Meltingly tender, succulent braised pork cheeks in a cider and brandy sauce with carrots, mushrooms and caramelised apples.
This is a delicious dish, which you can choose to pop into a low oven, and allow to languish over a period of a few hours - or if you want to complete the whole process in a much shorter amount of time with the same tender and flavoursome results you can utilise the magic of pressure cooking and shave hours off. Once everything is in the pot, it takes 25 minutes at high pressure, to be precise (plus time to reduce the sauce). Excuse the rustic photo - I cut the vegetables large both to ensure that they stayed intact, and also with the idea of a nice, clean, minimalistic plate but hunger took over, we all ate together and I haven't had time to set up another photo yet! The best part about this dish, was how much everyone enjoyed it - my son loved the tender texture of the pork, and said "Mummy, I don't know how you got the pork that texture - is the cheek quite expensive?"
I have fond memories of what I knew as 'Normandy Pork' from my first forays into braising meat (nigh on a couple of decades ago!) alongside Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin, and it seemed like the perfect way to cook pork cheeks. Pork cheeks are an amazing cut of meat - as a hardworking muscle they are full of flavour, and banded with connective tissue which renders down through cooking to give you the most meltingly tender and unctuous nuggets of meat. As a bonus, they're also an incredibly economical cut (well, until they get too trendy, that is - right now, if you don't have access to a good butcher, at a supermarket they're around £5 a kilo). If you can't get hold of pork cheeks (you only want the meaty parts, see below for a photo), you can use any other cut suitable for braising, trimmed of excess fat and cut into large dice, e.g shoulder, or even use thick pork chops on the bone.
So, at the ripe old age of, er, 29 (cough?) I finally conquered my fear of pressure cooking. What enabled me to do this? Electricity. Or to be specific, an Instant Pot, which includes an electric pressure cooking facility, and various safety mechanisms, taking the worry it out of it (explosions!) for me and opening up a whole new world of cooking. Only yesterday I cooked three different dishes on the bone, with pressure cooking times of 20 minutes, 10 minutes and 25 minutes respectively, that would have taken several hours in total normally - it seems like some kind of sorcery to me! A fellow blogger friend of mine has managed to secure a great discount from Instant Pot until the 30th June, if anyone in the UK is interested, knocking £25 off the current price - see here for more details.
Serves up to eight, 397 calories per portion (if using lighter crème fraîche), for those counting calories [calories in square brackets]
- 1kg pork cheeks (about 16), trimmed of any excess fat [1,330 calories]
- 2 x 15ml tbsp cornflour (cornstarch) - optional 
- Oil (e.g. light olive oil, or neutral oil suitable for frying), around 2 tbsp 
- 400g shallots (preferably large banana shallots, or dice a couple of large onions) 
- 200g lardons of bacon 
- 400g carrots (sweet spears are nice if you can get them) 
- 1/2 celery stick
- Few sprigs fresh thyme 
- Knob of butter (e.g. 25g) 
- 400g mushrooms, halved if large 
- 50ml calvados or brandy 
- 500ml quality dry cider 
- 100ml apple juice 
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 garlic cloves 
- 2 x 15ml tbsp wholegrain mustard 
- 1 tbsp tomato puree (double concentrate) 
- Chicken or vegetable bouillon/stock concentrate/cube to make up 500ml 
- 1 star anise
- 4 small, crisp, tart apples 
- 100g crème fraîche (sour cream - you can use 'lighter' / half fat if you prefer) [100 calories for lighter]
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper 
- Optional - you could garnish with some chopped, fresh, flat leaf parsley
- Steamed fine green or French beans, or other green vegetables
- Your favourite potatoes, preferably prepared in a French way
1) Prepare the vegetables. Put the shallots into a large dish, cover with plenty of just-boiled water, leave for a couple of minutes to soften the skin, then drain and peel while still hot - easiest if you snip off the very top first. Trim only the very bottom of the roots off, otherwise they will start 'telescoping' when cooking (the inner layers slipping out). You don't have to use shallots - a couple of onions finely diced will make a nice substitute, just soften them after cooking the bacon.
2) Peel the carrots, and cut into long lengths - with diagonal ends if you like, for an attractive appearance. Longer, thinner carrots are best for this, in 3-4 inch lengths, or for thicker carrots, cut on a sharp diagonal and shorter, but keep everything big and chunky. Clean the mushrooms, and cut in half if large (if you are slow-cooking, you can leave adding the mushrooms until the last half an hour if you like). Peel and crush the garlic, and use some clean cooking string to tie the thyme leaves inside the celery stick.
3) For one pan/pot cooking, heat the butter with a little drop of oil in a large, heavy-based, oven-proof casserole dish or a pressure cooker (Instant Pot 7-in-1: Use the sauté function, and press 'adjust' once to put it on high. You may need to repeat during sautéing the pork and vegetables etc. if you go over 30 minutes) and sauté the mushrooms with a little pinch of salt until their juices have been released, and they have just started to get a hint of golden on them in places. Set aside to add back to the dish near the end (you could add with the other vegetables, but they won't retain their shape and flavour so nicely). Otherwise you can do this while the rest of the casserole is cooking, in a seperate pan, to save on overall cooking time.
4) Season the pork cheeks with salt. Heat a further tbsp oil in your pan and brown the pork cheeks in batches of five or so each, to avoid crowding the pan and set aside.
5) If necessary add another 1/2 tbsp oil to your pan, then fry the bacon lardons until golden and crispy. Add the carrots, shallots and bay leaves, and continue to cook for a few minutes, stirring, until you have a few golden brown places on them here and there, but be careful nothing burns on the bottom of the pan.
6) Add the calvados or brandy (flambé it if you're feeling confident! But don't worry if not), cider, apple juice, crushed garlic, wholegrain mustard, tomato puree, chicken stock concentrate/cube, star anise, celery and thyme, a grinding of black pepper, and add the browned pork cheeks back to the pan. Give a stir to ensure everything is thoroughly combined, and make sure the pork cheeks are all submerged.
The slow way: Either bring to a gentle simmer, put the lid on and keep on a gentle simmer for a couple of hours on the hob until the pork cheeks are tender... OR, to slow cook in a conventional oven, pre-heat to gas mark 3 / 170C / 150C, bring the pot to a simmer, put the lid on, and cook for approximately two hours, or until the cheeks are tender. If using an electic slow cooker, follow the manufacturers instructions.
The fast way: Pressure cook on high for 25 minutes, then allow natural release (Instant Pot 7-in-1: Put the lid on, turn the steam release knob on top to 'Sealing', press 'Manual', then press '-' five times to get it down to 25 minutes. When finished, turn off and allow natural release for 15-20 minutes or so until the silver valve drops).
8) Skim any excess fat from the top of the casserole, then add the mushrooms and simmer for approximately 20-25 minutes until the liquid has reduced and thickened slightly - if you do stir it, be very gentle to avoid breaking the meat up (Instant Pot: Use the Sauté function to reduce the liquid). If desired, mix the cornflour with a few tbsp coldwater until there are no lumps, and add enough to the sauce to give a light coating consistency on the back of a spoon (try adding half first, stirring in and cooking out for a couple of minutes, and add more if required).
9) Meanwhile, core the apples, and cut into wedges (eighths). Heat a around a tbsp oil or so in a large, non-stick pan, and add the wedges in a single layer. Caramelise one side over a medium heat for a couple of minutes until browned, then turn over to caramelise the other side. Turn the heat down a little, and pop a lid or some foil over the pan so that the apples steam at the same time, and cook for a few minutes more until just tender (add a little splash of water if needed).
10) Take the casserole off the heat, remove the bay leaves and celery/thyme stalks and very gently stir in the crème fraîche and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and serve with the caramelized apple wedges, and a scattering of fresh parsley if desired.