After a good roast, my favourite way to cook meat has to be braised, in a cast iron pan with some softened and slightly browned vegetables, generous quantities of thyme and bay and a lot of red wine, letting the oven to do all the hard work. This is one of my winter favourites, when I feel like filling the kitchen with mouth watering homely smells and can be used for whatever meat you have to hand; chicken thighs, lamb, stewing steak and game (well venison and rabbit) all transform into a perfect autumn/ winter supper when given this treatment.
There are a couple of obvious benefits to cooking meat this way. Firstly, it is a lot better for you (think of those perfectly seared steaks, or summer barbecues – that lovely brown colour is the part that will cause you problems later) and secondly, you can use cheaper cuts of meat and often the ones no one else wants, but that we should all be eating if we’re serious about cutting down on waste. The only real limitation is your imagination, there’s not many unpopular cuts of meat that I wouldn’t try cooked like this, leaving you only with the decision of what to serve it with. If you haven’t eaten pig’s cheeks before, give this one a go. It might seem daunting because of the long cooking times, but there’s really nothing to it, and I do not think it is possible to overcook them. Put aside any preconceptions you may have if you haven’t been fortunate to visit one of the trendier restaurants where they are enjoying a resurgence. After this treatment they will be melt in the mouth tender and you won’t even need a knife to eat them with which is a result for us when son number 1’s arm is still in plaster (am sure for those of you out there not in plaster is pretty much inconsequential but you have to take your pleasure where you find it.)
This week to serve alongside the pig’s cheeks, I decided on skordalia; one of my current favourites. Skordalia is usually served with fish, but works equally well here, and stands up perfectly to the robust flavours of the braised cheeks. There are almost as many versions of skordalia as there are people in Greece from what I can see, but I like to stick with a version made with potatoes, lemon juice, lots of olive oil and, of course, garlic. You can, of course vary the consistency and serve it as a dip if that’s what you fancy, in which case you can basically use it as you would hummus; also absolutely gorgeous, and (possibly, dare I say it?) a bit more exciting than the ubiquitous chick pea/ tahini combination.
Pig’s Cheeks, Skordalia and Kale Chips Recipe
For the braised Cheeks:
12 Pig’s Cheeks.
2 red onions
2 sticks of celery
1 small swede (or rutabaga)
2 400g tins of whatever beans you fancy, cannellini are good (it wouldn’t be a recipe of mine without them)
5 cloves of garlic
4 bay leaves
Good sized bunch of thyme
750 ml of red wine (I used a rioja)
1 good tbsp of fruit jam (I used my hedgerow jam, recipe here, as it has the right mix of sweetness/ sharpness)
3 tbsp flour
200 ml of good beef stock
salt and pepper.
Start off by crushing your garlic and leaving to one side.
Preheat your oven to around 160 deg. C.
At this point you can brown the meat off, but, bearing in mind what I said earlier, I don’t bother. I really don’t think it makes any flavour difference to pork, it is purely aesthetic. It also helps cut down on the washing up.
Chop all your veg and let soften/ cook in a pan that will be alright to stick in the oven for around 10 minutes. Don’t worry if they start to colour slightly here, thats alright. Season the veg, then add your herbs.
Add the cheeks to the pan, then sprinkle over the flour (plain) and add the stock, jam/ jelly and the red wine. Bring to the boil, cover and transfer to the oven for around 2 and 1/2 hours, but as I said, I really don’t think longer in the oven will hurt it at all.
For the Skordalia:
Around 1 kg potatoes
4 garlic cloves, peeled
250ml/3½fl oz milk
250ml/3½fl oz olive oil
salt and pepper
Juice of one to two lemons.
Peel the potatoes and put in a pan, with the milk, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil. Bring to a boil and simmer until the potatoes are tender. Drain and reserve the cooking fluid.
Use a potato ricer to mash the potatoes, using enough of the remaining liquid to form a soft puree. Check the seasoning and squeeze through the lemon juice.
For the Kale Chips:
Take a bag of kale, wash throughly, then rip into bite sized pieces.
Toss in a bowl with a couple of tbsps olive oil and some salt and pepper.
Spread out on a baking sheet so that they are in a single layer, and bake for around 25 minutes (depending on your oven). You’ll need to turn them once during cooking, and make sure that their edges don’t catch and start to turn brown.
These are absolutely delicious, but you don’t need to serve them just here; you can eat them as you would potato crisps, just make sure you only store them for a day or so, and keep in a very airtight container.
Enjoy, and keep the leftover stew for the next day. Even if all the meat is gone, it only gets better!