The cheek of it.

Look away now if you are squeamish about strange cuts of meat because I have discovered pigs cheeks! I love them – they are my new favourite part of a pig – even usurping the delicious belly. They are deliciously tasty, unctuous morsels – perfect for long, slow cooking with autumnal partners like mushrooms, chestnuts and squash. 

I discovered them a couple of months ago when Waitrose started selling them as part of their excellent Forgotten Cuts initiative. Initially I picked them up from the rather fabulous Waitrose Food Hall on Oxford Street but having popped back on a couple of occasions and found them sold out, I needed to find a new dealer! The butcher there l said I’d have to get to the shop early on the day of delivery to ensure I could get hold of them. So they seem to be pretty popular and it makes me wonder why other supermarkets haven’t tried a similar campaign – especially in the current climate where everyone’s jumping on the homespun, vintage, make-do-and-mend bandwagon. I think the name is slightly unfortunate – cheeks seem a). a bit “cute” and b). a bit anatomically graphic for mainstream consumption. If I was the Pork Marketing Board I would be re-branding pigs cheeks – maybe jowl could work? – and then I predict they’d become the new Lamb Shank – loved by the Gastropub and the Sunday-slow-cook. 

Anyway, I managed to get some at Canary Wharf the other day when I was there meeting a friend for lunch. I bought 8 pigs cheeks for £1.89. Really. Unbelievably cheap. 

So, yesterday I cooked 4 pigs cheeks down with fennel seeds, juniper berries and a little gin to make an Autum-y ragu which we had with spaghetti (but I think Pappardelle would have been the perfect pasta match but we didn’t have any) and some good pecorino. And today I used the remaining 4 for a slow-cooked chilli – which was delicious and left enough for a lunch tomorrow too. 

The recipes for both are below and, even if you’re squeamish about “cheeks” I really urge you to have a go – if only just to be able to make 3 days worth of dinner/lunch for less than a copy of Grazia magazine!

Pigs cheek ragu
– 4 pigs cheeks 
– 2 carrots – finely chopped 
– 1 red chilli – finely chopped 
– 4 gloved garlic crushed 
– A couple of bayleaves
– 1 stick celery – finely chopped 
– 1 red onion – finely chopped 
– 1 tin of tomatoes 
– 1 teaspoon fennel seeds – crushed in a pestle and mortar 
– 1 teaspoon juniper berries – crushed in a pestle and mortar  
– Good slosh of gin – about half a wine glass 
– Tin of tomatoes 
– Enough parppadelle for two 
– A good handful of grated pecorino
In a large saucepan, sweat the onions, carrots, garlic, celery, seeds and berries. In a separate frying pan, brown the pigs cheeks in a tablespoon of olive oil – allowing them to acquire dark, crusty patches. When the cheeks are browned add the gin (you can set fire to it if you must show off, but please mind your fringe…) and scrape the crusty bits from the bottom of the pan. When you’ve lifted all the bits from the bottom of the pan, pour the contents of the frying pan into the saucepan. Add a tin of tomatoes and then fill the empty tomato tin with water, slosh around to catch all the final tomato juice and pour this tomatoey water into the saucepan too. 

I left mine to cook for most of the afternoon – about 4 hours – checking from time to time to add a little more water if it looked like the mixture was getting dry or catching on the bottom of the pan. 

Make up enough pasta for two people, when cooked add the pasta into the sauce, swirl about for a couple of minutes and serve with lots of pecorino cheese. 

Pigs cheek chilli 
– 4 pigs cheeks 
– 1 red onion – roughly chopped 
– 1 stick of celery – roughly chopped
– 2 red chillis – finely chopped 
– 1 dried chipotle chilli 
– 1 dried ancho chilli 
– Half a teaspoon of ground cumin, coriander and chilli powder
– 1 tin tomatoes 
– 1 tin kidney beans 
– Enough easy cook long grain white american rice for two people 
– Some good strong cheddar grated 
– A couple of tablespoons of creme fraiche or sour cream
In a large saucepan, brown the pigs cheeks in a tablespoon of olive oil – allowing them to acquire dark, crusty patches as above. Add in the onion, celery, fresh chilli and dried spices and lower the heat to gently sweat. Toast the Ancho chilli on both sides in a dry frying pan. Put the toasted ancho and dried chipotle chillis in a bowl and cover with boiling water. After 15 minutes soaking, chop the 2 re-hydrated chillis and add to the saucepan. Add the tin of tomatoes and the same amount again of water and the drained kidney beans. Leave to slowly simmer for at least 2 hours. 
Serve on white rice with cheese and a good blob of creme fraiche. 

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