Alinea: Pork Cheek, Pumpernickel, Gruyere, Scallions

This dish belongs in the spring section of the Alinea book. With ramps and green garlic as two of its main components (ramps goes where that scallions is in the heading of the original recipe) it really can only be served on their Spring menu. Ramps are wild leeks that look like a cross between a leek and a green onion. Their flavor is mild and oniony with a hint of garlic sort of. They are delicious but I almost never see them in Houston during their 2 or 3 week season in the spring. Well, other than the ramps the dish, to me is just right for the fall/winter. It has a rich succulent protein, onions, pumpernickel, Gruyère and a sticky raisin sauce amped up with Worcestershire sauce. Instead of ramps and green garlic, I used a combination of scallions, baby leeks and spring bulb onions.

I started this dish a month or more before serving it by making the pickled scallions as a stand in for the pickled ramps. I figured they will last for some time and it’s one thing out of the way to do. I put the scallions in a FoodSaver bag and vacuum packed them with a mixture of white wine, white wine vinegar, water, sugar and salt. To give them a pinkish hue like the ramps would have, I added a few small pieces of beets in there as well. that worked very well giving the scallions a nice color to contrast all the brown and beige on the plate.

The sweet and sharp sauce for the dish is based on raisins and Worcestershire sauce. These ingredients get mixed in with sautéed onions, garlic and water. The whole thing simmers for a while and then we make two components from it. First is the “sauce”, a pureed portion of the cooked mixture. Then we also make a “ragout” from the rest of the solids (onions, raisins,…) by separating them from the liquid and then mixing in some of the pureed sauce to make a loose relish of sorts. Right before serving, a few chives get blanched and mixed in to the ragout. This dish, like most of Alinea’s food, is as much about taste as it is about texture. Here we have two components that basically have a very similar taste, but very different textures. It all contributes to the final perfectly balanced plate of food.

Caramelized onion powder is used here to season the food in two forms, plain and as a salt. To make this potent stuff you have to cook onions down for a long time, until deep dark brown. The onion mixture is supposed to be “dry” at this point. Problem is that a good bit of canola oil is used to cook it. Oil does not evaporate and the mixture cannot be “dry” as the recipe instructs. So, I drained the onions on several paper towels to wick as much of the oil away as I can and then spread them on a small tray on parchment paper. That went into the electric convection oven to dehydrate for 3 days until the onions became dry and crispy. I buzzed the onions in my spice grinder to make the powder. It worked well, but the onion still had some oil in them and turned to a dry paste instead.  I reserved some of the powder for service and the rest got mixed with ground caraway and salt to make the caramelized onion salt. This “salt” is fantastic stuff. It is full of deep dark caramelized onion flavor with a hint of caraway. I’ve been using it to season all kinds of stuff since I had a bit leftover after making this dish. It is delicious sprinkled on cream cheese that is spread on a bagel and works great on a steak or a pork chop as a last minute seasoning.

The dish is topped with a mixture of pumpernickel bread shavings and Gruyère cheese. I used a homemade rye loaf for the “pumpernickel” slices. I partially froze the loaf and then cut very thin slices off it. These were then toasted in an oven until dry and very crispy. For the Gruyère, I used a microplane garter to make long thin strands of cheese. These were dried for a whole day on some parchment paper until crisp. Then I mixed the cheese and bread together and seasoned the mixture with salt and pepper.

To prepare and cook the pork cheek I used a whole pig jowl I had and vacuum packed it in a FoodSaver bag with a liquid marinade. The marinade is full of strong flavors, namely Worcestershire sauce, garlic, leeks, onions, lots of caraway and allspice. After the vacuum-packed pork sits in the fridge overnight, I cooked  it sous vide at 82C for about 5 hours. As opposed to the actual cheek (only one per jowl) that Alinea uses I needed to make a couple of plates using one jowl, so after the meat is cooled, I trimmed some of the fat off and divided it into a few portions. These then were dipped in heavy cream and coated with Panko bread crumbs on one side before getting pan-fried in oil and then finished with butter in a hot oven.

Right before serving, I blanched a couple of stalks of spring bulb onions as a stand in for green garlic in salty water. After cooling them in ice water I tossed them in warm beurre monte (water-butter mixture) to warm and flavor them. To plate, a small puddle of raisin sauce goes in the bowl, then the ragout, then the pork cheek is seasoned with the caramelized onion powder and added on top along  with a couple of the blanched green spring onions. The whole thing is pretty much covered with the pumpernickel-gruyere mixture and garnished with the pickled pink-tinted scallions and a few chives. Lastly, some caramelized onion powder goes around the edges of the plate. Oh boy was this good. It’s rich, unctuous and full of spicy caramelized onion and pork flavors. The texture combines crunchy, soft and crispy. The whole thing together, probably because of the caraway, is almost an homage to a good deli sandwich on onion rye!