Pork and beef cheeks
I’ve been seeing lots of stuff about nose-to-tail cooking —how you can slowly cook the less desirable parts of an animal to get the most out of the beast. But things like pork cheeks or trotters defeat me. Particularly trotters, where I’m worried about nasty sinewy or fatty bits or lots of bones. How do you cook these parts to make the most of them?
What I enjoy so much about this time of year is that the thought of spending more time in the kitchen becomes much more appealing. Summer and barbecues are fabulous too, of course, knocking up a relatively simple meal full of flavourful marinades and served with healthy light salads and the likes. But suddenly, as the weather turns cooler and nights darken earlier, cooking dishes that bubble away gently on the back of the stove, in the crock-pot or slow-cooker, become part of a night’s entertainment — if you have the time. However, even if time is tight, with careful planning you can still produce a lovely rich stew or casserole, you’ll just need to get it all cooking 3-4 hours earlier than you want to eat it. On top of that, stews and the likes are often best eaten the next day, gently reheated.
My mum Timmy has a sort of modern crock-pot, bought inexpensively from Farmers, that she loves to use. She places a secondary cut of meat (primary cuts are fillets and loins, secondary include boned lamb shoulder, rolled belly of pork, beef ribs), adds some herbs and spices and a slug or two of wine or water then cooks it at low temperature for four or more hours until it’s so tender you’d wonder why you’d bother with eye fillet or loin ever again. These secondary cuts are muscly and a little tough if not cooked for a longer period of time, but what they lack in instant tenderness, they make up for in flavour. Hearty, tasty, textural flavour.
And just like these secondary cuts, offal can also benefit from slow cooking. I’m writing this in Hong Kong airport on the way to London, from Auckland where I spent most of April. I’ve just eaten broccoli cooked with pig tripe, soy sauce and fermented yellow beans and it was delicious. I remember eating tripe as a child at Gran Molly’s house and hating it. Cooked with white onion, milk and cloves, it was simply disgusting. Travelling in Thailand 20 years later I ate it cooked with star anise and ginger, and in Italy it was stewed with tomatoes, garlic and olives — both versions fabulous. Recently at Orakei marae I ate roasted pig’s head. It had been split down the middle, laid cut side down in a roasting dish, seasoned just with salt and roasted, for about 2 hours until crispy. Honestly, it was so delicious. I was told to eat the eyes (surprisingly tasty) and the brain was creamy. The flesh from the forehead and cheeks was as good as crispy pork belly.
Trotters are a great vehicle to use as an envelope for stuffing. The most famous trotter dish in Britain was created by Gascon chef extraordinaire Pierre Koffman.
They are fiddly to bone out, but not impossible and you can stuff them with whatever you like, once they’ve been simmered for several hours to render the skin of the trotters edible.
Pig's cheeks, also known for some odd reason as bath chaps in the UK, are actually simple to prepare and this technique can also be applied to beef cheeks. Remove excess fat and silvery sinew from the skinned cheeks (although the sinew becomes less tough once cooked for a long time so don’t feel you have to remove it all). Keep pig cheeks whole, for larger beef cheeks cut in half lengthways. Mix up equal measures of coarse salt and brown sugar and rub it all over the cheeks then place in the fridge overnight. I sometimes add grated ginger, chilli and hard herbs like rosemary, sage or thyme as well. Next day gently rinse the marinade off and place the cheeks in a casserole in which you’ve sauteed several sliced onions until beginning to caramelise. Add any spices or herbs; ginger, garlic and star anise; fennel seeds and canned diced tomatoes; black vinegar, liquorice and allspice. Top up with meat stock, wine and water to cover by 1cm and bring to the boil. Place a sheet of paper on top of the simmering cheeks, then a tight fitting lid and either cook in the oven at 150C or on top of the stove as a gentle simmer, for around 2-3 hours until the cheeks can be gently pulled apart using two forks. Reduce some of the cooking liquor, season to taste, and serve on mashed spuds, noodles or sticky rice. That’s what cold weather food is all about!
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