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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pork Cheeks in Nantes

In a recent internet chat, Frugal Son averred that he liked the Korean custom, whereby each child gives a certain percentage of income to support aging parents! So to mooch off my child in advance, here is another installment of his adventures cooking in France.

****Note: Will be "Gone Fishing" for a few days. Back Monday.

Outside the skating rink, Farah and I agreed to meet back up at her house to cook dinner. I had bought joue de porc (pork cheeks) and I was itching to make an apple-pork stew. At Farah’s house, I started off by searing and browning the cheeks in a dry pot, removing the cheeks, and then adding some onion and garlic to the pot. Once the onions had gently browned, I put the cheeks back in the pot and added enough chicken broth—reconstituted from bouillon cubes of course—to nearly cover the cheeks. I added some cidre doux, which is only 2.5% alcohol by volume, a few pinches from my bag of ever-useful herbes de provence, and a sliced carrot. The rest of the cooking was just letting the mixture simmer and occasionally adding a little more cidre doux to keep the cheeks mostly under-liquid.

I don’t know if I ever wrote about my first oyster mushroom experience but in any case, while the soup was simmering away, I cooked up the remaining half of the oyster mushrooms. Raw, they have a mild mushroom taste differentiated from your typical white button mushroom only by a slight, peppery aftertaste. Quickly and lightly sautéed in a pan, however, with some salt and butter until they soften just a little bit and the flesh begins to glisten, they transmogrify (thank you “Calvin & Hobbes" for teaching me that word) into something completely different. Suddenly, they are bursting with a flavor at once meaty and buttery but also with an intensely concentrated earthiness that other mushrooms can only dream of achieving. One mustn’t cook them too long—lest they turn into slimy, flaccid, and pathetic slivers of mush—because the texture is one of the key parts of the experience. In spite of their name, oyster mushrooms, called pleurotes in French (something to do with tear-drop shaped?), taste nothing like their namesake shellfish to my palate. The pleurotes, which take only five minutes to cook and only slightly longer to devour, were a nice distraction from one of the hardest things about cooking: waiting.

And wait we did. Pork cheeks are a tough piece of meat and to ensure that the hog cheeks wouldn’t damage ours, you have to cook them for a long time to tenderize them. While we waited, Farah made some pomme de terres à la vapeur, that is to say, she chopped them and then microwaved them in a bowl with some water. After about an hour, I sliced open a pork cheek and took a sample bite. The meat was tender, but not mushy, so, to finish off the dish, I added two cubed apples to the broth and let the whole thing rest for a few minutes so that the apples would soften.

We brought everything to the table, nothing more than a coffee table, and began our meal. The pork cheeks were really good: succulent, flavorful and tender, but with enough integrity left in them that they didn’t just fall to shreds. The cheeks don’t have your typical bold porky flavor; I’m having trouble finding the words to explain it, but rather than having just the intense “pork” flavor on the tongue, which crescendos intensely and then quickly dissipates, the cheeks had a muted and more rounded flavor that lingered longer. The broth had thickened significantly and the savory sauce, with just a tinge of sweetness from the apples, was good when mixed with the potatoes. The richness of the pork was complemented so well by the sweetness of the apples, though I do wish there would have been a bit more acidity to add some depth to the flavor. Also, the texture of the apples was not great; they had been a bit mealy when raw and cooking did little to improve them. On the whole, however, the meal was very good and the flavors of the various components—meaty pork, light vegetables, and sweet apples—made each bite interesting.

To finish off the meal, I made a very simple dessert using two leftover apples, which I had sliced thinly. First, I put some butter in a pan and let it foam and subside before liberally tossing in sugar. I spread the sugar around, trying to distribute it evenly, and then immediately added the apple slices. I let them cook until they had browned and then flipped them. Once finished, they were a pale golden-brown and covered in a sticky caramel like sauce. Absolutely heavenly! Warm and soft, the slices were rich and sweet with a ring of chewy amber colored sugar around the edges. These were so easy and satisfying that I think they’re going to become my go-to dessert!


camorra said...

That's not just a Korean custom; that's found all over Eastern Asia. I'm Vietnamese and I have the same expectation.

Duchesse said...

He's got such great instincts and appreciation for food. Could Frugal Son be the next great food writer? His recipes are clear and I so enjoy his enthusiasm.

One teensy thing, "reconstituted from bouillon cubes of course". Gah!

Shelley said...

Is this young man gonna grow up to be a chef?

SLF said...

@Camorra: Absolutely right; it is an Eastern Asian (or maybe Asian in general?) custom. I only specified Korean because that is where I first encountered it.

@Duchesse: That's the dream! Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I know, I know...bouillon cubes are a sorry excuse for real chicken stock but I really don't have time to make chicken stock or the means to keep it. When I make gumbo for my French friends, however, I will definitely be making the stock from scratch!

@Shelley: I don't think being a chef is in my future. As Frugal Mom will attest I'm probably not organized enough. It's ok though, being a chef is probably too impersonal for me; I like eating with my friends and watching their reactions to the food almost as much as I like eating myself!

Thanks all!

--Frugal Son