My kindergarten teacher died a few days ago.
Her name was Selma Rosenfeld, and she whole-heartedly and enthusiastically recognized and nurtured my love of reading and writing. Thanks to my mom and dad reading with me and getting me to do writing workbooks and tell stories when I was little, I already knew how to read and write all my letters and many words before I started kindergarten. So while the other kids were using the Letter People to learn the alphabet, Mrs. Rosenfeld gave me some extra assignments to do during class time so I wouldn't get bored.
It was through those assignments Mrs. Rosenfeld taught me that not only did letters make words, but that words made sentences (!!), and sentences made stories (!!!). Selma Rosenfeld taught me how to write.
There is one day in particular I remember so clearly: our class was listening to a song about Mister M with his Munching Mouth. And, because there was a line in the song about Mister M liking macaroni, she brought in a hotplate, a small saucepan, and a box of elbow macaroni, which she let me help her cook. We drained it carefully in the sink at the back of the room, then added a little butter and salt before doling out very small portions in tiny paper cups so everyone in the class could have a taste. I remember writing a story about macaroni that day, and trying to use as many words as I could think of that started with the letter M. I got to eat macaroni, help my favorite teacher, and write a story? It was a very good day.
Growing up being me wasn't easy. I was a weird nerd who never really quite fit in. But throughout my elementary school career, whenever things seemed rough or I was made fun of, or a teacher told me to stop "showing off" by getting A+ grades on my tests (yes, that really happened), I would steel myself from crying on my walk home and just think about how Mrs. Rosenfeld was the only person in the world who really "got" me. And, I'll tell you this: there have been days, even as an adult, when I've thought about her and how special she made me feel. I hope you have, or have had, someone in your life like her.
Mrs. Rosenfeld moved away from our little town ages and ages ago, and was living in Oregon when she died. She and I corresponded over the years, and my last email from her was in 2008. She had read some of my writing in our hometown newspaper, and on different blogs and websites and, once again, told me how proud she was of me.
She was a very special lady, and a very big reason why I am still so drawn to the written word, and why I still can't fall asleep at night until I've written something, anything. So thank you, Mrs. Rosenfeld. Thank you.
* * * * *
Oh my word, you guys. Debt ceilings. Supercommittees. August recess. Major stressors in all our lives in Washington (and around the country, yes?) right now. So, I was really, really looking forward to spending a day or two in the kitchen focusing on this dish. I had a (mostly) free weekend and was stoked to be cooking. It felt good. So, so good. Even better when I knew I was going to be working with pig cheeks! Who doesn't love a pig's cheek and jowl meat?
There are a few swap-outs in this dish due to gluten issues, one skipped ingredient because it's already out of season, and one gift from a chef that has extra-special meaning. Let's get going...
I had to start this dish three days before I was going to eat it because one of the elements required three solid days of dehydrating:
I diced the onions and caramelized them in some canola oil in a large sauté pan.
I know this is nothing new, but the smell of onions caramelizing? It made me completely forget about everything in my outside world. For those 30 minutes, I just breathed deeply and luxuriated in that familiar, homey, warm, lovely smell and was incredibly relaxed. Which makes me think I should open a spa that specializes in food scents rather than a Yankee Candle Store exploding in your face and suffocating you during a massage. Ahem.
I spread the onions on two dehydrator trays, set the temperature to 145 (the highest it would go), closed the door, and let them dry. It took the full three days for them to dry out and become crispy-ish. When they were ready to be ground, they looked like this:
I ground them in a coffee grinder I use for spices and making powders. I also added some ground caraway seeds, and thus, the onion powder was done:
I'll confess that I looooaaaaathe caraway. I can't stand the smell of it (it triggers my gag reflex) and I don't like the taste of it. Even the look of those little seeds reminds me of those denture adhesive commercials that used to air during The Price is Right when I was a kid. Double-ew-gross, right? Please tell me I'm not alone in my caraway hatred. Please, I beg you.
But, I put on my big-girl pants and forged ahead, hoping it wouldn't ruin the dish and give me a case of the sadz.
While the onions were dehydrating, I made the pig cheek marinade: Worcestershire sauce, white wine, kosher salt, garlic cloves, onion, leek, and carrots all brought to a simmer.
I prepared a sachet of peppercorns, bay leaves, more caraway seed (ack, barf, gag), whole cloves, and allspice:
And placed the sachet into the marinade, removed the pot from the heat, and let it cool to room temperature:
Got my pig cheeks all ready to go:
I removed the silverskin and as much fat as I could (which definitely made for a smaller piece of meat to cook), and placed it in a Ziploc sous vide bag with the marinade to rest in the fridge overnight.
Let me note here, that I only made one pork cheek, even though the recipe called for 8. I did this for two reasons: 1) The farmer I bought the cheek from only had one; and 2) all the neighbors were out of town this particular weekend, so I was on my own in terms of serving this, and honestly, I wanted to make myself a really nice dinner on Sunday night and this seemed like the perfect thing. Apart from the caraway, obvs.
One other thing I did the day before serving this (TO MYSELF) was Microplane some gruyere cheese onto a parchment-lined baking sheet so it could dry overnight.
On the great day of eating, I cooked the pig cheek sous vide in a 180F-degree water bath for five hours, and made the plumped raisin ragout and sauce. I talked about this dish with some of my friends the week leading up to cooking it, and do you know what I found out? They all HATE raisins. Every last one of them.
Swollen ticks. -- Bonnie Benwick
GROSS. -- Joe Yonan
Flies without wings. -- Me
Now, golden raisins are different. Better. Kind of awesome, in fact. I don't hate those at all! [And please don't ask me why. I can't explain it. I'm weird. You know that.] So, I used golden raisins in this element of the dish.
In a medium saucepan, I caramelized diced onion, then added raisins, Worcestershire sauce, a garlic clove, and water, then covered the pot and let the mixture simmer for about 30 minutes.
I ladled out 100g of that mixture and reserved it for the raisin ragout. I poured the rest of the liquid through a chinois, reserving both solids and liquid. I blended the solids in my blender until it was the consistency of a thick sauce (like slightly runny polenta), adding a little of the liquid as I blended to smooth it out a bit.
I folded a little of the sauce into the raisin-onion mixture I'd held back for the ragout, and it looked like this:
I'm sorry it looks like baby poo. I tried to shoot it many different ways, and, well, this one was the least offensive.
I saved the rest of the raisin-onion sauce and used it later in plating.
I skipped the green garlic step because green garlic is out of season right now in DC, no one was carrying it at the farmers market, and so I just didn't do it.
The recipe called for razor-thin shavings of pumpernickel bread atop the final plate of food but since I loathe pumpernickel as much as I loathe caraway, I decided to, instead, make my own bread crumbs/chunks using Rudi's gluten-free bread, some olive oil, and a little salt. Just whacked a slice or two of the bread in my food processor, tossed them in olive oil and salt, and toasted them in a 350F-degree oven for 15 minutes.
The last thing to do was to finish cooking the pig cheek. Here it is, out of its sous vide bag after having cooled in a bowl of ice water to room temperature.
I dusted the cheek in a mixture of rice flour and tapioca flour, then dunked it in heavy cream, then coated it in bread crumbs (couldn't find gluten-free panko). Sautéed it in a bit of canola oil...
I made sure both sides were browned evenly, then put the pan in the oven with a bit of butter and let it roast at 350F degrees for 10 minutes. Took the pig cheek out and let it drain on a paper-towel lined baking sheet.
The recipe instructed to bread just one side of the cheek, but I never get to eat breaded and fried food anymore, so I went hog-wild and did both sides. Because I can.
If you have the book, or read the title of this post, you might be wondering about the pickled ramps this dish calls for. I know in the springtime my food-loving friends go cuckoo-bananas over ramps. They're just... not my thing. I never understood the hype. It's not that I don't like them. They're fine. They're good, actually, but I just never understood the celebratory nature behind RAAAAAAAAMMPSS!!!! WOOO-HOOOO RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMPS!!!!!!one!!!!!!eleven!!!!!!
So, I didn't have any ramps to pickle (they went out of season months ago), and I hadn't pickled any when they were in season. The day before I finished this dish, I texted a few friends in town to see if they had any, and they didn't. So, I decided I'd swap in pickled chard stems (which I make all summer long because I love their crunchy-pickley goodness in a salad or slaw). Done and done. Problem solved. Until....
The night before I served this dish, I ate dinner at CityZen here in Washington. As you may or may not know, CityZen owner and chef, Eric Ziebold, worked with Grant Achatz at The French Laundry way back in the day, and stories abound about their friendly competitiveness in that famous Yountville kitchen. It is such a pleasure and such a treat to have Eric here in Washington, because his food is, quite simply, extraordinary. And, there's really no better deal in town than Eric's tasting menu at the bar.
My friend, Joe, and I sat down at the bar to begin what became a night of near-sinful amounts of eating, I noticed something in one of the dishes on the menu: pickled ramps.
Dare I ask for some "to go" after we'd finished our meal?
YOU BET I DID.
And thus, I, in my own way, brought Eric Ziebold and Grant Achatz together into my teeny, tiny kitchen the next day, and celebrated them both on this plate:
Pork cheek atop the raisin sauce ragout and some toasted breadcrumbs, topped with dried Gruyere, chives, pickled ramps, the onion-caraway powder, and a little sea salt:
I carried my plate to the dining room table, pushed the Sunday papers aside, poured myself a glass of wine, turned on some music, and sat down to take my first bite.
Oh, you guys.... I got a little weepy. I'm not sure why. I mean, I think it was maybe the first time I'd allowed myself to relax in the past few weeks and acutally enjoy a meal at home without reading email, writing position papers, or handling a client's crisis. I think it was that it was Sunday evening, the sun had started to sink in the sky a bit, I was tired and drained and so, so hungry... and this dish was so, so good. It blew away any expectation I ever had for it. I knew it was going to be different than the original dish in the book because I'd made some adjustments and gluten-accommodations. And, whenever I make something different, I often tell myself it's not going to be as good as it should be.
That's kind of assy to do to myself, isn't it?
So, I think I'd set myself up to think, well at least it probably won't totally suck because, hello, it's a pig cheek, but it blew me away.
The pig cheek was so tender and lush and rich and silky. The raisin-onion sauce was sweet and pungent and salty. The dried Gruyere was a touch I wouldn't have thought of, but one that was needed (and very much loved). The pickled ramps were absolutely outstanding. And I didn't really taste any caraway AT ALL. So, major score on that front!
I have a lot of the marinade left over, so I have a pork chop thawing in the fridge right now, and will baste that marinade on it as I grill that chop tonight, then top it with all the leftover elements of this dish. Can't wait!
Up Next: Not sure yet, but probably one of the dishes with seedless watermelon, 'cause those things are bustin' out all over the place at the farmers market.
Resources: Pickled ramps from the always-amazing Eric Ziebold (thank you, Chef!); produce and Gruyere from Whole Foods; 365 butter and canola oil; Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce; caraway seed peppercorns, other dried aromats, and fresh bay leaves from the TPSS Co-op; Acrobat 2009 Oregon pinot gris; Bob's Red Mill flours; Natural by Nature heavy cream; Glutino bread crumbs; Rudi's gluten-free multi-grain bread; chives from my garden; pig parts from Truck Patch Farm.
Music to Cook By: Will you laugh at me if I tell you it was Roxette's Greatest Hits? Because it was. On a non-stop loop for 3 days.
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