braised pigs' cheeks

pigs’ cheeks. not much i can tell you about pigs’ cheeks except that they don’t much look like cheeks and that it’s probably best not to think about where they come from if you're squeamish. what i can tell you is that this is the best stew i have ever made in my life. ever. fact.

it tasted how i want beef stews to taste and they never do. it had the deeply sweet, rich fatty, slightly gelatinous meaty THING. i don’t know what the THING is, but it’s what you get from koffmann’s pigs trotters or gennaro’s wild boar stew. it’s that fleeting moment of pleasure that makes you want to put your fork down and verbalise the joy.

which just goes to show you – you need pig for this sort of thing.

the key to success is slow braising. don’t even attempt to do this if you can’t keep it in the oven for good four-five hours. the rest is like any other stew - easy. these things are pretty forgiving – as long as you don’t let it dry out, whether you put 2 carrots or three, or add a leek (which would be nice) or not is pretty much irrelevant. once you've done the prep and chucked it all in, you don't need to do much with it. make a big batch and freeze half - it'll be proper autumn soon and you'll want some stew for sustenance.

i should add - the pigs' cheeks are from he'll deliver to your door and everything. not always handy when you're in a meeting with a vegetarian and have to walk past with a bag full of pigs' cheeks, steaks and a whole rabbit (head'n'all). i had to steal a bin bag from the cleaners to cover it up but i still smelt like blood.

serves four

1 kg pigs' cheeks, trimmed of fat. it's probably about 10 cheeks or so, depending on size
olive oil, for frying
4 onions, peeled and cut into chunks
2 large carrot, peeled, cut into 1cm cubes
4 sticks celery, cut into 1 cm cubes
1 clove garlic, sliced
200 g tomato purée or loads of deeseded and chopped tomatoes (which is what i did, plus some semi-dried ones from the deli i had left over)
1 bottle of red wine – i used pinot noir which i don't like much
600ml stock, or enough to cover – i used chicken but meat would be better
1tsp black peppercorns
3tsp caraway seeds
2 bay leaves

heat the oven to 140C. dry the cheeks with kitchen towel and season on both sides with salt and pepper. heat some oil in a large, ovenproof casserole (that has a lid) and fry the cheeks on both sides until golden brown. get the oil quite hot and don’t crowd the pan or the cheeks will boil rather than fry. you want them nice and crispy and the only way to achieve that is to keep the oil hot and the pan quite uncrowded.

when they’re done, take them out of the pan and set aside. turn the heat down to medium and add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic. fry until they start to colour. then add the tomato pure and a little of the wine, and cook until reduced and thick. keep adding the wine like this, letting it evaporate and cook into the sauce between each addiition.

return the cheeks to the pan and pour in the stock. add the peppercorns, caraway seeds and the bayleaf, stick the lid on and put in the oven. you can now leave it for good four hours – though check after 2 or so to see if there’s enough liquid. if not, add more stock or water.

after four-five hours, when the meat is soft and falling apart, take the pot out of the oven, remove the cheeks and keep warm, then pass the sauce through a sieve. easiest done with a soup ladle – but really push the stuff down to extract as much flavour out of the veggies. if your sauce/gravy is too liquid and thin, let it bubble on the stove for a bit to reduce. put the cheeks back in and heat through. check seasoning.

this would be nice served with some root veg mash – i think celeriac would be perfect as squash is a little too sweet.


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