Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pork Cheek Ragù

I have a little love affair with cheeks.  Pork cheeks, veal cheeks - these are the smallish bits of the animal that are oh so melt in your mouth tender.  While I have problems adapting to the more unusual pieces of the animal, the cheeks don't bother me.  They are, after all, just more meat.  If I don't have a problem with pork belly (bacon!), cheeks shouldn't be so hard either.

We've had some pork cheeks hanging out on the freezer from our pigs as well as some from Dominion Valley Farm (which I'd been wanting to use to cure my own guanciale, but have not yet had the proper opportunity to set up a curing space for myself), so we decided we needed to use them.  I found this delicious looking recipe for Pork Cheek Ragù, which would also let me use the pasta maker for homemade pasta, and we were set.

This recipe is deceptively simple.  It sounds like something that will take you all day to prepare and cook, and while it's on the stove for hours, you need less than 30 minutes to actually work on it.  You essentially brown the meat, add everything else for the sauce, and braise the meat in the sauce for 3 hours or so.  And that's it.  It's literally so quick and simple I found myself re-reading the recipe a few times after everything was simmering to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything.  After 3 hours, the sauce has reduced and the cheeks are tender enough to be shredded with a fork.

some of the main players
trimmed pork cheeks
browning the meat
onions, celery, and garlic
wine, tomatoes, and herbs
the finished product

I lacked the powdered shiitake mushroom the original recipe calls for, so I just omitted it, but I could see how it would be delicious, so I left it in my adapted recipe.  I also about doubled the sauce recipe, since I felt we'd need more sauce, and we could have even had more.  (Bryan really, really likes sauce.)

Between the fantastic ragù and the homemade pasta, everyone at the table, including Oliver, could not stop commenting on how delicious a meal this was.  Oliver especially was shoveling food in his mouth at a near alarming rate.

So please, please, please - make this meal.  If you don't make homemade pasta, be sure to buy some papparedelle - the broader pasta is the only kind that can stand up to the thick, rich ragù properly.  (Trader Joes sells some nice ones.)  If you don't have pork cheeks, you can use something else - any cut of pork that has some fat, such as pork shoulder - just don't use something too lean.  Heck, you could even use beef (just use red wine instead of white).  I'll definitely be keeping this recipe on hand for quick meals, as well as dinner parties.  This recipe is perfect to impress your guests - and reduce stress at the same time.  Not only is it easy to make, but it can be made a day in advance, and only tastes better the next day.

Pork Cheek Ragù
(Recipe adapted from

2 lbs pork cheek
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
2 1/2 cups stewed or crushed tomatoes
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tsp marjoram
2 bay leaves
1 Tbs powdered shiitake mushroom

Trim excess fat off the pork. Season the cheeks with salt and pepper.  Heat a heavy bottomed pot over high heat. Add the pork, fat side down, and cook until well browned. Turn to brown the other side.  Remove pork to plate.

Lower the heat and add the onions, celery, and garlic. Cook until soft. Deglaze the pan with the wine, increasing the heat and and reducing.

Add the tomatoes, thyme, marjoram, and bay leaf, stirring to combine. Add dried shiitake mushroom. Add the pork and juices to the pot, turning the heat to low.  Cover and simmer for 2-3 hours, or until the pork can easily be shredded with a fork.

Serve over fresh pasta.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Italian Grandma

Meet my Italitan Grandma.

Pretty, no?

She is a Viante Cucina Pasta Maker, and she is quite amazing.

I've made pasta for years.  I started out rolling the dough out by hand with a wooden rolling pin, a crazy endeavor that took nearly all day, and thus happened rather infrequently.  My Mom gave us an Imperia Pasta Maker years ago to help with the task.  This hand crank machine certainly spread up the process, but still, making pasta at home took a few hours.  Roll, fold, roll, fold, roll, fold, roll, fold, roll, fold, roll... change the pasta maker setting to a smaller opening, and repeat.  Five times.  Once Oliver was born, homemade pasta making dropped off to roughly none in our house.  A sad but rather unavoidable truth.

Last fall, Mom and I were pursuing a Chef's Catalog when I happened upon the Viante Cucina Pasta Maker, and I daresay she took my breath away.  Put the ingredients in, push a button, and it makes the pasta for you?  How much simpler could it be?  I commented on it, and little did I know, but the wheels started turning in Mom's head.  She surprised us this Christmas with the machine as our gift.

I've made fresh pasta about every other every weekend since.  This machine makes it truly easy, and fast.  The process takes 30 - 40 minutes from start to finish, depending on the type of pasta you are extruding.  The machine comes with 10 pasta plates of different shape and size - linguine, fettuccini, spaghetti, rigatoni, vermicelli, ziti, tagliatelle, pappardelle, spaghettini, and biscotti.  The machine is fairly easy to assemble.  Once each part is in place, you add the ingredients, snap the lid on, and let the machine mix and knead the dough.

Once the dough is the correct consistency (this takes all of 3 minutes), you pull a tab out the side, allowing the dough to drop into the extruding chamber, and stand ready to catch the homemade pasta.

The dough will began to extrude through your chosen plate rather quickly.  Your only job is to stand guard, cutting the pasta at the appropriate length and watching the dough through the clear top of the mixing chamber to make sure it is neither too wet nor too try.  (The lid has a removable spoon covering a slot through which you can add more flour or water as necessary).  And that's it.  In 20 - 30 minutes, you'll have a pound or so of fresh pasta.  Delicious, soft, silky fresh pasta.  It's so easy, I feel almost ridiculous even thinking about using store bought, dried pasta.


My only complaints about the machine are that it is very, very loud, and it can be a bit messy on the top (where the hole in the lid is, because of adding additional flour).

But considering how messy and time consuming the alternative is, this is a small price to pay.  The machine itself is very easy to disassemble and clean; though, it is advisable to do so immediately after use, so that you can soak the parts in hot, soapy water for quicker clean up.  Cleaning up dried, cakey pasta dough is no fun.

The machine "only" does extruded varieties of pasta, so for anything large and flat (lasagna, ravioli, tortellini), I'll still need to use the Imperia machine to roll out sheets.  I have a Ravioli Rolling Pin (also from Mom), so hopefully that helps with the ravioli rather than stuffing each by hand.

I just realized I might be slightly obsessed with fresh pasta.

And that my mother might be trying to send me a hint about what she wants for dinner.

But if you've ever had it, you'll understand why.