Saturday, October 3, 2015

Berkshire Pork Cheek Agnolotti

October's dropping temperatures are the perfect excuse to prepare some warming braised dishes.  One often-overlooked (but very delicious!) cut is the pork cheek.  While a "pork jowl" is the whole outer side cut of the pig's face, including plenty of firm fat, the cheek is just the center muscle located on the interior of the jowl.  North Woods Ranch has beautifully marbled pork cheeks for sale, thanks to a lifetime of outdoor exercise, rooting for plants, and chewing in the pasture.
Berkshire Pork Cheeks
Pork cheeks are small, weighing only about a half pound or so, but still require a few hours in a low oven to tenderize the meat and collagen.  I just place them in a small casserole dish, cover them with pork stock, and add a bit of thyme, rosemary, and a bay leaf.  Pop into a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes until the stock begins to simmer, then turn the oven down to 325 and let the cheeks gently percolate in the oven for another two hours.  The result is tender chunks of meat with a rich, slightly sticky texture thanks to the collagen breaking down into savory gelatin.
At this point, the pig cheeks can be cubed up and served as a stew, or the braising liquid can be thinned out and turned into a lovely pork soup with the addition of some vegetables or beans.  I find the meat very rich, so I like to shred or finely cube the cooked pork cheeks, then mix them with other ingredients.  With autumn in the air, I decided to use this meat as a filling for squash pasta.
Candy Roaster Squash
I came across this beautiful but bizarre looking 10lb Candy Roaster squash, thanks to a local farm I like to frequent at the market.  The Candy Roaster has very firm, sweet flesh when cooked, but sweet potatoes can be substituted in this recipe as well. 
Mixing equal parts roasted squash with shredded pork cheek, I seasoned the squash and cheek mixture with salt, plenty of black pepper (the robust taste of the pork cheeks can take it), and fresh minced sage.
This mixture became the base of my pork cheek and squash agnolotti pasta.  You can use homemade paste, or buy fresh pasta sheets at the market to save time.  I like making agnolotti as they are much quicker and easier than ravioli or tortellini.

Simply take a sheet of pasta, place two teaspoons of the pork cheek mixture along the bottom third of the pasta sheet.  Dampen the area on the sides of each mixture to help the pasta seal to itself.

Next, roll the bottom third of the pasta up onto the middle third, covering the little squash/meat dumplings.  Then roll the pasta onto the final third, sealing up the little pouches.  Press around the pasta filling with your hands to help form a tight seal.  I find it's easiest to roll 4 agnolotti at a time, but you can do more or less depending on your level of expertise.
And that's it.  You don't need to seal the lip of the pasta, as this creates a nice little nook for sauce to collect.  Then boil the pasta for 2-3 minutes until tender, saucing the agnolotti in a skillet with a bit of the braising liquid, some brown butter, and a few sage leaves. 
Autumn never tasted so good!
Berkshire Pork Cheek Agnolotti
Recipe at a Glance:
1.5 lbs pork cheeks
1.5 lbs roasted squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato
1 bay leaf
2 cups pork stock
1 sprig tyme
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Homemade semolina pasta dough, or store-bought sheets of fresh pasta
6 oz butter
Small bunch of fresh sage leaves.

Cover the pork cheese in the pork stock in a shallow roasting pan.  Add the bay, thyme, and some salt and pepper.  Cover the pan tightly with greased parchment paper, then foil.  Place into a 350 F oven for 45 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 325 and cook for two more hours, until pork cheeks are tender.

Remove the pan from the oven and uncover the pan.  Let the pork cheeks cool in the liquid while you roast the squash and make the pasta dough.

Shred the cooked pork meat and fat, then mix together with the mashed, roasted squash.  Season with more salt and pepper, and a small amount of minced fresh sage.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Form the agnolotti as described above.  When the water comes to a boil, add the agnolotti and boil for 2-3 minutes until dough is tender.  Melt the butter in a skillet until brown and nutty, then add 1/2 cup of the pork cheese braising liquid to the browned butter.  When the agnolotti are done, toss in the skillet with the hot butter/stock mixture.

Serve with a few leaves of fresh sage.