesan-infused grits. With a vegetable peeler or coarse cheese grater, shave slivers of parmesan over the top.