It’s time I spoke up about something dear to my heart… And it’s not only braised pork cheeks as the title of this post seems to suggest. It’s about the other half of the title as well: the blatant waste of perfectly good food that has become so predominant in our society. For a long time now, I’ve been itching to say a few words about how we owe it to ourselves and this planet to play a little more wisely with the culinary hand of cards that we’ve been dealt, how we can make something from nothing and how we can make a little better use of some of the perhaps more unusual cuts from the animals that provide parts of our daily diet. Like say, the cheeks; that most overlooked part of the critter. I’m not going to lie, this post is partially inspired by beautiful food activist Selina Juul and her hard work with the Stop Wasting Food Movement. But it’s also something I’ve been wanting to do personally for a long time, something I’ve done indirectly a few times and something that now needs to be done quite directly.
I’m amazed sometimes, you see. Simply amazed. Amazed that I live in a world where people will demand easy access to perfectly flavorless off-season ingredients, flown in from the far reaches of the Earth during winter time. Yet, at the same time throw away or leave to waste perfectly beautiful tasty ingredients when they’re at the height of their season. I could have easily angled this entry a self-righteous seven reasons why people who eat strawberries and green asparagus in January must die kind affair, but granted, that’s a little rough, and rough is not the way of the Johan (oh, shut up, all of you!), so instead I’ve gone with a softer and much more accommodating angle: an adventurous guide to eating according to season and wasting less food!
So, what we have here today is not an attempt by me to put certain people to shame. It’s an attempt to educate and hopefully show a better way. What we have here is a recipe, of course, but it’s more than that: It is first and foremost the story of how I used scraps, left-overs and throw-away products that nobody wanted to create a meal fit for kings, at the cost of $2 per person from things that would have otherwise been put to waste. But not only that, it’s a collection of small tips to minimize your waste of food all while maximizing the flavor of your dishes. And, last but certainly not least, it is another declaration of love to one of my favorite eats of all times: braised pork cheeks!
They call me adventurous eater… I figure out what to eat, what not to eat and how to cook it so you don’t have to! Like this deep-fried Mars Bar for example. Don’t eat that. Remember, kids, I do the experiments so you don’t have to!
Why did I choose pork cheeks as the subject of my tirade against food waste? Well, it all started when my friend and fellow (mummy) blogger Tina shot me a text message earlier this month saying: “I found some Iberian pork cheeks priced at DKK 25, should I get them for you?” – When I shot back with an easily expected “hit me,” she replied back just as quickly “Well, how many do you want? They’re about to toss eight packs of them!” … At which point my brain – following an overwhelming sudden influx of anger, bewilderment and sadness – just stopped functioning and cried out, in an emergency response: “Just get as many as you can, I’ll give them a good home!”
And I wasn’t kidding. Not about the influx about emotion or about the giving them a good hope. The fact, you see, that reasonably sane human beings (as I still consider Danish consumers to be) would let perfectly reasonably priced and downright heavenly meat go to waste is beyond me. Completely beyond me. For starters, I’m a meat lover and an animal lover. I’ve had several heated debates with vegans around the world as to whether that’s possible. But the way I look at it, I love animals and I feel that if we must eat animals for food (and I think we must), we at least owe it to said animals to treat them well in the painfully short time they’re with us. Not only that, but also to oblige ourselves to make the most of their sacrifice onto us once they’re only with us on the plate. And that means eating more than just the chops, the bacon and the tenderloin off the pork. It means showing the animal respect by letting as little as possible go to waste!
Now, I’m willing to accept that to some people cheeks are not the most appealing cuts of meat. I get that. It’s tough, muscular, reasonably fatty and sort of odd looking… I get that. But appearance is only skin deep. Or in this case muscular deep. Think about this, my friends, the more work a muscle does, the more tender and flavorful, hence beautiful, it becomes once subjected to the right cooking techniques… And I think you’ll be pretty hard pressed to find me a muscle that does more work than the jaws of an animal bred for slaughter! News flash, ladies and gentlemen! The cheeks are about the most tender and flavorful cut of meat on an animal… And you were going to let them go to waste? Oh, woe is you!
Yes, I do recognize that some of you realize the errors of your ways and would want to do better. You just simply wouldn’t know how to go about cooking pork cheeks or any other old, tough cut of meat. Let’s strike a deal right here and now: I teach you how to cook pork cheeks, and you promise to pass them by next time? Deal? Awesome! Let’s rock!
Or are we getting ahead of ourselves? Are we still having trouble imagening how something as “ugly” as pork cheeks can turn into good eats? Fear not, fellow foodie, I have the answer and it’s pretty simple, really: braising! Which, really, is nothing but a fancy term for searing something over high heat, then cooking it slowly in a flavorful liquid. To turn pork cheeks (or other perhaps less desirable cuts of meat) into yum, we simply need a bit of time and a bit of flavorful liquid, and eventually we’ll have braised pork cheeks, a dish far better than the sum of its parts! The liquid can be anything, really, water, stock, wine, beer, tonic water (don’t!)… The sky’s the limit, as long as we invest a bit of time and thoughts, the results, I guarantee, will be phenomenal!
Now, I’ve already done beer-based a love song for braised pork cheeks, so I wanted to try something else. Wine, perhaps, but how? It took a mention on Twitter by the great @kmoztar (aka klidmoster.dk) of something called Pork Cheeks Milanese to get me on track. For some reason, when I heard the name, I in no way thought of the dish that most people think of as Pork Milanese. I thought instead of another Milanese favorite: Ossobuco, veal shanks simmered for hours in a rich tomato, stock and wine based sauce to create succulently tender meat and great flavors. This was what I wanted! Only instead of veal shanks, I wanted to use another tough cut: pork cheeks! Brain farts can be funny like that, see?
Ossobuco-style braised pork cheeks, it’s a thing!
I decided right then and there that I would turn my pork cheeks into a playful spin on Ossobuco. I furthermore decided that as a challenge to myself, I wanted to make the meal using nothing but scraps from the fridge or byproducts from other cooking adventures. I decided, too, that I would put my efforts on the blog in an attempt to hopefully get a few people thinking about their food waste or have a few people give cheeks a chance.
And my adventures went a little something like this…
Step 1: Take stock of the situation!
Now, the first thing a single guy – even one as hungry as I – needs to consider when receiving a gift of two kilos worth of pork cheeks is long time storage. So before anything else, I had to make some room in my long term food storage compartment, aka my freezer. To do so, I unearthed a gem from the bottom: a collection of chicken carcasses that I always keep at hand for stock making ways.
The timing was perfect, really. Pork cheeks, as we’ve just established, need to simmer low and slow in some form of flavorful liquid. And which liquid is better for the job than homemade stock? Having these pork cheeks arriving on my doorstep gave me a perfect excuse to get busy with one of my most favorite kitchen tasks – stock making – while at the same time freeing up valuable freezer space for individually frozen portions of the end results.
Pro Tip #1 – A carcass is a terrible thing to waste: At the cost of a little time, a few liters of water and some vegetable scraps, you can easily create chicken stock so flavorful it will make you loathe ever getting store bought. Want to know how? Check out my easy go-to recipe.
Now, obviously, I don’t suggest that you go and make stock every time you dig up some weird bit of slow food type of meat. But stock, too, freezes very well, and much more handily than the cartilage or bones from whence it came. So, dear fellow foodies, save your cartilage and your bones and make stock from them when time permits. It freezes well and you never know when it might come in handy. This, however, is not a lesson on stock making, so let’s quickly and elegantly skip this step, assume that you have access to quality stock, preferably homemade, and skip to the first step of the actual cooking process. In which we put both the stock and the bonus fat from our stock making adventures to good use.
Pro Tip #2 – Skim your stock, but never discard the fat! Put it in a suitable container, cover it tightly and put it in the fridge or freezer. Then use it in meat dishes like you would butter: for sautéing, for making roux, or anything else, basically. It’s pure gold culinarily speaking.
Step 2: Browning equals flavor
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: Any really flavorful slow food dish starts with a thorough browning of the main ingredients! Browning, for reasons that we have already covered countless times, creates flavors that would be thoroughly missed in the flavor profile of the final dish. So, to really kick things off, I browned my pork cheeks well and thoroughly in a combination of chicken fat and butter using my trusty cast iron pot. Once thoroughly browned, I set aside the pork cheeks and added a bit of veggies from my secret stash to the pot now swimming in a combination of butter, chicken fat and pork juices.
By secret stash, I mean, of course, the ever changing stash of vegetables that lives at the very bottom of my refrigerator where it’s nice and cold. How did I amass such a stash? Well, like many fellow Danes, I get weekly deliveries from a company called Aarstiderne. They supply me with an ever-changing weekly box of vegetables which usually includes a selection of aromatic vegetables such as carrots, onions, celery and the likes. I use up most of these during the week, but whatever I can’t use or don’t know how to use, I usually stash at the bottom of the fridge for emergencies such as these. They keep surprisingly well when kept cold and while maybe not much to look at at the end of the week, they’ll remain flavorful for longer than you think!
Pro tip #3 – Buying vegetables in bulk? Save those odd ends and pieces! You may not know what to do with them at the time, but they may come suddenly in handy for one of those weekend slow food projects!
This time I happened to have some assorted onions, a couple of carrots, and two stalks of celery laying around. A classic mirepoix? How lucky is that! You’d almost think I’d been planning ahead!
Also, in my secret stash, I discovered most of a leek as well and an entire bulb of garlic. The leek, I chopped up finely and added to the other aromatic vegetables. The bulb of garlic, I cut the end off and saved for later. The time now had come to play with one of my favorite ingredients of all time: alcohol!
Step 3: Wine boosts flavor
Once the veggies were soft and aromatic (as the term aromatic vegetables seems to suggest), I added the pork cheeks back in the pool, and topped it with a decent glass of the crisp, lightly sweet Riesling left over from the night before. I poured myself a glass, too, of course, just so the pork cheeks wouldn’t be drinking alone. But there’s more to cooking with alcohol than a buzz. Cooking with wine, you see, not only adds awesome flavor of its own, it also helps boost the flavors of another key player, I wanted to invite to the party: tomatoes! Now to those of you reading along from the Southern Hemisphere, we’re at the peak of winter up here and I’m not afraid to say that I use canned tomatoes this time of year. At this time of year, they’re far more flavorful than their “fresh” counterparts. They can still use a bit of a boost, though which is where the wine comes in. Luckily for us, tomatoes contain flavor compounds that are only soluble in alcohol, so that left-over glass of wine or two is not only an excuse to get buzzed, it really comes in handy in boosting the flavor of tomato-based stews.
Pro Tip #4 – Left-over wine? I know it’s a sin, but should it happen, seal the bottle tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to a week. Then use it for adding extra flavor to your dishes. Especially the tomato-based ones. Or just grab a glass every now and then.
But… Why white wine in such a hearty red dish, you may wonder? Well, unless I’m making a really arch-typical red wine-based stew like Beef Bourguignon, Coq Au Vin or similar, I’ve found that white wine really works better in most culinary applications. Especially if said cases involve pork, like the subject of our post today, or maybe a traditional Ragù alla Bolognese. The white wine adds much of the acidity and fruitiness that a red does, but it doesn’t add the tannins that sometimes wreck havoc on the overall taste profile of the dish. Don’t believe me? Give it a try, you might well be surprised… Ahem, but that’s another post. On with the show!
With the wine already in the pool, I performed culinary magic (or science, probably… it’s probably science!) by adding the tomatoes, topped up with a bit of my home-made chicken stock, a splash of cream from the previous night’s spaghetti bolognese project… I added a few more odds and ends to the dish, including the whole head of garlic, a couple of crumbled bay leaves found at the back of a cupboard and a star anise found next to said bay leaves… And then continued on to my favorite part of the recipe. In which I slapped on the lid, turned the heat down and fucked off to do something else for two hours!
Step 4: Time, the most important of ingredients
The beauty of tough, ugly cuts like pork cheeks, you see, is that all they really need in terms of cooking is a few hearty ingredients and time. They’re wonderfully low maintenance like that. You give them a bit of time and peace and they, in turn, melt into the most flavorful, delicious and tender nuggets of deliciousness you could ever imagine. All while everything else in the pot blends together to create a rich and insanely flavorful sauce to bring everything together. What happens during those hours of undisturbed cooking is that all the fat and connective tissue that make these cuts otherwise tough, ugly and unappealing melt into mouthwatering, finger-licking gelatine which not only tenderizes the meat, but also creates an abundance of flavor and thickens up the sauce.
It’s an amazing process, really, in which the pork cheeks morph from ugly, tough cuts of meat into fork (or spoon) tender good eats. The only thing you’ll want to be really careful about here is to not cook them for entirely to long. Not that they’ll end up tough or ruined or anything, it’s just that they’ll eventually turn so overcooked that they’ll have released all of their flavor and texture into the cooking liquid all while turning to mush in the process.
Personally, I strive for about three hours worth of total cooking time which leaves the cheeks wonderfully tender with some textural integrity still intact. With a dish such as this one, I’ll generally leave them simmering covered for about two hours while I do something else (like typing up this particular post). I’ll then come back, raise the lid off the pot and leave them cooking uncovered for about an hour, allowing the sauce to thicken and intensify in flavor while I finish up some sort of side dish.
Step 5: M*A*S*H
Now, a dish such as Ossobuco would traditionally be served with Risotto Milanese for an incredibly rich overall experience. And I’m a fan of rich experiences, but in this case I actually find the overall combination a little too rich. So I usually go with another rich option: Mash! Now, if I do say so myself – and no one else will, so I’ll go ahead – my perfect mashed potatoes would be a fine choice here, but since for the purpose of this post, I was working with a zero waste angle, I went instead with a mash of whatever was in the fridge.
In my particular case, this meant half a left-over celeriac root and a few past their prime parsnips all of which I pealed, cut up and boiled in a bit of salted water, then blitzed with my trusty Bamix stand blender with a little chicken stock, another splash of leftover cream and some good organic butter that I always keep handy in case of emergencies. Oh and a few drops of white truffle oil… Emergencies, you know! The result? A wonderfully airy, fluffy and creamy mash with deep earthy notes, a nice shine, perfect texture and taste…
A mash just right for slathering with the perfect mix of rich, creamy sauce, tender pork cheeks and the deeply flavorful aromatic vegetables that had finished cooking on the side in what eventually turned out to be a meal fit for kings made entirely from scraps, leftovers and soon-to-be waste.
Pro tip #5: Perfectly creamy root vegetable mash! Using those left over root vegetables for mash? Root vegetables contain nowhere near as much starch as potatoes. As a result, the texture of a root vegetable mash may suffer a little when compared to mashed potatoes. To set things straight add a little (or a lot!) of left-over butter and cream to add not only texture and shine but also taste to your root vegetable mash. Fat, after all, is a great carrier of flavor. Worried about the calories? Get out of here! Or rest comfortably knowing that root vegetables contain half the calories of potatoes.
So, I wasted no time in bringing everything together, piling it up on a plate, garnishing with a bit of the green parts I had left over from the leeks and serving it up with a glass of the “wine of the month” from my local favorite Vestergaard Wines. What I eventually had, after sacrificing only a little time and thought, was something from nothing – a perfectly succulent, balanced, rich, flavorful and comforting dining experience of which, the glass of wine was actually more expensive than what was on the plate… And this was by no means an over the top kind of wine, my friends!
Pro tip #6: Left-over cream going bad? Make cream cubes! While working on the draft for this post, my proof reader Tina reminded me to remind you that cream freezes extraordinarily well. Left with a bit of cream that you don’t know what to do with? Freeze it in an ice cube tray for easy portioning the next time you’re making sauces or soup.
Braised Pork Cheeks – The Recipe
Want the details on how I created something (well, more than something, really) from nothing? Here’s a more detailed write-up of the recipe. Obviously, you don’t have to use leftovers to prepare this wonderfully succulent spin on an old classic. But I’m sure the farmers of the world would thank you if you made the best of their hard labor. Can’t find pork cheeks? Any other tough cut of stew meat would work just as well: shoulder, shanks, belly, feet, tails? Uh, I’ll let you decide!
Can’t find pork cheeks? You can use about any other tough and unwanted protein, though maybe not these pickled pig’s feet from our adventures in Dixieland! I’m adventurous, but not THAT adventurous!
The point here is that the sauce serves as not only the perfect preparation and flavor companion, but also the perfect hiding place for those perhaps less than attractive, less than desirable cuts of meat that might otherwise go to waste.
Ossobuco-Style Braised Pork Cheeks Recipe
- 1 kilo pork cheeks trimmed of excess fat and silverskin
- 2 onions diced
- 2 large carrots diced
- 2 stalks celery diced
- 1 leek white part, finely chopped
- 1 head of garlic bottom cut off but husk let intact
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 can diced tomatoes about 400 grams
- 400 ml chicken stock
- 100 ml cream
- 1 glass crisp white wine
- two bay leaves
- one star anise
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon chicken fat or butter
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Season pork cheeks liberally with salt and pepper
- Put a cast iron pot over medium heat and add olive oil or chicken fat/butter.
- Once fat is heated, brown the pork cheeks thoroughly on each side in batches as to avoid crowding the pot.
- Set the browned pork cheeks aside and add the onions, carrots, celery to the pot and sauté for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the tomato paste and the leeks and sauté for another minute.
- Put the pork cheeks back in the pot, then add half of the white wine, allow to cook for a few minutes until wine has reduced down a bit.
- Add in the diced tomatoes, chicken stock, cream, rest of the wine, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves and star anise and the entire head of garlic.
- Turn heat to medium high and let the pot come to a simmer.
- Back heat down to medium low, put a lid on the pot and leave to simmer slowly for two hours.
- When the two hours are up, remove the lid, raise the heat to medium and let the sauce reduce for about another hour or until thickened.
- While the sauce reduces, you can skim off some of the fat, that floats to the surface… Or not, choice is yours.
- After a total cooking time of about three hours, carefully fish out the star anise, bay leaves and head of garlic.
- Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. If everything seems a little too rich, you can add a splash of sherry vinegar to cut through the rich, fatty flavors.
- Serve with mashed potatoes, root vegetable mash, pasta or rice on a cold winter day.
Recipe NotesThe more finely diced the vegetables are, the smoother the final consistency of the dish. If you want the dish to have some chunks and chew left, dice your vegetables fairly large.
Braised Pork Cheeks – The Verdict
Wow, talk about something from nothing, guys! This is by no means a fancy or expensive dish. It’s just a few cheap, in this case nearly free, ingredients thrown together in perfect order and given a lot of time to create flavors that rival those of much more expensive dishes. And… Wow, just wow… Quite honestly, this perfect little marriage of pork, tomato and aromatics rival the best Ossobuco I’ve ever had, both in terms of depth of flavor, texture and tenderness… And it’s made from leftovers and scraps… For a whopping tenth or so of the price of a comparable pot of Ossobuco!
Now, surely, I got a little lucky with ingredients here which enabled me to produce this dish at next to no cost, but that just goes to show that if you shop wisely, put a little thought into things, save those little odds and ends or half-glasses of wine or cream and are willing to think and improvise a bit, you too can create a magnificent feast from scratch at the end of the week – at little to no cost… Sometimes from the most unlikely of ingredients…
And you were going to throw those pork cheeks away…? Let’s all agree that next time, you give those tough, nasty cuts a try! If only you put a bit of time and effort into things, I pretty much guarantee you’ll be taken aback by their tenderness and flavor… If not, I’ll take the leftovers!
Prologue: Of Scraps and chickens
So, I bet you thought that was about it. That I couldn’t possibly wring more out of the ingredients used. Umm, well, wrong! Remember those root vegetables that I used for the stew and the side of mash? I peeled those of course… And I couldn’t possibly do anything with those peels, right? Umm, well, wrong!
Had I been using potatoes, I’d have boiled the skins in a bit of left-over cream or milk (once thoroughly washed, of course) then strained the cream and added to the mash for a bit of added flavor.
Pro tip #7: Making mash potatoes? Save the skins, simmer them in milk or cream, then strain all the liquid to the mash for an extra boost of flavor. Get all the details in my perfect mashed potatoes post.
Since I did not use potatoes, I instead collected all the skins and trimmings in a bag and threw them to my friend Malene. Her mom keeps chickens, you see, and chickens, too, like to eat well… So we all pool up our scraps and trimmings and use them for chicken feed. Why? Well, what goes around comes around, and say you found yourself in need of truly freshly laid eggs for poaching… Who better to turn to than the lady whose chickens you help feed? Or say those chickens eventually stop laying eggs as chickens tend to do. Who do you think is most likely to first be offered a nice, healthy, flavorful stewing hen at a very reasonable price? Hmm? That’s right… The people who helped feed them!
Pro tip #8: Befriend your local keeper of chickens! Vegetable trimmings, peels and what have you that you couldn’t possibly eat, go down well with many other critters. Know someone who keeps chickens? Feed them your scraps and they may feed you in return!
Pay it forward, people, think about your food waste and make the most of what you buy. While saving vegetable peels may indeed seem a little extreme, there are other ways to consume wisely. So, please, for the sake of your wallet, society and the strain that feeding our growing population is putting on the planet in general: stop wasting perfectly good food!
Did I miss a tip for minimizing food waste? Let us know in the comments below!