Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Pig cheeks

I’ve not given Waitrose and their “forgotten cuts” a plug for a while now, so it’s about time I blogged on my favourite forgotten cut of all – pig cheeks.  So tasty, so easy to cook, and so ludicrously cheap that pretty much every time I’m in Waitrose and I see them on the butchery counter, I’ll buy all they have.  And that is scarcely an extravagance.  They are, I believe, the cheapest cut of meat in the entire shop – and that’s not just because we’re in Waitrose and it’s all a bit ooh la la.  Really.  At 2.99 a kilo, last time I checked, then I believe we’re down into battery chicken kind of territory, price wise (although I have to admit it is a very long time since I checked on the price of a battery chicken.  I know, slack research…).  For one of my absolute favourite cuts, regardless of cost.  It’s madness.  But in a good way.

Actually no, it’s not in a good way.  It’s actually really bad, because the reason pig cheeks are so cheap is because they are regarded as offal, at best, wastage at worst.  Hardly worth the effort of removing from the pig’s head.  Which is criminal.  I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to the point of near certainty, that the majority of the cheeks belonging to most of the pigs sent to slaughter are, if not literally thrown away, then converted into processed meat products that really might as well (indeed should) be.  And that is not just a pity for the discriminating meat eater, it’s a grievous insult to the pig that died for our dinner.  Thanks to the likes of Fergus Henderson, of St John, and his concept of ‘nose to tail eating’, and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, the notion that we owe it to the animals killed on our behalf, out of respect and common courtesy, to make use of as much of their carcasses as we possibly can (not to even mention the benefits to ourselves, gastronomically and economically), is gaining ground.  It’s encouraging that you can now get pig cheeks at Waitrose, even if they are labeled as ‘forgotten’.  Ten years ago I’m sure you wouldn’t have been able to.  If you don’t have a local Waitrose (or even if you do) but you do have a good local butcher, ask him (or her) for pig cheeks.  They might not have them on display as a regular item, but they’d be able (and probably delighted) to supply them, probably even cheaper than Waitrose do.  You’ll be doing yourself a favour on three counts:  doing your bit for ethical, responsible and respectful animal husbandry; saving yourself money; and above all, giving yourself a treat.

The pig cheeks themselves are beautiful little pillows of pork, lightly marbled with fat and sinew.  Three or four per person will be perfect for dinner, and cooking them couldn’t be easier.  Two to three hours of low and slow braising in wine, cider or – my favourite – sherry, will make them luxuriously tender and delicious.  Served with mash they’re a perfect meal for this time of year, and a post Christmas budget…

Pig cheeks in sherry

This is my approximation of a dish we had in a tapas bar in Sevilla last year.  I have no idea (nor do I care) how ‘authentic’ it is, but the finished result is much as I remember the original, and even if it wasn’t, it would be tasty enough in it’s own right to become a standard part of my repertoire.  Even without taking into account how ridiculously easy it is to do.  And how that easiness translates as a simplicity, purity even, that makes it feel like proper, ‘serious cooking’, even though you can get it in the oven in a matter of minutes, with almost no chopping, mixing, careful timing, or any of the things that might make ‘serious cooking’ difficult or more effort than you can be bothered to put in after a day at work.  Really all it takes is time in the oven.

Season the cheeks (allow three or four per person) with salt and pepper (and perhaps a little paprika, but I tend not to for this dish), brown them gently in a little olive oil in a casserole.  While the pig cheeks are browning, peel an onion  or two, and cut either into wedges or thick slices.  When the meat has a good colour throw the onion into the pan with it, along with a clove or two of finely sliced garlic and maybe just a little fresh chilli, finely sliced again, and a bay leaf.  Soften the onion for a few minutes and then pour in enough dry sherry (I used a manzanilla on this occasion, but it’s not critical, in fact it doesn’t even have to be that dry) to half cover the pork and onion, then transfer to the oven at around 150, for two hours, or 130 for three.

Pig cheeks and apple in cider.

As I said, I love the purity, and subtlety, of the pig cheeks in sherry dish, which is why I tend not to add paprika, which would lend a richer colour as well as it’s flavour, but I like to keep the emphasis on the essence of pork, sherry and onions, and to that end I rather like that the finished dish is something of a symphony in beige, hence, generally using a pale manzanilla or fino sherry, and yellow, or even white onions, rather than red.

Nevertheless, if you do like a little more colour in your pig cheeks, then by all means throw some paprika into the seasoning, mix the onions up with some sliced red pepper, add a couple of apples, peeled, cored and cut into wedges (either after the onion or lightly browned till golden in a separate pan and thrown in for the last half hour or so of the cooking), and braise it all in cider instead of sherry.  With the red pepper and the cider, this is, I guess, a rough approximation of what a Basque cook might do with pig cheeks.  I make no claims whatsoever for any kind of authenticity for this, not even to repudiate the notion...

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