With my parents visiting and funds low, a tasty but good value meal was needed. I usually cook a casserole, an old family favourite, for my parents and this certainly a good fit for the budget conscious cook. But then inspiration came at the butchery counter in Waitrose, looking rather lonely was a tray of pig cheeks. Now I’ve eaten pig cheeks in fancy restaurants, but never cooked them at home. The theory is similar to casseroling cheaper cuts; muscles that work a lot are flavoursome but incredibly tough, so animals cheeks which have been used to chewed food throughout their life are a joint prized for offering maximum flavour – slow cooking is essential though.
For some reason the price, £2.99/kilo didn’t sink in until they were on the scales – a mere £1.44 for 7 cheeks, just under 500g of meat. I knew I had a bottle of cider at home from a previous porky casserole – I was in business for a tasty budget meal with a bit of a fancy touch.
Braised Pig Cheeks
- 6 pig cheeks – 2 per person (400g) – the extra was bonus for the cook.
- 100g dry cure unsmoked bacon lardons.
- 1 carrot (rough dice).
- 1 onion (rough dice).
- 1/2 celery stick (rough dice) plus celery leaves.
- green top of a leak top (rough slice).
- 3 garlic cloves (peeled).
- 8 black peppercorns.
- bouquet garni herb bunch (bay leaves, parsley stalks, thyme).
- Pieces of orange and lemon peel.
- 500ml cider (I had a bottle of high strength vintage cider).
- 250ml chicken stock.
- Splash of Worcestershire and soy sauce.
Preheat your oven to 125C / Gas 1.
The cheeks might need some trimming to remove any excess fatty bits from the surface of the cheeks. Lightly dust the cheeks in seasoned flour. Over a high heat, brown the cheeks in oil in an oven-proof casserole, remove and place to one side, next brown the bacon lardons, remove and place to one side. Add the vegetables and cook until they just catch a bit of colour.
Turn down to a moderate heat and add the cider and be sure to scrape all the brown bits off the bottom. Bring up to a simmer and boil off the alcohol. Add the chicken stock, return the bacon and pig cheeks. Add the bouquet garni, the pepper corns and the celery leaves. Add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce and any other flavours you want to try – squirt of ketchup or I sometimes drop a bit of fish sauce to a casserole if I want to pump up the umami even more.
Once the casserole has come back up to a simmer, cover and place in the oven. Cook low and slow for about 2.5 to 3 hours. Don’t cook at too high a heat as this will dry the meat out. If you cook it too little, the meat will still be tough and the fat not particularly pleasant. You want it so that the cheeks are tender and the meat will start to flake if you push it gently.
When ready, remove the pig cheeks and reserve the braising liquor, throwing away the vegetables, bacon, herbs and so on. Return the braising liquor to the casserole pot and over a high heat, reduce by half. Now check the seasoning, I haven’t added any salt until now as this could vary depending upon what meat, bacon and stock you’ve used.
If you are serving immediately, add a few nobs of butter, I sometimes add a squeeze a lemon if the sauce is a little too rich. I prepared the braised pig cheeks the night before, so I popped the cheeks back in the reduced liquor before adding the butter and lemon. I popped the lid on and left the pot in cold oven until the next day (yeah call the health police if you like). I then reheated it gently and finished off the sauce as before.
I served the cheeks on a little swish of the apple puree. I know some people prefer sweet apple sauce, others prefer more tart. This is my puree that I like, I err more on the tart side, but always add a little sugar.
- 2 bramley apples.
- sugar to taste.
- Juice of 1 orange and 1/2 lemon.
- 50g salted butter.
Peel, core and dice the apple. Cook the apples in a saucepan on a moderate heat and add the sugar, orange and lemon juice.
Reduce to low heat and cook with lid on until apples are breaking up into a mush. Add water if it gets too thick.
At this stage your apple sauce is good to go, but I wanted a smooth puree, so I blitzed the warm apple sauce in a blender and add nobs of butter to create a smooth puree.
Now, the family have big appetites, so I wasn’t entirely sure if two cheeks each would be enough, plus I wanted something else on the plate; a main course I had at the Ledbury came with a chipolata sausage on a sprig of rosemary came to mind. I used the Duchy Original chipolatas, purely because they were the only ones in stock at the time, but they were delicious, with a rich gamey taste to them.
- 1 pork chipolata per person.
- 1 sprig of rosemary per person.
Strip off the lower leaves of the rosemary stalks, cut the stalk at an angle to create a sharp point, insert this lengthways into the sausage to create a skewer. Fry the sausages in a little oil.
Place two cheeks and one sausage skewer on each plate with a little apple puree, add some of the gravy and serve with your choice of accompaniments, I chose fondant potato and creamed leaks. I was really pleased with the final result, my parents loved it and my Mum was stunned at how cheap the pig cheeks were. I actually felt like I am approaching something like restaurant standard cooking with this – presentation is still all over the shop, but the flavours were good. To be totally critical, I think some more aromatics would have helped. I wanted to put a single star anise in the stock, but alas my jar was empty. That, and a splash of cider vinegar, I’ll try next time.