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Indiana Dish: Pork Cheeks With Chef Ryan Nelson

Pork cheeks have earned a spot on the menu at Nelson's Late Harvest Kitchen partially because of the good memories, but mostly because it’s a fantastic dish.

  • pork cheeks at Late Harvest Kitchen

    Image 1 of 3

    Photo: Courtesy of The Weekly Special

    The cheeks are seared, then braised for four or five hours with mirepoix vegetables (carrots, celery, onion), garlic, rosemary, red wine and stock.

  • garnishing pork cheeks

    Image 2 of 3

    Photo: Courtesy of The Weekly Special

    Instead of mashed potatoes, Nelson nestles the cheeks in risotto with tomato jam, then heaps on some pine nut gremolata.

  • chef Ryan Nelson at Late Harvest Kitchen

    Image 3 of 3

    Photo: Courtesy of The Weekly Special

    Chef Ryan Nelson in the kitchen at Late Harvest Kitchen (Indianapolis)

Remember the moment when you discovered that something you ate as a kid was a lie? Were you ever told to eat all of the “chicken” on your plate, when it was really fish? Was a beloved casserole secretly made with the veggies you loathed?

Hey, it happens to the best of us — even the culinarily savvy, like Indianapolis chef Ryan Nelson.

Nelson owns Late Harvest Kitchen, a neighborhood spot that serves up modern American dishes, and a harmless cover-up became the sweet story behind a dish on his menu.

Childhood Favorite

Nelson fondly recalls his grandmother’s pork cutlets, a hearty slow-cooker dish that she made throughout his childhood. She spooned the cutlets over mashed potatoes at her home in the small town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, a straight 250-mile shot south of Minneapolis where Nelson grew up.

“It was one of those dishes that every time we visited she would make,” Nelson says. “It wouldn’t be the dish that we’d have on Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter, but one of those other days we were in town visiting, we always had pork cutlets.”

The dish was rich and comforting and unforgettable. Years later, when Nelson was working as a professional chef, he was dining out and ordered a dish called pork cheeks — literally, the jowls of a pig.

There was something familiar about the meal, and it didn’t take long for Nelson to place it: these were his grandma’s pork “cutlets.” A little fact-checking with his family confirmed that grandma’s signature dish had been pork cheeks all along.

Nelson’s grandfather was a meatpacker, and Nelson figures that off-cuts like cheeks were easy to come by in their town. Still, his grandma never called them anything but cutlets, and Nelson doesn’t blame her.

The dish is special because you don’t think of it as pork, necessarily. It’s so rich that the cut itself is beef-like. To me, they taste like little mini pot roasts.

“It’s the pigs face,” Nelson says. “You can’t explain that to a child and make that appetizing in any way. Having a child of my own, I know that you don’t want to have to explain the food. You just want them to enjoy it.”

Let’s Get Fancy

The version that Nelson serves at Late Harvest Kitchen today is a bit more gussied up.

The cheeks are seared, then braised for four or five hours with mirepoix vegetables (carrots, celery, onion), garlic, rosemary, red wine and stock. Instead of mashed potatoes, Nelson nestles the cheeks in risotto with tomato jam, then heaps on some pine nut gremolata.

The variety of texture and flavors makes this dish so interesting to eat. The cheeks essentially fall apart, so you don’t even need a knife. There’s creaminess from the risotto, and light crunch and chewiness from the gremolata, made with pine nuts, croutons and herbs. You definitely want a bit of everything on every forkful.

“The dish is special because you don’t think of it as pork, necessarily,” he says. “It’s so rich that the cut itself is beef-like. To me, they taste like little mini pot roasts.”

It has earned a spot on the menu at Late Harvest Kitchen partially because of the good memories, but mostly because it’s a fantastic dish.

And at Nelson’s home, a little part of the pork cheeks story lives on.

“I have referred to fish as ‘special chicken’ with my four year old,” he says, “And sadly, it works.”

Erica Sagon

Erica Sagon co-hosts the "The Weekly Special," a TV show on PBS that discovers the people and places that make Indiana interesting. She is also a freelance writer and editor who is happiest when she's writing about local food (or eating it).

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