Monday, 9 May 2011

Mind your cheek (sorry!): Pig cheeks, ox cheeks and pho

 A few weeks ago Becca and I were at the Rivington, with her friend Francesca and we had deep fried crispy battered cod cheeks as a bar snack, which were delicious, and got us talking about cheeks in general, and more specifically about eating them.  Cod’s cheeks, pigs’ cheeks, ox cheeks – all kinds of cheeks.  We decided we must do a cheek themed meal.  The idea was reinforced on our trip down to Dorset and the fantastic meal we ate - courtesy of the man himself, thanks again, Mark – at Hix Fish & Chop House which included, for me, a starter of breadcrumbed Monkfish cheeks – again deep fried and crispy and delicious, but considerably more substantial than cod cheeks.

Several weeks passed but last week we finally got round to it, and Francesca and her partner Kes joined us for a celebration of all things cheeky.  Unfortunately, my good friends at The Fishery, were unable to supply either cod or monkfish cheeks at the short notice I gave them (and to be fair, I’m sure they would have been able to if the extra bank holiday for the bloody royal bloody wedding hadn’t got in the way.  There’ll be fish cheeks for all, come the Republic, you mark my words…), but not to worry. This would simply have to be a celebration of all things cheeky and meaty, rather than cheeky and fishy.  We can save that for another time.

Waitrose supplied us with cheeks of both Ox and Pig, for a starter salad lifted from my days at the Rivington, and the pig cheeks in sherry I’ve described here before for the main.  One of the several great things about this dinner was that most of the cooking involved was not only simple, but could (indeed in part it had to) and did, take place days in advance, so it was dead easy to throw together on the day, even after coming home from work.

Salted Ox Cheek and green bean salad.

As I say, this was lifted from my days at the Rivington, where the cut of beef we used was brisket.  I thought that using Ox cheek therefore was my own innovation, for which I was fully prepared to take all the credit, only to be reminded that Mark Hix’s original inspiration came from eating a similar (although rather more hardcore carnivore) dish at a Parisian bistro, where they also used cheek, damn them.  The salting recipe came from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and his indispensable Meat book.

I have said before, I know, that I generally dismiss out of hand any recipe that starts ‘three days beforehand…’, but in this case it really is just a case of throwing a bunch of stuff together in a pot, and leaving it, so the only tricky part lies in remembering to do it far enough in advance.  In fact, the recipe calls for a full five days soaking in brine, with a further day, or even two soaking in fresh water to desalinate (I know: why go to so much trouble to salt your beef, to then just go to more effort to UNsalt it?  That may seem like a good question, but I’m sure the answer’s better…).  As it was, I’d left myself rather short of time, but as the recipe was for salting a 3kg slab of beef, and my two ox cheeks weighed about 375g each, I figured that I could drastically reduce my brining time to the time I actually had, which amounted to 36 hours to salt my cheeks, then 12 to de-salt.  As I would only need one cheek for my starter salad I took the opportunity of experimenting: I would salt one cheek, and simply cook the other uncured, just to see what a difference the cure made.

The ingredients for the brine, and the method, were pretty much as described here - by rather freakish coincidence, in last weekend’s Guardian - for brining ox tongue, but as I was just doing one little cheek I divided the quantities by five – so about 100g of sugar and 300g of salt in one litre of water, and a couple of cloves and bay leaves (one of each just seemed meagre).  I also used a star anise rather than juniper berries (as per HFW’s book) and chucked in a handful of mustard seeds and a stub of cinnamon stick (that was me, freestyling).  That lot was boiled together to dissolve the salt and sugar, left to cool overnight and then used to cover the ox cheek in a plastic bowl and put into the fridge and forgotten about for the next day and a half.

The night before the day of our dinner, I took the cheek out of the brine and put it in a large pan of fresh water to soak, overnight, and changed the soaking water the following morning before going to work.  I was working a short day, so got home about three, at which point I changed the water again, threw in a carrot, stick of celery and an onion – all coarsely chopped, and basically the same selection (and quantities) of herbs and spices as were in the brining solution (minus the salt and sugar).  Then I added my unbrined ox cheek and put the pan on a low heat and let it simmer away gently for about two hours, before turning off the heat and leaving the meat to cool in the stock.

When cool enough to handle, but still warm, I removed the cheeks from the cooling stock, and the first thing I did was a comparative tasting.  The conclusion was clear: curing in brine, even for just 18 hours, does make a difference.  Without tasting obviously saltier, the cured cheek was richer and sweeter in flavour, and noticeably more tender than it’s uncured twin.  It also came out much pinker - interestingly since my brine recipe did not include saltpeter or Prague powder, the nitrates in which I had been led to believe are responsible for the bright pinkness of salt beef and pastrami.  I guess ordinary old sodium chloride does much the same job.

Anyway – I set aside the uncured cheek (don’t worry, it didn’t go to waste) and set about shredding the salted one.  Another difference between the two was what the brining had done to the bands of fat and connective tissue running through the meat.  Although in both cheeks these were quite tender enough to eat without trimming out, in the cured cheek they had been reduced in consistency to a gooey, sticky gum.  Which, I know, sounds unpleasant, but believe me, wasn’t at all.  Quite the opposite.  It was sweet and luxuriant like a savoury sticky toffee.  Made of meat.  Mmmm.

While the cheeks had been cooling in their stock I had steamed 400g of trimmed green beans till cooked but still crunchy (about four or five minutes), then refreshed them in cold water to keep them crisp and bright green.  Then I finely chopped two small round shallots (a single bigger, ‘banana’ shallot would probably have been enough, or half a smallish red onion), and made a spiky dressing with plenty of English mustard.  When you’re ready to eat it’s just a question of mixing the shredded ox cheek, beans and shallots in the salad bowl and stirring through the dressing and a handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley.

Pig cheeks in sherry

I’ve written this up before, but it really is such a simple recipe that it hardly saves me any time not to run through it again rather than just add the link to that previous post.  Simply allow three to four cheeks per person, and half a good sized onion.  Gently brown the cheeks in a little olive oil in a casserole (do in batches if there are too many to fit in well spaced on the base of the pan in one go), then add the onions and a little garlic and chilli (about a thumbnail’s worth of chilli, and a couple of cloves of garlic in this case) both finely sliced.  When the onion’s just softening (add the cheeks back to the pan at this point if you’d done them in batches and held them aside) pour over enough sherry to just half cover, bring to a gentle boil then transfer to the oven, to cook, with the lid on, for pretty much as long as you can, at as low as your oven will go (within reason).  Two and a half to three hours at about 130, or a couple at 150 should be about right.  Allow longer the larger the quantity you’re cooking.  As with any stew, it’s even better cooked a day (or even two) before eating, and slowly reheated when you need it, which also means you can, if it’s more convenient, split a really long cooking time over two sessions.

On the previous occasion I wrote this up the sherry I used was a pale, bone dry manzanilla; this time I used a dry oloroso, which produced a sauce that was perhaps richer and sweeter, and definitely darker.  Which would be better would be entirely a matter of personal preference.  Perhaps, in a case of doing as I say, not as I do (in terms of the timing of my blog posts at least), you might be better using a darker sweeter sherry (part of me really wants to try this with a full on PX, the almost black, treacly, dessert sherry, but most of me thinks that might be just a bit too much) in the winter months, and saving the lighter, crisper manzanilla for doing the dish in the summertime.  It doesn’t really matter though: any time, any sherry as far as I’m concerned.


Those of you who were worried about what would become of the unsalted ox cheek can prepare to breath a sigh of relief.  Not only did it make some perfectly good open sandwiches (particularly with a generous dollop of piccalilli), although not as good, it had to be said as the couple of slices of the salted cheek I held over from the salad, but it would prove absolutely perfect, and in this instance better than the salted would have done, for making use of at least part of the large quantity of densely flavoured beef stock that is a welcome by product of it’s cooking, in the form of a big Vietnamese style noodle soup.  This beefy soup, called a pho is pretty much the national dish of Vietnam.  How exactly ‘pho’ is pronounced is a matter for debate.  A few years ago, when I first came across it in the many Vietnamese cafes and restaurants that line the Kingsland Road leading up from Shoreditch towards Dalston, where I live, it was commonplace to insist, with a greater or lesser degree of sniggering that the correct pronunciation was in fact ‘poo’.  These days, according to Google, at least, the consensus appears to be shifting towards ‘foo’.  I think, when it comes to pronouncing Vietnamese words, we in the west are only likely ever to get very approximately close to an authentic Vietnamese sound anyway, so call it what you will.  ‘Poo’ if that entertains you, ‘foo’, or ‘fo’ or ‘po’ for that matter, if it doesn’t.  Whatever you call it, as long as you have a large quantity of ready made beef stock, and a small bit of left over ox cheek (or some other piece of beef), it could hardly be easier to make.

Just reheat your stock, infusing it with some ginger and lemongrass (if you have it – I didn’t but the soup was still very fine and quite convincingly Vietnamese, at least to my ignorant European palate).  The trick here, apparently, is to scorch your ginger to release its flavour (just place your unpeeled knob of root ginger over a gas flame for a few seconds on each side before adding it to the stock).  Meanwhile slice up a few spring onions, some red chilli and garlic, and cook up some noodles according to the packet instructions.  Finely slice your beef.  The it really is simply a question of putting it all together in a bowl.

I added mushrooms, which I lightly fried in my wok, then threw in the spring onion, chilli and garlic, to soften very briefly, and a few leaves from a mystery but mizuna like plant from the veg patch – pak choi would be the obvious and more authentic alternative, before adding the noodles, sliced ox cheek, strained stock, a squeeze of lime juice and a good few tearings from a bunch of coriander. 

It was all put together in about 15 minutes, on returning from the pub.  What could be easier, or more satisfying than that?

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