Pork cheeks have a special place for us as a wonderful food memory and because they are so very, very tasty.
Some Context on Why We Love Them So
Long before we married, and before we ever considered farming, or even before the concept of butchering our own pig had ever crossed our minds there was Assisi. L had never been to Europe, and when I asked, “Where would you like to go?” A map of Italy appeared on the back of her office door. Soon after a motorcycle rental was found. L managed to pack light enough to fit two weeks of gear plus her helmet into one motorcycle bag. What a woman!
After arriving in Rome and taking in the sights we picked up a Ducati ST3 and zoomed into the winding countryside with no itinerary save for the desire to take it all in. Assisi was our first stop. We met an old innkeeper who had funky but charming rooms on the wall of the town. Our common language was a love of motorcycles. Their espresso was spectacular and the view equally so.
Around 7 o’clock Italians head out for a stroll, and the warm October night allowed us a luxuriant ramble on the hilltop town. Across from St. Francis’ classic basilica we found a lovely little restaurant, and embarked on the two hour culinary journey that Italians take for granted. Wine, pecorino cheese, and Umbrian bread started the meal. Imagine my delight, my utter rapture to be in this enchanted setting and sharing it with the love of my life.
There was a special, “only a few” according to our server who maintained a professional demeanor but was clearly excited. Pork cheeks were on the menu that night. It came with strangozzi (a plump spaghetti-like pasta), porcini mushrooms, and steamed carrots. As we have since the day we met, we tasted and shared everything on the table, my plate was hers and hers mine. Perhaps it was a trick of the dim light, but the room seemed to fall away and suddenly we were alone together hovering in warm fragrant space. It is still etched in my memory, her face, the table, and small plates of fantastic flavors shared between us. The cheeks were tender, succulent, and packed with flavor. Imagine the richness and depth of a slow cooked shoulder roast in a tasty little medallion.
Somehow it seems appropriate to have savored this meal in the town of St. Francis the saint who gave sermons to beasts. For our part we try to use as much of the animal as possible out of respect for sacrificed life, so when our last order of pork was made we took our farmer up on the offer of free heads and took three. L has the dog and cats on a raw meat diet so we thought any leftovers would be good to use for their meals.
Using your Head
There are great uses for heads: the jowl, which we cure for three months to make a fatty bacon called guanciale. These are prized in our home above all other cured meats. L slices thin slivers to make pasta carbonara and also uses it in soups and on our favorite pizza – “green, eggs and ham” (arugula, eggs and guanciale). Then there is head cheese, which we have yet to make, and lastly the cheeks.
When we opened the bag of bloodied heads and I began paring off usable meat I saw them – the cheeks were still on. I yelled excitedly “Cheeks! They left the cheeks!”. Philistines! These morsels were once reserved for Kings as tribute! I hopped around attempting to carve them off artfully and not remove a digit in my enthusiasm. This little outburst and happy-dance was repeated with each head, and each time with L’s eye-rolling at my exuberance. If you think I am alone in my adoration check out Chi-Chi Wang’s post on the subject.
…The first thing I do is saunter by the butcher counter. I try to play it cool.
“Oh, I see you have cheeks today,” I say. “Well, maybe I’ll just get two pounds or so.”
Thumbs twiddling, I watch the bucker wrap up the cheeks.
“On second thought, can I get twenty more pounds?” If I can muster it, I’ll yawn to show my indifference.
I try very hard not to bolt like a maniac once he’s handed me the precious parcel. Probably, I think, this is what it would feel like to rob a bank, exactly that rush of adrenaline and sense of risky wrong-doing….
Auld Lang Syne
These tasty bits are now reserved for New Year’s Eve. I’ll recreate that fabulous meal and add a little Prosecco to toast the new year. Here’s what I am making, don’t tell L.
½ pound all-purpose flour, plus more for working the dough
1¾ cups fine semolina flour, plus more for working the dough
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1¼ cups ice water, plus more as needed