If the title puts you off instantly, I beg you to persevere. For a start, pork belly has become a widely accepted gastropub staple all over this country, yet a few years ago most of us would have started in horror at the notion of consuming the gastric organ of a pig. Similarly, lamb shanks - you're basically eating the knees of a cute little baby sheep. Steak and kidney pie trips off the tongue so nicely that few people actually dwell on the fact that it contains the biological systems that filter bovine urine. So why should pig's cheeks make us recoil in horror? Perhaps because there's something just fundamentally odd about eating an animal's face. I admit, when I went to the butchers and asked for pig's cheeks, I wasn't exactly expecting him to pick up a pig's head, intact, from his display, whip out a sharp knife and slice off half its face. Yet he did, and it didn't spoil my appetite at all. Conversely, I fully believe in knowing exactly where your meat comes from, exactly what slicing and dicing has to be done to get it to you, and cooking it in a way that appreciates that effort and sacrifice, and makes the most of it. This recipe is exactly that, and I hope at least one person out there will try it, simply because it is amazing how something so visceral-sounding can transform into something so utterly delicious.
The idea of cooking pig's cheeks was suggested to me ages ago by a recipe in a food magazine I was reading, but I'd forgotten about it until I had lunch at Gordon Ramsay's York & Albany restaurant a few weeks ago, where they appeared on the menu. I was very impressed - as well as being delicious, they had a flavour and texture not unlike slow-cooked pork shoulder. This is mainly why I believe everyone should sample pig's cheeks at some point, to prove that really they don't have some sort of disgusting aftertaste because they came from the head of a pig; they're actually indistinguishable from many other cuts of meat in most ways - just much richer.
The reason for this is because the muscles in a pig's cheek do an awful lot of work. Think about how much pigs eat, how much time they spend chewing. Imagine the muscle that builds up over the course of their lives. Muscly cuts of meat require much more cooking than lean cuts like fillet, but prove much more rewarding if you put the time in. The fibres in the meat dissolve into something gelatinous and soft, resulting in that melt-in-the-mouth, falling off the bone texture. You could eat these with a spoon. It's probably one of the tenderest cuts of meat I've ever eaten.
Having purchased my pig's cheeks, I soon realised they were not what I wanted. Or rather, there was more than what I wanted. I was after the small medallion of muscle inside the fatty skin of the pig's face, but I really did have half the face in my freezer.
Fortunately, I got some very sharp knives for Christmas, so a few minutes of amateur butchery later, I had the meat I wanted. There isn't much of it, and it shrinks a lot during cooking, but luckily I managed to find another butcher who prepared the cheeks for me, so I ended up with six - three per person is just right. I couldn't believe it when he weighed them and told me that four cheeks would set me back £1.25. This isn't only tasty cooking; it's budget cooking. I won't call it student cooking, because I'm pretty sure most students don't cook pig's cheeks for recreation, but it should be.
Unfortunately, these meaty wonders are quite hard to obtain. I was lucky that the butchers in question happened to have a couple of pig's heads in and were willing to cut them up for me. Odd, because pig's cheeks are becoming rather trendy and appearing on menus now (Gordon Ramsay is a case in point), like the pork belly of old, so you'd think more butchers would stock them and be willing to literally give them away. I guess they don't have a market for them, so don't bother. Hopefully I will be lucky again in my hunt for them, because this is definitely a recipe I'd like to repeat.
So, having procured my meaty morsels, I set about cooking them. There aren't many recipes out there for pig's cheeks, and I didn't want to follow any of them, so I tried to recreate the Gordon Ramsay dish from memory. There had definitely been star anise in there, and some form of alcohol, and something sweet. Stews and braises are pretty easy recipes to make up, once you follow a basic principle: brown meat. Add vegetables. Cook. Pour in liquid, add herbs. Cook.
I figured the combination of pork and apple is hard to beat, so I used cider as the braising liquid and put some apples in at the last minute. For aromatics, I used star anise, thyme, and a bay leaf. Other than that, I put in some honey and tomato purée for a sweet, rich depth of flavour, and that was about it. I let the cheeks simmer away for a good three hours. What had been small, pellet-hard morsels of meat in the beginning had softened into an unctuous mass that nearly collapsed under the spoon as I stirred it. Beautiful.
Not many adornments needed for a stew this good; I made celeriac mash and steamed some dark, leafy kale for a nice contrast in texture and flavour. I will take this opportunity to sing the praise of a gadget called a potato ricer: it's like a giant garlic press that you push cooked potatoes through in order to make the smoothest mash you'll ever create. It's genuinely a revelation; restaurant-quality mashed potato is one purchase away, and I'd urge you to make that purchase.
Meat, mash, kale. A garnish of apple wedges, which I'd cooked in the sauce for a few minutes until soft, and an apple crisp (sliced apple cooked in the oven until dry), and you have the perfect dinner for a cold February evening. Or any time, really. I am so keen to encourage everyone to sample pig's cheeks if you can find them. I believe Waitrose sells them occasionally, but the word is spreading so they often sell out. Get hunting - you won't be disappointed.
P.S. If you're interested, have a look at the article I wrote for lovefood.com on the subject of porcine faces.
Pig's cheeks braised in cider with celeriac mash and apple crisps (serves 2):
Heat a little oil in a pan. Season six pig's cheeks, then brown all over in the hot oil. Remove to a plate. Lower the heat and sauté a chopped celery stick, garlic clove, onion and carrot until softened. Return the pig's cheeks to the pan. Put in a bay leaf, a star anise, a dessert spoon of dried thyme (or a sprig of fresh thyme) and 1tbsp tomato purée, along with a teaspoon of honey. Stir to coat everything in the honey and aromatics, then pour in a bottle of cider. Allow to bubble for a few minutes, then put on the lid and turn down to a very low simmer.
Leave for around three hours, until the meat is tender enough to eat with a spoon (stir occasionally). While this is happening, if you like, make the apple crisps by slicing an apple very thinly, brushing it with oil, and baking in the oven at 180C until dry.
For the mash, boil a third of a large celeriac and two small baking potatoes, both peeled and chopped into chunks, until soft, then push through a potato ricer (or use a normal masher), adding butter, milk, and seasoning to taste.
Remove the pig's cheeks to a plate and keep warm in the oven while you reduce the sauce. Turn the heat onto high and bubble the sauce until reduced by around half. Strain it to remove the vegetables. If it needs it, thicken it with a teaspoon of arrowroot or cornflour dissolved in a little water. Chop up an apple (I used granny smith, for the sharpness) into thin wedges, and put these in the sauce to soften. Add a little parsley to the sauce. Taste and check for seasoning - if too sweet, add a little lemon juice, though you want some sweetness to contrast with the rich meat.
When ready to serve, put the pig's cheeks atop the mash, spoon over some sauce, arrange the apple slices around and serve with steamed kale.