Pork jowls, pork cheeks… whatever you want to call them, these are bacon-y parts of the pig that you rarely can ever find in a supermarket, or even in a high end butcher’s shop for that matter. I find this truly odd. Every pig on the planet is going to have two of these lovely chunks of meat, so where do they all go?
As for the other parts of the pig, you usually can’t find pork belly with the skin on that often, either, but at least that gets turned into bacon. But those cheeks? They look very much like the belly and have the same delicious layering of meat and fat—ribbons of red muscle interwoven with strips of white lard. I do wish Americans would get wise to this great cut of meat. Italians are sensible folks who turn this into guanciale by curing it. (Ergo, I love the Italians.) So, pester your butcher to start offering this.
To get started, you will need to find yourself a good butcher shop and put in an order for jowls. Not everyone will be able to accommodate you, so look around. The delivery of this cut of meat might take a while, so do not even think about making this on the spur of the moment. While you’re doing that, order two or four pig’s ears, since we soon will have spectacular recipe for that, too. As always, make sure the pig comes from a responsible farmer who gave it a great life. And order more, if you love this, and then freeze the meat, either raw or already prepared.
Today’s recipe is one that I developed myself, and it is one that I adore. I braise the cheeks in a highly seasoned broth before smoking them. The results are out of this world. What happens is this: the salt and herbs and spices in the broth work their way into the meat and fat and skin of the cheeks over the course of about three hours. The pork cools off and firms up, and then it is smoked over tea and rice, which makes this much like the most subtle, creamy bacon you ever imagined in your wildest dreams.
|That's four cheeks|
You should set aside a bit of time for the prep work, though. There’s no two ways about it. Cheeks come with the skin attached, and that is definitely what you want, but pigs are hairy creatures, and the enjoyment of their skin will require a bit of effort on your part. No free lunch and all that.
Arm yourself with Chinese food tweezers (or a pair of needle-nose pliers plus regular tweezers), as well as a razor of some sort. You will have to carefully pluck out all the hairs. This is not hard at all, especially if you do this after you’ve blanched the jowls, since this tightens the skin and makes the hairs stick up a bit. But it will require you to relax, find yourself a comfortable chair and some good light, and then you will be busy plucking out as many hairs as you can find. After that you can shave off any renegades.
I like to serve this meat steamed, which will render out most of the remaining fat. The meat turns into silk at that point. I serve it over cucumber ribbons, which have a slight sweetness and bitterness that contrasts perfectly with the smoked meat. As a final touch, I like to make a garlicky vinaigrette. Perfection.
Smoked pork cheeks chez Huang
Huángjiā xūn zhū sāibāngziròu 黃家薰豬腮幫子肉
Serves 12 to 16 easily
4 pork jowls with the skin on, about 4 pounds | 1.75 kgs
6 star anise
6 pieces dried licorice root
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
½ stick cinnamon
½ cup white liquor (like gaoliang), or gin
2 tablespoons sea salt
6 slices fresh ginger
¼ cup black tea leaves
¼ cup raw rice
1 tablespoon sugar
Vinaigrette (per jowl):
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
1. At least 3 days and up to 2 weeks before you plan to serve these, rinse the cheeks thoroughly and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover them with water and blanch the pork for 10 minutes, and then wash both the pork and the pan clean. Let the cheeks cool off until they are cool enough to handle easily. Use Chinese tweezers or a combination of needle-nose pliers and regular tweezers to remove as many of the hairs as you can. Shave off any fuzz. Rinse the cheeks again.
2. Place the cheeks back in the saucepan and cover them with water. Add the rest of the ingredients up to the ginger. Bring the liquid to a full boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Slowly cook the cheeks until you can pierce them easily with a chopstick, about 3 hours. Remove the meat, shake off any spices, and discard the broth. Cool the pork and refrigerate it overnight.
3. To smoke the pork, place the tea, rice, and sugar in the bottom of your smoker. Spray the rack and lid with oil. Arrange the pork on the rack skin-side up. Set the smoker over medium-high heat and then adjust the heat to maintain a good stream of smoke, but so not that the smoke smells bitter, as this will lend a sour taste to the meat. Allow the pork to smoke for 20 to 30 minutes, turn off the heat, and let the cheeks sit in the smoker for another 10 minutes to absorb more smoke. When the pork is cool, transfer it to a container and refrigerate overnight, where it will be fine for a week or two, although it also can be frozen.
4. Just before serving, cut the meat on a diagonal across the grain. Set the slices in a heatproof bowl. Steam the pork for 30 minutes or more, and pour out the fat that accumulates into another bowl. (This fat is excellent for things like flatbreads, so keep it, if you can. It will stay in good shape as long as it is refrigerated in a closed container.) The pork is ready when the fat looks translucent. Serve as is or arrange it on a mound of cucumbers cut into thin ribbons.
5. To make a simple Chinese vinaigrette, lightly chop the garlic. Set your wok over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl it around, and then add the garlic. Sauté the garlic until it smells amazing, and then add the vinegar and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour this over the cucumbers and serve immediately.