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Pork Cheeks a la "Bourguignon" with Celery Root and Crispy Onions

Is there anything more elegant or more French than Beef Bourguignon? I think not. The well-known dish of beef, button mushrooms, bacon and pearl onions braised in red burgundy is a classic among classics, hailed by the great Auguste Escoffier, and echoed through the years by such culinary giants as Paul Bocuse, Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain. It has long been a mainstay of our menu here at Vi, and we stay fairly true to the classic because, well... you have to. Let me explain, when a dish achieves such a legendary status people come to expect it to remain the same no matter who makes it. Yes we could do many different variations of this dish but to do so might raise the vengeful ghosts of generations of chefs who dutifully followed the time honored celebration of beef and wine in loving embrace of flavor. Who am I to challenge such tradition?

It turns out, I have no problem bucking tradition and I have never met a ghost. Any chef has to balance respect for classics with the need to change and evolve. I do love the dish, but maybe we could approach it from an entirely different angle and see if there is any room for change. We will honor the great tradition of Burgundy but go our own way.

Pork is an incredibly versatile meat, light enough in some cuts to accompany a light lunch, but bold enough for the wonderful gifts of bacon and ham hocks. I like pork for stews, because I can go any direction I want, and add ingredients that will not be lost to the assertive flavor of beef.

As you can see pork cheeks have a rich red color

One often overlooked cut of meat is the cheek. Think about it. The cheek muscle is one that almost never stops moving, growing in flavor and texture while remaining relatively lean. That is a perfect ingredient for anything slow cooked, and would be superior to a more expensive cut such as the tenderloin for this kind of cooking. Without getting into too much science here, the level of collagen in the meat determines how best it should be cooked and for how long. Collagen sheaths and protects the muscle fibers of the animals. It can be very tough, and is found most abundantly in muscle groups that get a lot of use. As the muscle cooks, the collagen fibers contract quickly, squeezing the muscle fibers and forcing out moisture. Luckily for some cuts like pork chops, there is little collagen in that muscle and no problem unless it is overcooked (not here, maybe somewhere else). This is also why you don't see brisket steaks cooked medium rare, but slow cooked brisket is wonderful. As the collagen cooks, it hydrolyses permanently into gelatin, keeping the meat moist but also giving a luxurious mouthfeel that you would never get if you made stew out of fancy Filet Mignon. When high collagen cuts are cooked slowly, not only does the collagen not contract and squeeze the moisture out, but as it converts to gelatin, we get a wonderful delicious result.

While traditional Beef Bourguignon uses pearl onions, and button mushrooms, I have decided on using shallots instead, and Beech mushrooms for different flavor and texture. I dutifully apologize to the keepers of traditional French cuisine for this faux pas, but I have never liked pearl onions and button mushrooms are so last century... The Burgundy wine stays, we can't change everything.

sous vide cooking

Take another leap of culinary faith with me. Sous Vide is a cooking method becoming increasingly popular with chefs everywhere. Basically this means cooking food in a water bath. What it really means is the ability to control the temperature that we cook at to a very exact degree. In foods like Pork Cheeks, this method is perfect, as we try to convert the collagen to gelatin without losing the moisture from inside the muscle fibers. Gelatinization occurs about 150°F, while water boils at 207°F at one mile above sea level. Pathogens in food are killed at about 165°F. This means we want to cook the pork at greater than 165°F but less than 200°F. we will shoot for 180°F and at this temperature, the pork should be perfect in about 8 hours. The good news is, since the water bath is set to exactly 180°F, that's as hot as it gets inside the meat. Overcooking is difficult with this method, but it does take some planning.

RECIPE: Pork Cheeks Bourguignonne with Mashed Celery Root

Ingredients for the pork cheeks:

3 # pork cheeks, cleaned of gristle and fat

2 Cups Pinot Noir or Burgundy

2 Tbs. tomato paste

to taste fresh thyme, crushed garlic, sea salt

4 Tbs. powdered, dried mushrooms

Procedure for the pork cheeks:

  1. Marinate the cheeks in Burgundy wine, with tomato paste, garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, and powdered mushrooms. Toss them all together, then seal them in a cryovac bag overnight. This allows more favor to reach the center of the meat and the acids start to break down any gristle or tough parts of the meat.

  2. In the morning, the sous vide water bath is set to 180°F. The bags go straight from the cooler to the bath and a timer is set for 8 hours. That's it really. Check the meat after about 6 hours, you should be able to feel through the bag that the meat is getting tender. At this point, you can decide how long to keep it going.

Ingredients for the broth:

4 Tbs. duck fat

1/2 # pork belly

2 Cups shallots, sliced

6 ea. garlic, fresh, crushed

4 Cups mushrooms (I used beech mushrooms and king trumpets)

1 Bottle Burgundy wine (or any good Pinot Noir will do)

2 Qt. rich stock (I used pork stock)

2 Tbs. thyme, fresh

1/2 Cup Worcestershire sauce

Procedure for the broth:

  1. In a very large pan, heat the duck fat until the surface is shimmering slightly. Now, add the pork belly, and brown all over until crispy. When all the Pork Belly has been nicely browned, look at the bottom of the pan. See all the browned juices and bits of meat? That's the fond or foundation of the dish which we will be working and increasing to improve flavor before we even get started.

  2. Add shallots and garlic. Cook over medium heat, until the shallots are translucent, and the aroma is wonderful. Take a peek at your fond, it should be starting to coat the vegetables as they sweat, but the bottom of the pan should be a rich amber color, the darker the better. Add the mushrooms now, and cook until they start to give up their liquid as well.

  3. Quickly add the wine, and stir vigorously, making sure to scrape up all of the little burned and browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Let simmer as long as is necessary, stirring all the while until the bottom of the pan is clean and the liquid is reduced. Add the stock and seasonings. Let simmer until all the vegetables are tender but not soggy.

Assemble the cheeks and the broth:

  1. Add the pork cheeks and all the ingredients of the cryovac bag to a range-safe stock pot or large sauté pan.

  2. Bring the dish barely to a simmer and cover. Cook together at a low simmer, for about twenty minutes. If desired, add a bit of roux or cornstarch to the dish to thicken. Skim fat from the top, adjust seasoning and let sit warm as you prepare the celery root.

celery root

Ingredients for the mashed celery root:

1 # celery root, peeled and chopped

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 Tbs. sea salt

4 Tbs. butter

Procedure for the celery root.

  1. Boil root in approximately one- one and a half quarts of water until tender.

  2. Mash with remaining ingredients.

  3. Adjust seasonings.

Additional Ingredients for plating:

  1. fresh thyme

  2. crispy onions

To serve Pork Cheeks Bourguignonne with Mashed Celery Root:

  1. Spoon the celery root in the center of the serving plate.

  2. Gently add the pork, mushrooms and broth.

  3. Garnish: a sprinkle of fresh thyme goes a long way here (so be prudent) and top the whole thing with crispy onions for texture.

This dish pairs well with Pinot Noir, I recommend the Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve, or if you're feeling adventurous, the Tenua Di Arceno Chianti Classico would be a nice contrast to the rich fattiness of this dish. I hope you enjoy!

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