Pork Cheek Ragù

Pork Cheek Ragù on Toast

After having the fantasic pappardelle at Crooklyn Improv, I found myself craving the broad ribbons of home made pasta. As I was contemplating the merits of different sauces that I could pair with my pappardelle, I came across We Are Never Full’s luscious Sausage Ragu. It had to be a sign.

While many in the US associate ragù with a brand of jarred pasta sauce, it actually refers to a whole class of meat-based sauces in Italian cuisine. The word itself is a loan word from the French ragoût which is a stew or sauce that’s served with noodles. I happened to have about 5 lbs of pork cheek meat sitting in the freezer and because of its high fat and connective tissue content, it’s perfect for a sauce like this.

For those not familiar, pork cheek (also known as jowel) is literally the cheek meat of the pig and is the same cut used to make Guanciale. There isn’t a ton of meat on each cheek, but the meat that is there is incredibly flavourful and has a fantastic marbling of fat that keeps it moist and makes it fall apart when cooked low and slow.

Pork Cheek Ragù with Pappardelle

It also happens to be a very cheap cut, coming it at $4.99 a pound at an upscale Manhattan butcher, which means you can almost certainly find it for less at your local butcher. Because it is a rather unusual cut, you probably won’t find it at the meat counter of a grocery store, but this is totally worth a trip to the butcher. If you’re not of the pork persuasion, this recipe would also work well with other types of meat like lamb or beef, but be sure you get a cut of meat with a lot of fat and connective tissue. If you do use other types of meat, try using other spices. Mint works great with lamb, and for beef, I tend to like more subtle spices like basil or sage.

The best part about the recipe is that it’s simple and low maintenance. Just brown the meat and soffrito to create a flavourful fond on the pan, toss in all the other ingredients, then let it cook over low heat for a few hours. When you come back you’ll be greeted by a thick reduced sauce and glistening collagen laden meat that falls apart when prodded with a fork.

Pork Cheek Ragù in a bowl with some Pappardelle and parsley

The aroma is quite intoxicating, and whether it’s served over al dente pappardelle or with a crusty slice of toasted bread, you’ll be richly awarded for such a meager amount of work. The left over sauce freezes well and it also makes great open faced sandwiches.

As for the pasta, it’s so simple that I’ve stopped buying dried pasta. For two people, just mix 1 cup of flour (all purpose or semolina), and 1 large egg together until combined then add a small amount of warm water at a time until the dough just comes together. Then you can take your aggressions out on the dough, kneading and abusing it until it’s very elastic. Think of it like making playdough… better yet, get your kids to do the kneading so you can do something else.

Once the kneading is done, just cover with plastic and allow it to rest for an hour before you roll it out thin and slice it into broad noodles.

2 lbs pork cheeks
1 medium onion chopped
1 stalk celery chopped
3 cloves garlic minced
1/2 C round white (such as a Grenache Blanc)
1 C chopped canned tomatoes
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 tsp marjoram
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs powdered shiitake mushroom

Trim any excess fat off the pork, but don’t trim it all off. Generously salt and pepper both sides. Heat a small dutch oven until hot. Add the pork, fat side down and fry undisturbed until browned. Flip, then brown the other side. You may have to do this in 2 batches. The brown fond on the bottom of the pan is where the sauce gets most of its flavour so make sure you build up a nice thick layer without burning it.

Turn down the heat and transfer the pork to a plate and add the onions, celery and garlic to the pan. Use the vegetables to scrape the brown fond off the bottom of the pan and fry until soft and fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the wine turning up the heat and boiling until the mixture is a thick consistency. This incorporates all that good flavour into the sauce while reducing the amount of liquid so your sauce doesn’t end up watery.

Add the tomatoes, thyme, marjoram and bay leaf stirring to combine. Use a microplane or other zester to grate 1 tablespoon of dried shiitake mushroom into the ragù. Return the pork with the collected juices back into the pot. Submerge the meat in the sauce, turn the heat down to low and partially cover with a lid. Simmer for 2-3 hours or until the meat comes apart easily with a fork.

Skim off any excess fat with a spoon then remove the pork from the sauce and roughly chop or pull apart the meat then return it to the sauce. If you are serving it with pasta, put the cooked pasta in a bowl with some sauce and toss to combine along with some minced parsley for color. Serve topped with a little extra sauce and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

  • http://www.weareneverfull.com/ we are never full

    mmmm. thanks for the shout!

    but, my favorite line from this post is: I happened to have about 5 lbs of pork cheek meat sitting in the freezer…

    only you (and maybe about 4 other food bloggers i love) would be able to say that. you rock!

    • marc

      Just so you all don’t think I have a huge Sub Zero fridge, I have a Manhattan sized drawer freezer (half the size of a normal one) that holds about as much as a medium sized ice chest.

  • http://www.weareneverfull.com we are never full

    mmmm. thanks for the shout!

    but, my favorite line from this post is: I happened to have about 5 lbs of pork cheek meat sitting in the freezer…

    only you (and maybe about 4 other food bloggers i love) would be able to say that. you rock!

    • marc

      Just so you all don’t think I have a huge Sub Zero fridge, I have a Manhattan sized drawer freezer (half the size of a normal one) that holds about as much as a medium sized ice chest.

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/holly_hadsell_el_hajji/ Holly

    I agree you always have the most interesting ingredients in your freezer. It look great. I picked up some Yuzu Kosho, really interesting I can’t wait to try it.

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/holly_hadsell_el_hajji/ Holly

    I agree you always have the most interesting ingredients in your freezer. It look great. I picked up some Yuzu Kosho, really interesting I can’t wait to try it.

  • http://mamastaverna.com/ Lulu Barbarian

    “I happened to have about 5 lbs of pork cheek meat sitting in the freezer”

    How the hell does THAT happen? Okay, I read what you said about going to a butcher instead of the supermarket. I’ll give it a try and report back. :-) Yummy!

  • http://mamastaverna.com/ Lulu Barbarian

    “I happened to have about 5 lbs of pork cheek meat sitting in the freezer”

    How the hell does THAT happen? Okay, I read what you said about going to a butcher instead of the supermarket. I’ll give it a try and report back. :-) Yummy!

  • http://www.pigpigscorner.com/ Pigpigscorner

    I only have junk in my freezer! Maybe I should stock up some real food in my freezer. Looks really delicious!

  • http://www.pigpigscorner.com/ Pigpigscorner

    I only have junk in my freezer! Maybe I should stock up some real food in my freezer. Looks really delicious!

  • http://www.kalofagas.ca/ Peter

    Ummm, rendered pork goodness…nice & flaky…good for smearing on the crostinis.

  • http://www.kalofagas.ca Peter

    Ummm, rendered pork goodness…nice & flaky…good for smearing on the crostinis.

  • http://constableslarder.blogspot.com/ Giff

    sounds and looks great. I see you braved the snow for an onion after all! Way to sacrifice for the cause!

    • marc

      Actually I found a red onion lurking in the bottom drawer of my fridge, so I used that:-)

  • http://constableslarder.blogspot.com Giff

    sounds and looks great. I see you braved the snow for an onion after all! Way to sacrifice for the cause!

    • marc

      Actually I found a red onion lurking in the bottom drawer of my fridge, so I used that:-)

  • http://www.justcookit.co.uk/ Just Cook It

    Looks so tasty. And I can testify as to the excellence of pork cheek:

    http://justcookit.blogspot.com/2009/03/nose-to-tail-tuesday-pork-cheeks.html

  • http://www.justcookit.co.uk Just Cook It

    Looks so tasty. And I can testify as to the excellence of pork cheek:

    http://justcookit.blogspot.com/2009/03/nose-to-tail-tuesday-pork-cheeks.html

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com/ Elra

    Gosh, I am so out of the league here… never seen how cheek thingy look like. I know I can eat this, maybe not cooking them at home… if you know what I mean.
    Cheers,
    elra

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com Elra

    Gosh, I am so out of the league here… never seen how cheek thingy look like. I know I can eat this, maybe not cooking them at home… if you know what I mean.
    Cheers,
    elra

  • http://memoriesinthebaking.blogspot.com/ Marysol

    I’m with you in regards to homemade pasta. There’s nothing easier. Unfortunately, finding pork cheek around here is going to be quite a challenge. But man, does that look good!

  • http://memoriesinthebaking.blogspot.com Marysol

    I’m with you in regards to homemade pasta. There’s nothing easier. Unfortunately, finding pork cheek around here is going to be quite a challenge. But man, does that look good!

  • http://duodishes.wordpress.com/ The Duo Dishes

    We’ve had cheek on pizza. That was great. Something tells us that this is better. More meat, served over pasta, rich sauce. Much better.

  • http://duodishes.wordpress.com The Duo Dishes

    We’ve had cheek on pizza. That was great. Something tells us that this is better. More meat, served over pasta, rich sauce. Much better.

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  • http://janetching.wordpress.com/ Janet

    Your ragu is making me hungry!

  • http://janetching.wordpress.com Janet

    Your ragu is making me hungry!

  • http://www.soussurvivor.wordpress.com/ Patrick

    sounds awesome. Im almost certain the cheek muscles you used are not what you use for guanciale. the jowl, right next to the cheek is what you use. but hell, it would be one amazing ragu!

  • http://www.soussurvivor.wordpress.com Patrick

    sounds awesome. Im almost certain the cheek muscles you used are not what you use for guanciale. the jowl, right next to the cheek is what you use. but hell, it would be one amazing ragu!

  • http://onlinepastrychef.wordpress.com/ Jenni

    Oh, I do love face–beef, veal, grouper even (even though I’m not a fish person). Now, I must eat some pig face at my earliest convenience. Gorgeous ragu–braising is my favorite!

  • http://onlinepastrychef.wordpress.com Jenni

    Oh, I do love face–beef, veal, grouper even (even though I’m not a fish person). Now, I must eat some pig face at my earliest convenience. Gorgeous ragu–braising is my favorite!

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  • http://staceysnacksonline.com/ Stacey Snacks

    That recipe is on my list for Sunday cooking.
    But with peas, please!
    Missed you last night.

  • http://staceysnacksonline.com Stacey Snacks

    That recipe is on my list for Sunday cooking.
    But with peas, please!
    Missed you last night.

  • http://closetcooking.blogspot.com/ Kevin

    I don’t think that I have ever had pork cheek before. That ragu crostini looks good!

  • http://closetcooking.blogspot.com/ Kevin

    I don’t think that I have ever had pork cheek before. That ragu crostini looks good!

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  • Erica

    food looks great!!
    MUST TRY PIG CHEEK

  • Erica

    food looks great!!
    MUST TRY PIG CHEEK

  • http://www.queenofquirky.com/ Queen of Quirky

    Thanks for this – I recently had a similar dish at a restaurant and wrote about it on my blog. A reader wanted to know more about pork cheek so I found this post and referred her. This sounds like a dead-on version for what the restaurant served and it was very tasty. You may inspire me to make my own pappardelle…

  • http://www.queenofquirky.com Queen of Quirky

    Thanks for this – I recently had a similar dish at a restaurant and wrote about it on my blog. A reader wanted to know more about pork cheek so I found this post and referred her. This sounds like a dead-on version for what the restaurant served and it was very tasty. You may inspire me to make my own pappardelle…

  • http://katescarriedaway.com Kate

    Like your pics!

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  • Anonymous

    I made this last week and it was DELICIOUS! My butcher sells pork cheeks and pork jowls as two different things. So the jowl is almost all fat and skin, but the cheek is very lean. I asked for the jowl but when he showed it to me I knew it wasn’t right, so I showed him your recipe and he said, “Oh, cheeks!” They had them frozen only, so he sliced me off to big steak-like pieces. When it thawed each slice was made up of lots of smaller pieces of cheek. The flavour was incredible, very rich, so I’m considering other things I might do with this cut of meat in the future. We had about one and a half cups left over, which I wasn’t quite sure what to do with, but since I recently learned to make corn tortillas, I thought I might tun the leftover ragu into good pork taco meat by adding some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. They were good, but I I think the flavour of the ragu is too strong to and too distinctive to switch gears to that degree. I do think that pork cheek tacos would be AH-MAZING seasoned with that goal in mind. 

    Thanks so much for this wonderful recipe! 

  • WholeBeastButcher

    Pork jowls and cheeks are not the same thing. You could not do this recipe with jowl’s. They are to fatty. More so then belly or shoulder.

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Thanks for the heads up, I had my suspicions they were different. In this case, I’m pretty sure this was jowel meat. I asked for cheek at an upscale Italian butcher in NYC and they gave me a frozen bag of really fatty meat labelled “jowel”. When I defrosted it there were no big pieces, just a mess of fat and bits of meat. The pork cheeks I usually get at the Japanese butcher are bigger and have more uniform marbling (http://cdn.norecipes.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2009/10/chashu-toroniku-1.jpg).

  • Laura

    hi marc, can I do this with veal cheeks? cheers

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Veal tends to be a lot leaner, so braising them might end up making them dry and stringy. That said, I’ve never used veal cheeks specifically so I’m not sure.

      • Laura

        i see, thanks for replying so promptly!

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I'm Marc, and I want to teach you some basic techniques and give you the confidence and inspiration so that you can cook without recipes too!

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